María Irene Fornés: Theatre Icon and Queer Artist

by Alyssa Sileo

It’s been almost three months since her passing, but I would like to take a moment to commemorate the playwright and teacher María Irene Fornés. As a Latina, woman, immigrant, and queer artist, her work changed the off-Broadway community forever.

Photo: NYTimes

Fornés was born in Cuba in 1930, and the nation was undergoing tumultuous times. With her sister and her mother, she emigrated to NYC in 1945. It is said that Fornés had very little formal education, and the same goes for little artistic training, but that does not mean that the arts and literature were any less of a value in her family. In her young adulthood, Fornés studied art by observing and engaging with the work of others. She was especially fascinated with painting. She traveled to France, and once she saw the original production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, she was bit by the theatre bug, and the world is better for it.

Her artistic career spans over thirty years, with 44 works for the theatre written, centering around the women experience, the Latinx experience, and many other social concerns including poverty and education. Her work is characterized for its intensity, poetic quality, and psychological look inside the mind, its style drawing inspiration from visual art. Fornés also was a professor at NYU. She directed her own works, classic works, and the works of her students. She also was a part of the International Arts Relations group, as the Hispanic Playwrights-In-Residency Lab, supporting up-and-coming Hispanic playwrights. Fornés was so loved by her students that she was affectionately known throughout the whole community as “La Maestra.”

For my Theatre 101 Class, I was assigned a project on Fornés’s Mud, which is the story of a woman trapped in a house by poverty and two manipulative men. It is extremely expressionist and feminist, and it packs a punch with very few pages. This assignment was how I first learned of Fornés. I began this project right after the news of her passing, which was on October 30, 2018. She had been living with Alzheimer’s Disease for over 15 years.

Doing the research for the project was so emotional. My Twitter timeline was full of tribute pieces. I watched the trailer from the recent documentary The Rest I Make Up about her life and work. Hearing her speak with such thoughtfulness and wisdom made me tear up. I included that clip in the presentation and shared with the class how I was sad that I had no knowledge of this playwright until her passing, but how I was also grateful that my class curriculum included the study of her work. In this special way, we as theatre students could commemorate her life.

I had a great time giving the presentation with my project partner. We performed a scene from Mud. I was able to go to the Drama Bookshop in NYC a little over a week after her passing and I got a book with four of her plays in it. I’m looking forward to reading it this winter break. I hope our theatre community can continue to honor La Maestra with the creation of avant-garde work.

About the Author:

Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.