Lost in the Land of Fornesia

photo by Sylvia Plachy

María Irene Fornés’ Evelyn Brown (A Diary) will have its second production ever at LaMaMa on May 19–June 4, 2023, with an opening night set for Thursday, May 25, at La MaMa’s Downstairs Theater, located at 66 E 4th St in Manhattan. Tickets are currently on sale here. Evelyn Brown was first produced in 1980 at Theater for the New City, directed by Fornés herself. Director Alice Reagan and dramaturg Gwendolyn Alker have recovered the script and after their upcoming production will aim to make it more widely available. 


Shannon Sindelar (producer): Gwendolyn and Alice, you’re both longtime María Irene Fornés devotees; how did you meet, and how did this partnership materialize?

Gwendolyn Alker (dramaturg): First of all, thanks, Shannon, for making this interview happen! I would like to note your role in Evelyn Brown (A Diary): for those not in the know, Shannon is our fabulous producer! She is a woman of many hats. So back to the question…I honestly don’t remember when Alice and I met. It’s like she’s always been there! I know I’ve been lost in the land of Fornesia (the land where people go to obsess over Irene Fornés) since about 2005. I was developing a class on her at NYU—the first class in the country, I think—that was solely focused on her work. In 2010, I birthed one of the first festivals on Irene, the Fornés Festival, at a bunch of theatres around the city on a super-tight budget. (It really was a bit like childbirth: I was 8 months pregnant when the first show opened, and I affectionately called it my “first child.”) Alice and I probably connected around then? I remember that we both seemed to have a penchant for producing little-known Fornés plays that no one else had ever heard of. I was like, “This is a woman I’ve got to meet!”

In 2018, I started the process of recovering  Evelyn Brown (A Diary) by gathering most of the remaining cast and crew to try to piece the script back together. Once I decided there was a there there, I reached out to Alice. She was the director I wanted because she had the most experience directing Fornés’s plays of anyone I knew. I trusted her to be respectful of Irene’s aesthetic, and also to understand that this might mean throwing out the original aesthetic. That’s the paradox of Fornés. We then workshopped the play at Princeton University in 2021 as part of their Atelier Program. It was very chichi!

Alice Reagan (director): I agree, Gwendolyn and I met at the Fornés Festival in 2010. I directed a staged reading of The Summer in Gossensass, Fornés’s play about the first English translation of Hedda Gabler, and the formidable women who made it happen. I still want to do a full production of that one. I had just directed What of the Night? at Barnard College, and I think that’s how someone thought to bring me on to the festival.  

For me, Irene and her plays are an artistic touchstone, and the foundation of who I am as an artist. When Gwendolyn asked me to collaborate with her on Evelyn Brown (A Diary), I didn’t hesitate. I first encountered Fornés’s work in college, and directed Abingdon Square for my senior thesis. My connection to Irene feels personal, idiosyncratic, changeable with every project. I have conversations with her in my head all the time. Mostly she laughs at me.

GA: That’s funny. She would probably yell at both of us a lot if she was still here. She was a formidable woman and took no prisoners…

We’ve seen a resurgence of Fornés works in the American theatre in the last several years. What do we owe this to?

GA: Well, the cranky side of me would say that artists like Irene who are complex, smart and even difficult are often discovered once they pass away (Irene died in 2018 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s). The more optimistic version of myself would say it’s because a lot of people have done a lot of hard work to get her work produced. Certainly Michelle Memran’s documentary The Rest I Make Up has brought her to a bigger audience. It’s now available on Amazon Prime! (Sorry, couldn’t resist a plug—it’s really a brilliant film). But also her long-time people have continued to advocate—Bonnie Marranca, Morgan Jenness–and now there is a new generation with The Fornés Institute. And certain artists, including well-known directors JoAnne Akalaitis and Lileana Blain-Cruz, have also become obsessed (I know this about JoAnne, although I am putting thoughts into Blain-Cruz’s brain here) and directed high-profile productions of her work—Akalaitis with Mud/Drowning, which she has directed a few times over the last few years, and Blain-Cruz with Fefu and Her Friends at Theatre for a New Audience right before the pandemic shut everything down.

AR: I think Irene is a writer who will be discovered and rediscovered in waves forever. She will never be widely known, or universally praised. She is the definition of an underground artist, a playwright’s playwright. That’s okay. For those who know her plays, they will be changed. I’m grateful for every production that bears her name, but I’m not fooling myself—she is so on the edge, every piece an experiment, that she will remain a bit of an enigma, an outsider artist.

Evelyn Brown (A Diary) is not a traditional play by anyone’s standards, but even in the context of Fornés’ oeuvre, it’s distinct from her other work. Can you talk about the play and how it came to be?

GA: Evelyn Brown (A Diary) is so not a traditional Fornés play! I think people are going to be really surprised when they come see it. The main distinction is that Irene didn’t really write the play. People mainly think of her as a playwright. But she was also a designer and a director. Here, she took the entire text from a found object—the diary of an actual woman named Evelyn Brown who lived in New Hampshire at the beginning of the 20th century. Irene then pastiched this with some other found texts from women’s magazines of those early times, and then made this play. What she really did was choreograph and design this. And, as always, she collaborated with her actors, Margaret Harrington and Aileen Passloff. From Margaret I think she got the sense of domestic expertise and care. From Aileen she got a lot of the choreography. Passloff was a dancer and choreographer who Irene knew from back in her Judson days. So what you get is this weird mix of readymade text with postmodern dance juxtaposed against it. I’m not even sure that it’s a play—although Alice and I disagree on that. I see it more as a dance piece with text. The other day one of our designers said it was “strangely interesting” at our first run-through. I thought that was a good description.

AR: I see this play as connected to Fornés’s early work, her plays that derived from language games. These pieces use form as a guiding principle, not content. On the other hand, the content of Evelyn Brown resonates with her later work, with the women who will populate her plays of the 1980s and 90s. These women share a straightforward way of being and speaking about themselves and their lives. Evelyn Brown is also not afraid of hard work, and neither was Irene. I have the feeling that this was an exceptionally personal play for Irene, despite/because of the fact that she didn’t write a word of it.

During my time with you, I’ve heard you each articulate the themes in Evelyn Brown and why the work continues to pose questions for our current cultural moment. What’s attracted you most to this work—the text, its developing legacy—and what are you hoping its first audience in 43 years leaves with?

GA: As with all of Irene’s art, I hope they leave filled up, perhaps with some empathy and joy, and perhaps with a little confusion—but in a way that leaves people wanting more. A critic once said about a Fornés play, “The best way to wrap your mind around the plays of María Irene Fornés is to abandon all hope of understanding them.” Not in the way of, what the heck! I’m confused! But in the way of theatre connecting to a deeper part of ourselves that we can’t explain any other way except through art.

That being said, Evelyn Brown is, like many of Irene’s plays, about a human being who most people don’t usually spend the time and care to really pay attention to. Yes, she’s a real woman who lived more than a hundred years ago. But she’s also the person who packs your Amazon box, the person who delivers your Chinese take-out. She’s the people we tried to start paying attention to during the pandemic, who do the essential work that sustains us, but whom society rarely rewards.

AR: In these late pandemic times, and since returning to making live theatre, I’ve been looking for and creating rooms in which we can each be a little more ourselves. Which means allowing ourselves and our collaborators to fall apart a little, or a lot, on the way to opening night. Evelyn Brown is a play in which a woman who is a FACT—who lived, worked, cared for others, and died—is brought to life before us in the bodies and minds of two exceptional performers, Ellen Lauren and Violeta Picayo. Along the way, Evelyn falls apart a little, she leaks at the cracks, showing that all that work does in fact take a toll on her. I think by bringing this play back, and sharing it, we are adding to the conversation about the costs of living in community, and the importance of the private moments we all take for ourselves when we can.

You’ve gathered an impressive team for this production—can you talk about your collaborators and what they’ve brought to the process?

AR: Donald Eastman designed the set for the original production and has been absolutely instrumental to this production. Donald was our third collaborator when we workshopped Evelyn Brown at Princeton in fall 2021 and has been an incredible partner all the way. Not only is Donald a world-class designer, with the finest eye and sense of proportion, but he brings Irene into the room with him at every meeting. He’s been supplying me with adjectives she used for certain scenes in the play, stories of her as a director (“Irene was a dictator!”), and gentle encouragement as we try to crack this nut.

Similarly, it’s an honor to work with Gabriel Berry. Gabriel did not do costumes for the 1980 Evelyn Brown (Irene did them herself, putting the pseudonym “Monica Lorca” in the program), but Donald introduced Gabriel and Irene on Irene’s next production, A Visit. They continued to work together steadily for the next 20 years. Gabriel is bringing fantastic color and pattern to the costumes. After poring over Sylvia Plachy’s black & white contact sheets of the 1980 production for months, it’s a revelation to see Gabriel’s take on what Evelyn and Evelyn Brown wear. She has lifted them both to the realm of not-quite-real, just like Donald’s set that takes cues from real life, but is a kind of heaven-room.

GA: I met Donald in 2018, and this production has really benefited from our ongoing collaboration. More recently, we brought on Gabriel to do costume design, and we then wanted to mix these very seasoned designers with some fresh talent: Christina Watanabe on lights, and Jordan Bernstein on sound.

AR: I’ve wanted to work with lighting designer Christina Watanabe for years. She gets this show. Our conversations have been concise, inspiring, and fueled by love for the process of making art. I think at this point in both our careers, we can just jump into a shorthand. That’s a pleasure. Jordan Bernstein is a brilliant young sound designer, just graduated from NYU. She is bringing a younger sensibility to this team. I’m amazed so far by her restraint, maturity, and respect for the play.

You’re about to start your residency at La MaMa, and this has been a significant partnership. Can you speak about this, and also about plans for Evelyn Brown beyond this production?

AR: Donald was our “in” at La MaMa; he has been integral to that theater for decades—and he lives one block away. At our first meeting with Mia Yoo to talk about doing Evelyn Brown at La MaMa, she said something like, “Well, it has to be here.” The knowledge of and respect for Irene’s work goes deep at this theater. 

GA: The long-term goal of this recovery project has always been to get a publishable script of Evelyn Brown (A Diary) in print so that it could be placed back in the Fornés canon. Honestly, at this point, I’m not sure if there can be a definitive script now that we no longer have Irene around to make that determination. Having interviewed a lot of artists in their 70s and 80s, I’ve heard about many, contradictory versions of this piece. Like seriously contradictory versions: who talks, what they say, how many tables there are on stage, are we actually making bread or not (you have to see the play to get that one). This seems common in Fornesia. People can have ultimate certainty about things that are completely contradictory. But we’ll be working with Bonnie Marranca, Irene’s publisher, to get some type of annotated script into print. And we definitely have a performance script that can evolve into the future to produce many Evelyn Browns. I think that may be more in the Fornesian spirit. 

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