Looking like something of a Hispanic Georgia O'Keeffe, Irene Maria Fornes is guarded but forthright in her assessment of the status of Hispanic theater in America.
"What I see is an enormous potential rather than something that's been realized," Fornes, 56, said with refreshing bluntness.
"Hispanics, like everyone else, have a singular kind of imagination connected to their personal experience--emotional and pictorial," said the author of such plays as "Fefu and Her Friends" and "Sarita." "Usually, when people think 'I will write theater,' they consciously put (that imagination) aside."
The Havana-born Fornes, who came to the United States as a teen-ager (and, in fact, tried painting before deciding at age 30 to become a playwright), will formally kick off South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project with a public seminar tonight at 7:30.
She is also the official dramaturge for the three plays to be read Friday and Saturday as the culmination of the SCR project. As a playwriting teacher at New York's INTAR for the last six years, she has earned a national reputation as much for teaching as for being a source of strength and inspiration to young Hispanic writers--among them, Eduardo Machado and Lisa Loomer (whose plays were part of last year's Hispanic Project at SCR) and Bernardo Solano, one of this year's participants.
"People teach nuts and bolts and then tell writers to be personal," Fornes said last week from her home in Manhattan, hours before leaving for the Guthrie in Minneapolis where her play, "Oscar and Bertha," was being workshopped.
"I feel that first you have to learn how to see things and notice the world, then how to put it down in dialogue, and after that, how to make a play of all this. A young person learning the piano must not think of the first big concert but concentrate on scales.
"With all new playwrights, Hispanic or otherwise, I concentrate on expanding the imagination. Learn what is in your own instrument, know where to go and fish. When this is done, something very beautiful and interesting occurs. You don't decide what's going to come out; you see what comes.
"I sit on a lot of panels and committees concerned with new plays. You can see that a lot of work has gone into them, but the dialogue is dead. Everyone has imagination. People just aren't being trained to use it."
Over the last half-dozen years at INTAR, 30 to 40 young Hispanic playwrights have traveled through the Fornes workshop. The writers, on scholarship, meet three times a week, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
"I start from basics," said Fornes. "We do half an hour of yoga exercises--it's a more inner thing--then we all sit around the table and close our eyes and I ask (the students) to visualize. It's the first step in being able to transport yourself into a situation rather than manipulating it. It's usually very quiet. There's very little discussion.
"We do the yoga. We write. In the last half-hour we read some of what was written. I don't comment on the work itself--only when I see that a person is not open to the exercises or develops blind spots. At the end, when they have completed a first draft, I comment on the piece. But only then.
"It's important to get the ego out of the writing, because it stands in the way. So you (the writer) begin to see yourself as an instrument, not a manipulator."
Fornes also tries to practice what she preaches, intensively plying her craft while passing it on.
"I'm writing a new play called 'Abingdon Square,' " she said of her current activities. "It was done in a two-week workshop two years ago at the Seattle Rep. I had not wanted to work on the play since, because I wanted to be more objective. Now it will be done at the Women's Project at the American Place in October.
"It's about a 15-year-old middle-class girl who, bereft of parents and left in a quasi-catatonic state (by the loss), marries an older man, a friend of her father's. Her husband is very good to her, but at 18 she begins to fantasize a relationship with a lover, meets the person she has imagined and falls in love for the first time. . . . "
She's also doing a new version of "Uncle Vanya" to be mounted at CSC (CLassic Stage Company) in New York. Fornes calls it a "revision." "I can't call it a translation," she explains, "I don't know Russian." And she's working on the libretto for an opera about Argentine singer and idol Carlos Gardel for the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia. But the teaching remains central to her life.
"Looking at and reading plays is important," she acknowledged, "but you can take a course in any university to learn that. What I do is try to open up the mind's ability to search inwardly. Once you find the impulses, the situation will dictate itself. It takes over. Then it comes easy. It's pleasant, it's fluent. You don't want to stop. I try to teach people to get to that place."