An overdue spotlight on an avant-garde playwright

By Steve Runk

A symposium and performances held in April 2018 at Princeton focused an overdue spotlight on one of the most influential but perhaps least-known American theater-makers of the 20th century, María Irene Fornés.

Born in Cuba in 1930,  Fornés is regarded as a defining force within the off-off-Broadway movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As a playwright, director, designer and teacher, she became a guiding presence for emerging theater artists of the 1980s and 1990s, especially those invested in staging feminist, queer and Latinx aesthetics and experiences.

Associate Professor of Theater Brian Herrera hosted the Latinx Theatre Commons’ María Irene Fornés Institute Symposium at Princeton, a national, intergenerational community gathering of more than 100 artists, academics, students and others. The symposium featured performances, conversations and workshops guided by some of Fornés’ most eminent former students.

The Program in Theater at the Lewis Center for the Arts also dedicated its main 2017-18 production to Fornés with an evening of two one-act plays: FNU LNU by Mac Wellman, a fellow avant-garde playwright, and the world premiere of The Book of Miaou-Wow-Wow: Don’t Drink Everything Your Mother Pours You by Migdalia Cruz, a student and longtime friend of Fornés. Faculty member Elena Araoz directed both plays, and Cruz’s play was commissioned through the Lewis Center’s Roger S. Berlind ’52 Playwright in Residence program.

Then-seniors Alex Vogelsang and Lydia Watt, Class of 2018, were featured in Fornés’ landmark play, Fefu and Her Friends, directed by R.N. Sandberg, a lecturer in English, theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts, in the historic Maclean House on the Princeton campus. The students participated as part of their senior theses, which are independent projects required of graduating students.

More than 60 Princeton students were involved in the performance and production of the three plays. The symposium, performances and many other events across the country focused on Fornés in the context of the playwright’s decline in recent years due to Alzheimer’s disease. At the symposium, participants pledged to preserve and advance the artist’s legacy and visibility in the 2019-20 theatrical season and beyond. Fornés passed away on Oct. 30, 2018, with this promise of her work and influence living on through a new generation. Read more and view the video.