María Irene Fornés stands on the beach in Miami, looking out over the endless ocean, to free herself from worry. Yet as the scene changes, she forgets that she is in Miami; she forgets that she hasn’t written a play in over five years. By the film’s end, she forgets the name of her friend Michelle Memran, the filmmaker who is capturing the scene. But while her memories fade, Fornés’ creative, outgoing, and jocular personality persists.
On Monday, the Barnard Center for Research on Women, in collaboration with the Barnard theatre department, screened Memran’s film, “The Rest I Make Up,” in the Glicker-Milstein Black Box Theatre. The film was a collaboration between Memran, a visiting artist in the theater department, and famed Cuban American playwright Fornés.
Fornés, often remembered as American theater’s “Mother Avant-Garde,” was a pioneer of the off-off-Broadway movement, which gave rise to small, intimate productions. Fornés won nine Obie Awards, awarded by The Village Voice to New York theater artists, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Many of her plays, including the all-female cast “Fefu and Her Friends” and “Letters from Cuba,” discuss themes of love, loss, and femininity in the modern world.
Barnard theater professor Alice Reagan, who has directed some of Fornés’ works at Barnard in the past, such as her musical “Promenade” in 2016 and her play “What of the Night?” said that she hopes to see a more diverse and inclusive group of writers represented on Columbia’s stages.
"We need to be doing plays that represent the world stage, and that means plays by women, plays by people of color, plays by immigrants,” Reagan said. “My vision in the department is to broaden the scope of plays that students come in contact with.”
Memran first encountered Fornés’ works as an undergraduate when she read her play “The Conduct of Life.” Memran remarked that the play was “genius,” which prompted her to read more of Fornés’ works. Memran found Fornés’ name in a phonebook and called her up for an interview for an American Theatre article, which turned into a six-hour conversation and a long-lasting friendship.
Memran soon noticed that Fornés was suffering from undiagnosed dementia, which was halting Fornés’ writing career. During a trip to the beach in 2003, Memran started to record Fornés’ creative spirit for posterity.
“The camera to me is my beloved, the one who wants me always,” Fornés said during the trip.
For the next decade, Memran continued to travel with Fornés across New York and to Cuba, collecting 500 hours of footage. The result was a 79-minute story of how mental illness can coexist with hope and an irrepressible spirit.
From walking around her neighborhood to winning a theater award in Seattle, the film contains scattered recordings of Fornés in her daily life. Throughout the film, Fornés maintains a positive spirit while her memory slowly fades. Although Memran sheds light on the severity of Fornés’ condition, she chose to highlight her triumphs over her illness.
“There are very few stories that really focus on what remains and not what is lost,” Memran said.
As much as Memran assisted Fornés in light of her illness, Fornés returned the favor.
"I think [Memran] in the film really comes across as someone who has her own blockages and has her own issues with depression,” Reagan said in a panel discussion following the screening. “Through her relationship with [Fornés], she becomes healthier, she becomes more self-aware, more able to come out of herself."
Reagan noted that a standout moment in the film is when Memran “quite strongly challenges” Fornés’ identity as a writer amid her illness. In a tense scene, Memran becomes frustrated when Fornés doesn’t realize that she hasn’t written a play in five years, believing instead that she has been producing work all that time. It’s a scene that doesn’t shy away from the complex emotions that emerge as a loved one’s memories slip away.
"[Fornés] was so isolated and so alone and so longing; she was living so far in the past because her short-term memory was decreasing and her long-term memory was clearer and clearer,” Memran said. “She’d have a moment, but the next second she’d make a joke.”
While it might seem uncustomary to laugh during films about dementia, Memran noted that Fornés often joked about her condition or ignored her struggles entirely, leading the audience to laugh alongside Fornés and challenge the notion that the illness must be seen as something negative.
In another scene, Fornés sits in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, filling out her paperwork. When asked to fill out her reason for visit, she writes “Loss of Me,” pauses, and then corrects herself, writing “Loss of Memory.” Memran noted that this scene prompted her to devote the rest of the film to revealing how Fornés was not losing herself, but rather maintaining who she was.
In addition to interviews with playwrights like Edward Albee and Paula Vogel, the film also features shaky camerawork and “unpolished” scene changes, which provide “raw intimate glimpses” into the human process of creating the film, according to Memran.
Memran’s use of imperfect and sometimes clashing cinematographic textures conveys how mental illness can be explored on screen in all of its complexity and imperfection.
“The little things of the mic dropping into the frame or [Fornés] having a wireless microphone on her back because it was more comfortable that way, those things that sort of hint at the process for me are really real, and I don’t want to edit those out and make it seem like it was a seamless thing when in fact there were a lot of stumbles and cameras dropping on the floor,” Memran said.
Memran hopes that “The Rest I Make Up” will inspire viewers to not be afraid of illness and of loving the people in their lives who are undergoing cognitive decline. Most of all, she aims to shine a spotlight on Fornés’ extraordinary life and career for those who haven’t encountered her work.
“The main hope is that they want to read her plays, produce her plays, know more about her, and also to be inspired about the act of creation, to come away being uplifted and moved to work on their own thing.”