Playwright teaches character development

Before playwright Maria Irene Fornes starts writing, she pictures a secluded temple in India overlooking mountains.

“Everything there is very modest and beautiful,” she said. “We get up in the morning, have a little breakfast, then we do some yoga practice and look at the beautiful mountains — then we do some writing.”

That environment of concentration has led to more than 30 plays for Fornes, the recipient of seven Obie Awards and the National Endowment for the Arts Distinguished Artist Award for her influence in theater. This year, the Signature Theatre in New York is devoting its entire season to her works.

Fornes shared her vision with about 150 students and community members Thursday at the Louis Theater, stating that creativity emerges by disconnecting oneself without losing a root in reality.

“When you open your mind to imagining, it’s a mysterious thing,” she said. “It’s a little bit connected with daydreaming — that’s the state of creativity. But no matter how magical, there is always a sense of reality in it.”

School of Speech Profs. Mary Zimmerman and Cindy Gold joined Fornes in the conversation. The presentation was part of Fornes’ three-day visit to Northwestern as the 2000 Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence.

“Her plays do not necessarily follow received ideas of rising and falling action,” said Zimmerman, herself a well-known director. “They simmer along, beautifully and subtly.”

Born in Cuba, Fornes came to the United States as a teenager and studied to become a painter. But Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” sparked her interest in theater and its ability to shape a concrete image. She soon started writing.

Fornes has led several writing workshops around the country and has petitioned for grants to pay fledgling artists to attend.

“She has literally willed dozens of playwrights into existence,” Zimmerman said.

Fornes said she instructs other writers to detach themselves from their world to discover the world of the characters.

“You have to concentrate on the characters completely and intimately by visualizing the physical characteristics of the hands, the face, the hair,” she said. “I was having the writers become so absorbed in the characters that they became completely immersed in the world of the play.”

Hope Abelson, Fornes’ sponsor, is one of the best-known arts patrons in Chicago. Her gift to NU has enabled established playwrights, directors and artistic designers to teach workshops for students on campus since 1990.

“I think that one is more or less in a contained atmosphere in school,” said Abelson. “When the students get in touch with people who are in the outside world and have been there, done that, I think it’s stimulating, I think it’s inspiring and it’s also very instructional.”

Gold said the playwright’s visit to Speech classes on Wednesday and Thursday were helpful for students, who are studying and performing Fornes’ plays.

“It’s invaluable for them to actually listen to her — particularly when she talks about how an image creates a whole play — which is hard for a young actor to understand,” Gold said.

Speech junior Javier Cobo, who is producing Fornes’ “The Danube,” participated in one of Forbes’ writing exercises during class.

Fornes instructed the students to first visualize a character to minute details. After drawing the image, she then told them to begin writing.

“The person just rambled on for pages and pages,” Cobo said. “It was a character I would never have contact with otherwise. For me to watch a character communicate like that was really liberating and empowering.”