January 18, 2001
An interview with
by Lynn Trenning
I spoke to Ms. FornÚs by telephone two days after she arrived in Davidson. Warm and exuberant, accessible and delightful, her charmingly accented words tumbled over one another.
LMT You moved here when you were fifteen. Had your father just died?
MIF Yes. My mother was growing up in Cuba, and her older brother came to the U.S. because their mom and dad had died very close to each other from an epidemic of tuberculosis. Her older brothers moved here and wrote postcards that were wonderful, and gave my mother a love for the States. I think they wanted their younger siblings not to worry about them, or maybe they were really happy being young and in New York. My father had traveled to the states, and actually spoke English. It was his first language. There was a history of having love for the United States.
LMT How did your father die?
MIF A heart condition. Everyone in his family died from heart or stroke. He was 45.
LMT How do you imagine life was different for you in America as the daughter of a widow, than it would have been as the daughter of two parents?
MIF I think that coming to the States was such a change whether I had one parent or two. The difference was that if my father had lived I wouldn't have had to start working so young. But for me life in the States was everyone working. But I loved to work, because it meant I had my own money. I never thought it was burden. I loved getting a paycheck every week.
LMT You only went to school for third through sixth grade. Did you reenter the educational system when you came to New York?
MIF What happened was my father was self educated. He loved to read. He worked for the government, from 8 until 1, he'd come home, have lunch, take a nap and stay in bed reading every afternoon. He loved reading and talking about what he was reading. It wasn't like he was teaching us, he was just talking to us with much excitement about what he read. He was interested in everything. History, astronomy, he turned everything into something fascinating. It wasn't like he taught us lessons and gave us tests. His excitement was transferred to us. But he was mainly interested in philosophy, and life, and society. Because of that, school seemed totally elemental and boring. For me, there was nothing to do but continue being creative.
LMT Did you grow up poor?
MIF The early days of my childhood my father had a very good job. Then the depression was in 1934-35 and through the early 40s it was the same as the U.S. People were unemployed, and there was a shortage of money.
My mother always wanted to come to the United States because her brothers were here and she had heard their stories and American movies were so much fun, so in Cuba we had a sense of what American life was like. When my father died he was already arranging for us to come to the States. It was almost like he knew something was going to happen, because he was happier in Cuba. But it was like he was arranging for my mother to move here. Maybe he had had a minor heart attack that he hadn't mentioned to me.
LMT Have you ever written a play in Spanish?
MIF No. I think in English now.
LMT You still have such an accent!
MIF I don't know why that happened. My sister, who came here at the same time, has no accent. You can't notice it. I came here at 15, and at that age in Cuba you break away and become independent. Even if I weren't 15, I would have had to be out by myself, and had to speak the language, because my mother was working.
LMT Was there any advantage to learning English as a second language?
MIF No, because we were young enough that we learned quickly. For my mother it was hard enough. It really is very easy. You have to learn, "Does this bus go downtown," and "How much does this cost," but then after a while you really don't have to learn. You just pick it up.
LMT You studied painting with Hans Hofmann and spent three years in Europe. How did you afford it?
MIF I studied with Hofmann in New York. My father had a government pension for the widow and the children under the age of probably 18. My sister and I got little jobs, and when my sister no longer qualified for the pension, I got half and my mother got half. Once we reached a certain age, my mother got the whole amount. It is very interesting. The amount of the check never changed. What changed was who received the money. I made a deal with my mother. She would give me her half of the pension when I was in Europe, and when I returned I would get a job and pay her an equal amount. I just paid her by letting her have my half of the pension when I returned.
LMT Since America was an adopted home, it would have made as much sense for you to find a home in Europe, but you returned to New York. Why?
MIF Because my mother was there, and by then, I really felt I was a visitor in Paris. After the war there were a lot of Americans in Paris. And those who were artistically inclined would go to Paris. Paris was the place where every person who had artistic inclination would go to. It isn't like that anymore, is it?
LMT Unfortunately, no. You say writing "happens," yet you didn't start writing until your 30s. What made you aware that you had something to say?
MIF I never thought I had anything to say and I still don't. I don't think it is about something to say. My method is more creative. My perspective has more to do with allowing a person to make contact with their own creativity, than what they are saying to the audience. It is different but also common. With some friends you share, because you need to express something, and you know this friend will listen. But you are not trying to build it up in special ways to make it interesting to them. The moment I started trying to say something in my work, or convince the audience, or demostrate a particular point of view, the writing would go flat.
LMT You are tremendously prolific, which made me wonder if you start writing the next play before the previous one has been produced?
MIF I am always writing. If I'm riding a bus, my head is always having a little fantasy, I am daydreaming. It happens automatically. This isn't because I am practicing my craft; it was happening long before that.
If you see a child in a carriage, you can see how absorbed they are. A car goes by, and they notice it, but they are not concentrating on anything. They are daydreaming. That state of being is the creative state of being. Your stories are from memories, but can turn into fantasy. They are from the same part of you that dreams.
LMT How did you get your first play produced?
MIF At the time I had many artist friends, and everyone who wanted to be a painter or artist or poet goes to New York. But I didn't know a playwright. This was before Beckett was universally recognized. Theatre was, in the world of the arts, an old fashioned thing. You went to the theatre the way you now go to the symphony. It was to see something that you knew, not to see something that is changing.
It [the change in theatre] started with the Europeans, Beckett in England, and, Ionesco in France. When these plays reached New York it was exciting, because they were breaking form. They were creating a world where people lived in a basement, for example. It wasn't about 'oh we are poor and dad needs to get a job so we don't have to live in a basement.' Instead, the basement was a new way of creating an atmosphere. I never said I want to write a play and see a play because I want to see it acted. I was just an artist.
But I saw these plays and I wrote "Tango Palace," where there are two people in a locked apartment and this apartment is the world. One person is dominant, and it was a relationship of submission and control. The one man who is dominated by the other kills the other, and the door to the apartment opens by itself. It was symbolic.
Of course in real life you leave your apartment and you don't kill your parents but it is hard. When I moved I rented an apartment and painted it but I couldn't tell my mother. Finally I told her and she said "Wonderful!" She thought we were going to have two apartments! So I had to tell her it was my apartment! She was hurt, but I thought she would die instantly!
LMT How did Tango Palace get on stage?
MIF I don't know why that many people weren't writing plays. Exciting things were happening. Look at Modern Dance, as opposed to ballet. But the theatre was the old fashioned thing. What happened was a friend of a friend was returning from San Francisco and he turned to me and said, "by the way, weren't you writing a play?" I said yes. He gave me the address of Herbert Blau in San Francisco whose main interest was theatre and he ran the Actor's Workshop. There were maybe three theatres in the country that were doing plays other than musicals and comedies. And he had told this young man if he came across a play without too many characters to send it to him. He had a production with a large cast in one theatre, and needed someone to work in his small theatre.
So I sent the play to Blau, who is a very intelligent man of letters who wrote a book called The Impossible Theater, A Manifesto, that no one can read. People so admire him they all try to read it, but it is so complicated. He wrote me a letter about how much he wanted to do the play and he paid for me to come to San Francisco and gave me a per diem and it was amazing. Because I wrote it like I painted, not because I expected a gallery to call for my work, though someday a gallery might call, but that was not why I painted.
LMT Have you ever written a play you were uncomfortable directing?
MIF No, I'm only uncomfortable when someone is directing badly. When someone directed my work, I felt at first that I didn't know anything about directing. But in rehearsal, whoever was directing thought I was concerned to make sure it was properly interpreted, but I was really concerned about learning how to direct. So directors loved me because I never objected to any directions. I was really watching how the space was used. I had been painter before, so I knew how to work with space. Working with space was important to me. Sometimes someone wanted to put on one of my plays, and there was no one around to direct, so I began to direct.
LMT You have been fortunate enough to make a living doing something you love. Many people have dreams of working in the arts but not the fortitude to continue amidst financial obstacles. What made you persevere when making an off off Broadway living couldn't have been easy?
MIF I started getting grants fairly early. I think one [reason] was because I started getting awards fairly quickly. There were several things. I was a woman. Most the writers were men. Of course the quality of the work mattered, but being a woman helped. And the plays were interesting, even though they were in the form of avant-garde. I eventually was writing the best plays I could, and they were more avant-garde, not soap operistic. I love Chekov, but I did the kind of work that I was inspired to do, and now my work is quite surrealistic. Foundations send their publications to theatre, and if you are in that world, the information for grants is available.
LMT You directed Cold Air, by Virgilio Piner at the Hispanic Theatre in New York. What was your experience there?
MIF I became quite involved in that theatre. It's where I developed the writing exercises I do. I began teaching playwrighting after I knew the techniques of method writing. They include visualizing and remembering your feelings and using them to act. When I saw the power those exercises had for actors, I started the same thing for writing.
LMT You have won Guggenheim and National Endowment of the Arts fellowships, and you have received 9 Obies. Were you in the audience when your name was announced?
MIF Yes. It was wonderful. A couple of times I knew [beforehand] because they want for the people who get the awards to be there. So if you haven't made a reservation and you won they tell you. If the person has made a reservation they don't tell you. They want you to be excited about it.
LMT Were any of them more meaningful than the rest?
MIF No. Well, maybe I think the first one. I remember being nervous and excited and shy, and not tripping when I went to the stage. You know, you wonder if you should have lost a lot of weight.
LMT Or worn the blue dress or the black suit
LMT Signature Theatre in New York is dedicated to featuring a body of work from one artist each year. You were their artist in residence in 1999. What was revealed to you by studying your body of work as a whole?
MIF Nothing about the plays, but it was very exciting, because some of the plays I have written a long time ago and I have seen only two productions of them, and I don't see every production of my plays. By seeing all the plays together, first of all, it was such an honor. It was a very lovely gesture.
One I didn't like the direction of, and I was pissed off. I don't remember which one but I wanted to walk out. I think I don't want to remember which one. I always offer, if I am free and in the same city, if you want me to be at rehearsals, tell me. And most directors have you there the first day. When the playwright talks about the play they aren't staging the play, they are talking about things of value to the director but also the actors. I really don't understand the director not wanting the playwright to contribute during that first meeting.
LMT I'd think it would be interesting to see the interpretation of a director who has had no contact with the playwright.
MIF I would be curious if the director is talented, or interesting. But some directors should beg the playwright to give input.
LMT You have said, "If art is to inspire us, we must not be too eager to understand." This denies the analytical side of interpretation, and encourages the experiential side. Criticism seeks to understand. How do you respond to your critics?
MIF There are critics who want to analyze what they went through when they saw the play. And even if that is different from what I intended, it can be very interesting. But it depends if the critic has an interesting mind, or if they are lazy and put labels on something that maybe is not even in the play. If you look closely you see that moment didn't really matter, or that moment isn't what the writer really meant, but is the actor's interpretation. I find that as a playwright, I don't accept everything a playwright does. If a scene that I have written works, and works beautifully with this group of actors and the next, and then doesn't work, of course that annoys me. I often don't go see my play when it is directed by a person I don't like. I don't like when critics are lazy.
LMT Why do you teach?
MIF Because I analyze things. Before I started writing, I noticed little details, like a person is eager to meet someone but they act in the opposite manner. Always, always I analyze. I realized that inclination that I have contributed to my ability to write plays. Not because I was looking for the real motivation of the character, but because a person is more complex than what they say. You can say the same thing in 20 different ways, and I always noticed that. One little word added to the sentence could alter the emphasis. Because of that I write plays, because conversation means a great deal to me. Sometimes there are actors who understand exactly what I mean. My pleasure at the very moment is I have given a writing exercise and the writing is good right then and there. When the work is good, it is a happy kind of thing.
LMT Can we talk about Fefu? The Chickspeare Theatre Company in Charlotte, North Carolina, is performing the play for three weeks. "Everything on earth is for the human being, which is man." This line is from Fefu in the late 70s. How are things different in 2001?
MIF I haven't been around too much. I have been less social, more secluded. Of course I have friends, and I go places, but I can only judge by how people behave toward me. People judge me as a person of accomplishment. Some women believe that women were never treated poorly, because they personally were not. But I am mostly with people in theatre, and they know who I am.
LMT So you can't make a true political judgment based on your own experience, because you are not treated like average women are treated?
MIF It's true. Although when I am with people of my own level of reputation, and I am around men, I am discriminated against. When I am among people who don't know what I do I think the discrimination is the same that it always was. But most of my connection has to do with work, so I am seldom outside this world. Also, when things change, they change so gradually; often you don't notice the change.
LMT Fefu says "I'm strange, Christina, but I am fortunate in that I don't mind being strange. It's hard on others sometimes." I think that is terribly true. Why is that so?
MIF They don't know what to make of it, and people are either unimaginative, or they are lazy and don't want to adjust to a person. If a person makes a sarcastic joke, and you don't understand the sarcasm, you don't understand if the person is being funny or critical. If people don't respond in the most elementary way, it's too hard to adjust.
LMT Julia hallucinates and has been deemed mad. Prior to her injury she was considered wise beyond her years. What is the relationship between wisdom and madness?
MIF Madness is just a label that is given to things that are different and disturbing. Most things that are different are disturbing. If a man wears a pink suit jacket it would be disturbing. Wisdom brings one to different conclusions than is standard. It could be that wisdom in the presence of someone who doesn't understand it would be seen as madness. Wisdom and madness can [provoke] a reaction of nervousness or great excitement or anger.
LMT Many scenes in Fefu are in the moment of the emotion. The repercussions are not played out. Why aren't they a part of the play?
MIF I don't do those things deliberately. My plays are considered more surreal because I don't follow through from one scene to the next. I think that happens because not following through is more connected to reality than always following through. Someone might visit you and in the middle of a story they are telling they have to leave to work. That is how things work in real life. I am more connected to different kinds of reality. It might very well be that in my writing I ran out of what the character had to say. I could have added more later, but in real life, we don't go back and say, "We're going to cut this honey."
LMT I've read that your audience never gets a chance to catch up to you, because your work evolves so quickly. To me that seems like a good thing. What about sameness attracts an audience?
MIF I think my plays are not more popular because people have an idea of what a play should be like. My plays are not avant-garde, they are naturalistic, but they don't follow form. When I've written enough, even if I could write more, I don't for the sake of the play. I was an abstract painter before I started writing plays. There are times when I cut, not thinking of the character's position, but more about the scene. First I write what the characters do, then I edit.
One night at my play two couples were in front of me. The women were next to each other in the middle, and the men were on the side. One woman says to the other "did you get it?" and the other said "not yet." A while later the same one says "did you get it now?" and the other said "no". And I wonder, what are they trying to get? I am thought of very highly in theatre, and I don't know what there is to get. I didn't know that I had to have a symbol. I felt so naked, like an imposter. I thought 'I never had a symbol in any of my plays.'
LMT Of course, that makes you you.
MIF Well, people go to school and study too hard. People invent formulas and others study the formulas and they believe in the formula, not the play. A writer is creating life, and depending on what they say you love them or hate them. This is magic. A play is the creation of human beings through the very same ingredients. You have to create full human beings with a heart, emotion, eyes, only from what they say. This is the magic of plays.
The Renaissance Virgin Mary, when I look at her she is not looking directly at me, but slightly to my left. And the baby is always on the viewer's right. Isn't that incredible. It is this way in many Renaissance paintings, and I wondered if this is something natural, or is it habit. But I accept it completely that it is the truth. Why don't I feel that it is the same with a structure of a play being an unquestionable truth? The form of the well made play is sound, beautiful and interesting. Frankly someone could look at my play and say you are following the [traditional] form unconsciously, but I doubt if any avant-garde writer is following conventional structure. Introduction is always first, but many modern plays do not have an introduction.
LMT What in your life right now brings you joy?
MIF Feeling healthy, having good friends, and good work, and being happy with the work.
LMT Thanks for talking with me