Renowned Playwright is 2001 McGee Professor at Davidson
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot holds an important place in the theatrical canon for a number of reasons. Among the most important, but lesser-known reasons, is that it inspired a young Maria Irene Fornes to follow a path that has led her to become a leading figure in the world of American theater.
Fornes is spending the spring semester as Davidson College's 2001 McGee Professor of Writing. The renowned playwright notes that her love of writing and theatre began when she first saw Beckett's Godot in the mid 1950s while living in Paris, where she was an aspiring painter studying art under Hans Hofmann. Though she spoke no French and understood none of the dialogue, Fornes was captivated by what she saw on the stage.
"For two or three days, I walked around like a zombie, like someone who has seen some extraordinary thing," she recalled.
The experience was such that Fornes soon began to consider writing as a way to unleash her creativity. Three years later, she began work on her first play, which, like Beckett's Godot, focused on the interaction and relationship between two characters.
"I had never experienced such an obsession in my life," she said of the experience, "I could not stop writing. I loved it, it was such a thrill."
Born in Havana, Cuba, Fornes came to the United States in 1945 at the age of fifteen and began drawing and painting in the mid-fifties. After her sojourn in Paris, she returned to New York in 1957. Her first play, Tango Palace, premiered off-Broadway in 1961. Throughout her long and prolific career since then, Fornes has written and directed more than two-dozen works for the stage. Among her most celebrated are Promenade, The Successful Life of 3, Fefu and Her Friends, The Danube, Mud, The Conduct of Life, What of the Night?, Abingdon Square, Enter the Night, The Summer in Gossensass, and Oscar and Bertha.
Fornes has received a Distinguished Artists Award, a New York State Governor's Arts Award, and nine Obie Awards‹off-Broadway theater's equivalent to the Tony. She has also received awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. More recently, Signature Theater Company in New York City devoted its 1999-2000 season to the Fornes oeuvre, culminating in the world premiere of her latest work, Letters From Cuba, a production that garnered Fornes another Obie, and the first play that deals directly with her Cuban heritage.
Despite her awards, long career, and continued success as playwright and director, Fornes is relatively unknown to mainstream theater audiences. Many in the off-Broadway theater world consider her the industry's "best kept secret." Critic Bonnie Marranca has said, "Working for more than twenty years in off-Broadway's unheralded spaces, Fornes is an exemplary artist who, through her writing and teaching, has created a life in the theater away from the crass hype that attends many lesser beings."
Fornes will continue her life away from the spotlight and close to her art in Davidson. Along with teaching two courses in writing plays, Fornes will also finish writing and direct a small workshop production of a new work, based on Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and commissioned by the Acting Company of New York City. The project will be presented at Davidson in March (see details below) in conjunction with a guest lecture given by renowned theater scholar Jill Dolan, and will provide the theater department with the unique opportunity to break in an original work.
At least three other works by Fornes have been previously presented at Davidson. Mud was directed by Associate Professor Ann Marie Costa in 1998, and Amanda Davis '96 directed Conduct of Life the spring of her senior year. Anne Lambert of Davidson's Class of '86 also directed Fefu and Her Friends while a student at Davison, and took on the play again this month in a production by the Chickspeare Theater Company of Charlotte.
Lambert said Fefu presents a particular challenge for directors. The play's second act, which takes place in four different rooms, requires the audience to break up and literally follow the action from room to room. This device confounds the usual expectations of a story told from beginning to middle to end, and blurs the boundaries of the performance space. Such an innovation is not unusual in Fornes' work. Lambert challenge was further enhanced by the presence of Fornes herself in the audience during one of the performances!
"She's profoundly dedicated to her artistry, and her standards are high," Lambert said of Fornes, who is known to be a severe critic of her own work. "It's a challenge, but also a privilege."
The English and theater departments share Lambert's enthusiasm about what Fornes will bring to Davidson this semester as both a celebrated artist and teacher. As Lambert quaintly put it, "having her at Davidson is like having Michael Jordan come practice with the basketball team."
The workshop of Fornes' new play will run March 20-24 at 7:30 p.m. and March 25 at 2 p.m. in the Black Box Theater of the Cunningham Fine Arts Building. The play will contain adult themes and content and is recommended for mature audiences. Tickets are $4 for general admission. For reservations call 894-2340, between 2 and 5 p.m. starting March 15.
The McGee Professorship was established at Davidson in 1989 by 1943 Davidson alumnus John McGee, and brings one nationally known writer to campus for the spring semester of each academic year. Fornes is the second playwright to come to Davidson under the auspices of the professorship.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.