Get an inside look at the process of creating RT productions with our IN CONVERSATION series
Fefu and Her Friends ran March 10th – April 2nd at Riverside Theatre. Read our interview below with director of Fefu Juliana Frey-Méndez and RT’s Marketing Team.
What initially drew you to Fornés as an artist?
JFM: I first read Fefu and her friends in my History of Contemporary American Theater as a junior in undergrad. I remember reading it and thinking “I have absolutely no clue what this means” but there is something about the challenge of a play, that is a puzzle, that always stayed with me. When I was applying to graduate school, I was looking for a play that felt like a mystery, so I went back to Fefu and Her Friends. I read it again and began doing some research on Fornés and I realized: if you follow the rabbit holes in the play, it really opens up for you. Then when I was in school again, I mentioned to one of my mentors that I loved Fornés, and she connected me with the Fornés institute, [Which Frey-Méndez is now a member of]. Meeting them and working on a Fornés play for my thesis, I realized the labor of love that was involved in lifting her legacy, and I wanted to be a part of that. It feels really exciting when people come up to me and say “I had never heard of this playwright before! Where was she?” Part of my practice now is trying to produce her plays wherever possible so that more people get curious about Fornés.
What are some of the concepts or ideas of this play that you really wanted to illuminate in this production? What was most important for you to explore?
JFM: I think there was a practical/storytelling goal I wanted to achieve, and a thematic goal I believe to be true about the play. Starting with the practical element: I had seen Fefu produced a couple of times, and It was really important to me that all of the characters felt distinct, unique, and separate, because I believe the play only works if the characters are isolated planets trying to exist as one solar system. So I was really interested in the characters having their own identities. I was also really fascinated by what happens if we take these women at their word and believe what they say. Then, we have to believe some ugly truths and the violence of the situations that they are in. To do this play in a way that honors both the women’ hearts and the tenderness Fornés had for all of them, you have to acknowledge the reality of their situation. So I was interested in our production leaning into the reality of the seemingly invisible forces that are turning these women against each other. This for me was the key to understanding the play: allowing the truth of the women to shape the world we put on stage.
And the thematic element?
JFM: My father likes to say he won’t see anything unless there is redemption. And for a long time I really believed that only dark, deep, troubling ideas on stage were “true drama.” When I read this play the first time I saw a rich, troubling, conflict-ridden play. When I returned to the play, 8 years later, I was struck by the final stage direction, which is: The women surround Julia. I kept thinking about what it has meant in my life to be surrounded by women, and to be surrounded by women who I feel support me even when we argue about something silly, or argue about something important. So I began thinking how can the end of the play support these women’s desires to uplift each other and underline this idea: we all have to allow our authentic selves to come out and be a part of our social world. That is in fact how we make any sort of social change happen.
Obviously this is a play you’ve been engaging with and held a relationship with for quite some time, but this is your first time directing it?
JFM: It is.
What new discoveries did you make about the play, being able to spring it from its textual world to a physical production?
JFM: I knew intellectually that the play was funny, and I didn’t know it was until we filled the words with the actors and their spirits that I realized how funny it actually was- that was a delicious discovery. Also, upon reading it out loud together, it became very clear that even though the play is a mystery, all the women speak the central theme of the play at least once at some time. And they all have a distinct relationship to it. I think for an ensemble-based piece, for there not to be a singular villain or for the ensemble to have equal relationships to the theme of the play felt really special, and that was a huge realization early on during our table work. Not only are their fueling desires coming from a similar place of wanting to be included and wanting to be loved, but also the way that they speak their desire is very similar throughout the play.
That must’ve been really exciting for the actors to collaborate together as well.
JFM: I’ve been in my little corner of the Fornés universe loving her and thinking about her, and it was so cool to see a group of women [the cast and creative team] not only get aboard the Fornés train, but just embrace her silliness, her nostalgia, her artistry, and talent in such a big way. That was really exciting and humbling.
Speaking of Fornes and her artistry, let’s explore the technical world of the play, which has the very exciting and innovative element of promenade during the second part of the play. [Audiences are guided to different spaces in the theatre to watch intimate scenes take place]. As a director, how do you approach your rehearsal process with that in mind? How do you navigate that unique style in the room?
JFM: Because of the nature of theater and its high financial expense, I very early on became interested in creating opportunities to make immersive theater. One of the things I love about immersive theater is, it puts the audience in relationship with the actors in a really special way, and pushes this performative style that is a little more bold and a little more in your face. From the beginning of the process, the first thing we had to decide was where were the locations of the four scenes that happen separately in part two, and what was the path to get there. Normally as a director you’re aware of the space you’re directing in, and you can start building from there. But with this piece, we really had to think about where we were gonna be and how the audience was going to get there. The path the four groups of audience members needed to take really shaped our location choices.
That sounds quite stressful!
JFM: I wanted to make the rehearsal room feel like it is possible to do difficult things. A place where everyone felt supported, and that everyone else was equally invested in doing difficult things together. This play is a tough little nut to crack: it’s a large cast, lots of elements are happening simultaneously, and the plot is living underneath the conversations as they ebb and flow. I feel very blessed that we had such amazing actors in the show, and a phenomenal creative team to support them and make this show happen.