Octavio Solis: An Accidental Playwright of Unconstrained Imagination

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The Salon’s Margaret O’Donnell interviewed Octavio Solis in advance of his visit to Seattle on Tuesday, December 4th at 7:30 p.m. to speak at Seattle’s Town Hall Arts and Culture Series. The Salon will give free event tickets to the first two playwrights who request it, courtesy of Town Hall. Contact us at seattleplaywrightssalon@gmail.com, with the subject line ‘Octavio Solis Event’.

From Mr. Solis’s artistic statement on the New Play Exchange:

Federico García Lorca said, “A play is a poem standing up.” As a poet turned playwright that quote resonates deeply with me. My poetics are very present in my playwriting: imagery, repetition, symbols and attention to lyricism—all coalesce into a theatrical experience that aspires to engage the audience on multiple levels.

I’m an accidental playwright. Originally a poet, I transitioned to theatre and playwriting because I was looking for ways to explore social justice issues that impact the Latino community. I was drawn to theatre because of its ability to inspire empathy and invoke a sense of wonder through the use of narrative and vivid imagery.

I am an imagist. Using striking images as integral narrative elements, my plays are theatrical experiences marrying images with the lyricism of words.

I aspire to write plays of unconstrained imagination, where often the emotional world of the play impacts the physical world on the stage. I write plays featuring a range of Latino characters from recent immigrants to third generation American citizens in an attempt to demonstrate the breadth and dimension of my cultural community. And I often write plays with women at the center of the narrative as empowered protagonists.

I believe in the alchemy of live performance. In suspending disbelief. In breaking hearts and leaving them strewn across the stage. In seeing our shared humanity in one another. That the stories we tell are just as important, if not more so, as the official histories we keep as a society.

Salon: You’ve been writing plays for nearly 30 years, and have had at least 25 of your plays produced. How have you changed as a playwright in these years?

Octavio Solis (OS): Oh, I have more unproduced plays in my folders. Theatres may commission works from a writer, but they’re under no obligation to produce them. Sometimes, they don’t like the work, sometimes the work is just not right for the time or their audiences. These works languish away in neglect, but sometimes they get cannibalized by other newer works. I think my writing has changed quite a bit over time, but it’s because I’ve changed. We all must or else we become stagnant individuals stuck in some idealized time. Some things, however still hold true. I still cling to the notions of theatricality, that is, the use of all the elements of live theatre to make the story vivid: lights, music and song, direct address, heightened language. I don’t really like kitchen sink plays very much; they seem to adhere to the situation comedy format. I like works that dance across time and space, that bend these dimensions at will in the way Shakespeare did. And yet at the same time, I think I’ve settled a bit. I like to focus more on people, I’m more inclined to slow the page down to let them talk. Too much effort is directed at moving the action forward, and not enough on moving the action inward. Each character is a kind of maze, and I am drawn to the language that acts as a kind of string that leads us into and out of the maze.

Salon: Are the themes that interest you different than they were 30 years ago?

OS: Yes, I think I have absorbed some new themes into my oeuvre. For as long as I’ve been a playwright of note, I have devoted myself to defining the American Experience for Latinos in this country. The complexities, conflicts and ironies of being an immigrant in America. The love for and struggle against the temptations of our consumer culture. The Mexican culture as it evolves into a new hybrid American society. What it means to live on the hyphen.

But now I am drawn to environmental issues. I think moving to the country, raising goats and chickens, living off our green garden; these new aspects of our rural life have awakened my environmental heart. Even before this move, I have been a regular contributor to Elephant and Wolf preservation funds. But now as I see so much of our forests charred by wildfires, I am struck by how much of it is due to climate change. We’re at a tipping point. We have to respond to the dire circumstances in our planet, even if we’re only the Cassandras and canaries in the coal mine.

Salon: Has the way in which you get inspiration for your work changed over the years? How?

OS: Many companies have concerns they’d like me to address, so some commissions come with issues attached. Still, I have to find what matters to me. I have to be inspired to give them the play that they’re looking for. So often I ask, what is my way in? What about the issue or topic is personal to me? I have to care deeply or else I won’t care at all. What I look for is the element that will change me in the writing. I can’t be expected to change peoples’ perspective if I am not willing to be changed by the writing myself. So it’s always an education, always a discovery, which means there’s always a risk. By this, I mean that I have to be ready to have my beliefs upended by the work I do. I have to be ready to let the play talk to me directly and indirectly about things I have not considered about myself.

Salon: Have your writing habits changed over the years? What works best for you now?

OS: I used to write with a fervor every day, every chance I could. I used to stand by my writing with a ferocity that permitted no challenges. I was young. There was still so much room to grow. Over the years, especially since writing is all I do, or at least the only occupation I have full-time, I used to demand that I write every day, all day, and when I was wasn’t I punished myself grievously by not going out and enjoying myself. Now, I know that was wrong. I have learned that when I’m not writing, I am still writing. I am thinking and processing and engaging with my stories in my sleep, in my idle moments, when I’m driving my car; even when I am doing a repetitive physical task, I am writing. It’s the process before applying fingertips to keys or pen to paper. The dreamtime. The digestion of the idea.

Consequently, I have parsed out my energies more wisely. I don’t write every day, but when I finally do sit down to write, I sit for six to eight hours and hammer out what needs to be written. Raw and unvarnished, ugly and badly worded. That’s what a first draft should be anyway.

This process has become harder to maintain as I get older. On-line social media has cut into that dramatically. That’s why I insist that my posts remain terse and pithy. I don’t want to waste my good writing time and energy on Facebook and Twitter and e-mail. (I am making an exception here.)

Salon: What part of your time do you devote to writing, and what part to getting your plays produced? Do you find that your production time/other life duties keep you away more from writing?

OS: That varies with every work. Some plays call for the night. And some are daytime plays. As long as I have time cleared and I can sit in peace and quiet for an extended time, it’s all fine by me.

Salon: For new playwrights, do you sometimes recommend getting an MFA? How has having studied playwriting academically helped you? What is your best advice for new playwrights?

OS: I never studied to be a playwright. I studied to be an actor. If I took playwriting courses, (and I often did, under the tutelage of some remarkable instructors) it was so that I might know how a playwright thinks, how he builds his/her characters. Anything to give me an edge over my other colleagues.

But the situation actually worked in reverse. All the acting and theatre courses I took were invaluable to me as a playwright. It’s vital to know what an actor needs, how an actor thinks, how to give an actor the best grounding for his role in the piece. Same thing with directors and designers. I am conscious of their needs all the way through. Even when I’m not thinking about them, they are present in the work. I fully recommend that every playwright act in someone else’s work. Their horizons will broaden in astonishing ways.

Yes, an MFA will serve the aspiring playwright, especially if the courses are taught by exemplary writers who are not solely instructors. It’s vital to have someone who knows what the professional world is like for the contemporary playwright. Especially now when the world is radically changing. But a solid playwriting program will also expose the budding writer to the works of others. And also, hopefully, to the world of literature at large, which is even more important. I watch plays. I attend readings of plays. But I seldom read plays anymore. I read novels and poetry and fiction. Not just for the lessons they offer to me as a playwright, but for the general edification of my soul. We should all do that. We should all build coalitions between writers of books and writers for the stage.

Salon: What are you working on now?

OS: I’m working on getting the word out on Retablos, my new collection of memoir stories by doing readings and book-signings. I am working on a screenplay. I am doing the final touches on the rehearsal script of "Mother Road" which goes in rehearsal at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this January for its premiere in March 2019. I am revising a work I had produced earlier this summer in Los Angeles. I am winterizing my farm in preparation for the first big freeze of the season.

A Must-Have Playwriting Book

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Working on a New Play, by Edward M. Cohen (1988) is well worth the $2 for a used copy on line. It’s a must have for emerging playwrights who want to get their work in development off the page and into the minds of directors and actors, and then to an open reading for the public. It’s really the best way to develop your work when you don’t already have a theatre or class or workshop that is demanding to see your work and help you develop it.

It doesn’t matter that Edward M. Cohen, a playwright and director, wrote this book thirty years ago, and that the submissions process then, pre-internet, was a full-time job unto itself. It doesn’t matter that many theatres have changed their business and artistic practices substantially since Cohen wrote. What matters is his insight into how a work grows, and his generosity in sharing that knowledge in an easy, conversational style. He’s got an intelligence about theatre, and a love of new work, that transcends the decades. It’s clear he admires, respects, and honors the craft and the playwrights, directors, and actors who bring new plays to the stage

His first four chapters, and his introduction, are the most useful for playwrights as we write. The remaining chapters focus on the role of the director, actors, producers, and designers. His insights on casting are shrewd, and his chapter on the rehearsal process awakened me to the role of each of the many collaborators who make a play come to life, as well as pitfalls to avoid.

In the chapters devoted to the writing and development process, he describes how and why to have a living room read with your director, followed by closed reading with a small group of those who can critique your work, then an open reading to which the public is invited. He says, about actors, that to listen and learn from them as they give us feedback, both in their roles, and about the play as a whole, is essential to our own growth and that of our script. About directors, he assumes a keen interest in working with the playwright at the table read, to understand the playwright’s vision. That assumption doesn’t always hold true, I know, but I’m taken with Cohen’s expansive view: that the playwright and the director come to the table read with open minds.

Here are a few of his thoughts that enlightened me:

“Many …talented writers do not know what they have written or why. They do not know what the play is about or who is truly the hero because the work has erupted from the subconscious, and that is the best thing that can happen to a writer.”

“If writers could discuss their work easily, they might make entertaining dinner partners but they would not be writers. Playwrights are dealing with material that is causing conflict; that is the reason they need to write, and it is the conflict that creates the electricity on the page.”

“Eventually what happens in the living room is that the director climbs into the playwright’s head, unearths the subconscious sources of the materials, and associates these with his own…so that he understands the play on an intuitive level and the play stretches to incorporate the director’s impulses.”

“The development process is not one in which the director tells the playwright what is wrong, and the playwright decides whether to fix it or not; the process is one of give and take in which each share responses and ideas, each bounces off the other.”

About the closed reading (the step after the living room read),

“[t]he actors are the ones who demonstrate to the playwright what trust in the theatre is all about. They trust that the director knew what he was doing in casting them; that whatever quality the director wants for their characters, the actors have it and do not need to strain for it.”

About the open reading,

“The aim is to create a casual, supportive atmosphere in which neither the script nor the performances will be judged as finished works. The audience members are serving as co-workers, supplying writers with feedback, allowing them to see their work with some objectivity, introducing them gently to the chasm between what they have imagined and how it is received.”

And, “…never, never, never allow guests into rehearsals!” Actors will feel judged, and that is death to the creative process developing in rehearsals.

There’s so much more to learn and appreciate in this lovely book. It is not only a practical handbook, but a look inside the heart and mind of a generous man who loves his craft.

Manderley Forever: The Story of Author and Playwright Daphne du Maurier

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We all know Daphne du Maurier as the author of Rebecca, one of the most beloved novels of all time. But, in her book Manderley Forever, Tatiana de Rosnay, bilingual author of the bestselling novel Sarah’s Key, explores aspects of du Maurier’s character unknown to most fans. De Rosnay writes Daphne’s biography with the engaging storytelling quality of a novel, as she gives a faithful and realistic account of du Maurier’s life. I learned that the young Daphne du Maurier was coddled and favored by her father - a relationship that became oppressive in later years and was also the basis for some of Daphne’s stories. De Rosnay also respectfully describes Daphne’s affairs and infatuations, noting that many of Daphne’s relationships provided a passionate spark for her next story.

Daphne du Maurier faithfully corresponded with several friends and family members over many years. With the help of excerpts from these letters and a terrific amount of research, readers of Manderley Forever learn that Daphne was shy and reclusive, yet she loved to joke around with her son, Kits. Surprisingly, we also learn that she was continually vexed at being known as a Gothic romance author and was constantly trying to prove that her writing had depth and substance.

Daphne wrote novels, plays, biographies, collaborative photo essays, articles, and family histories. Not all her works were successful; but, all were well-researched, and Daphne devoted herself wholeheartedly to each project, often at the expense of her husband and children. Daphne was independent and, for most of her life, not too concerned with other people or her effect on them. At times, she felt strong bonds with others, but her one true priority was her writing. I believe that Daphne herself would agree that she felt stronger ties to houses rather than people. Tatiana de Rosnay did a wonderful job conveying Daphne’s intense attachment to her home of many years, Menabilly. When de Rosnay described the moment that Daphne finally left “Mena,” I could almost feel Daphne’s loss and heartbreak.

It’s a sign of a good book when you finish the last page with a craving for more - to explore further, to think about what you read and how you feel about it. Now that I have some insight into Daphne du Maurier’s life, I’d like to re-read my favorite du Maurier books, like Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but I also cannot wait to explore her short story collections and plays. Frankly, I’m not sure that I’m as fond of Daphne du Maurier as I was before I knew so much about her life and personality. But, I think I would have enjoyed a seaside stroll with Daphne and the opportunity to ask about her struggles as an artist, a mother, a wife, and a woman.

-Autumn Hjort, Playwrights Salon Literary Manager

Playwrights! What Do You Want?

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The Salon is evolving into a more comprehensive playwrights’ center, and we’d like your input. We started in October 2016 with the offer of a monthly stage for playwrights to present work in development. After we solicited and selected the scripts we agreed were ready for a public staged reading, the playwright was on his/her own to cast and stage the reading. We sent out publicity, set up the (donated) theatre space, and conducted the talk-backs. After eighteen months, we noted a couple of things. 

One, many emerging playwrights needed help to find actors and directors for their shows.  Two, playwrights were eager for script critique, and for playwriting classes, and did not know where to find these (affordable) resources. Three, many playwrights wanted to be in supportive, challenging groups with other playwrights, but didn’t know where to find others. Four, most playwrights who submitted their work to the Salon were not MFA grads, and hadn’t taken many, if any, classes or seminars.

We listened. Starting in September 2018, we employ a director for each staged reading;  the director casts the show, and we pay the actors a stipend for their work. The playwright is involved in the rehearsal process. We now also provide a high-level critique for all those who submit work to the Salon. It’s a start! 

Now we’d like to hear directly from playwrights. What can we give you that you need/want most? We’re planning for 2019 NOW. Answer our quick survey, and let us know. Vote for the change (or simply the playwright resources) you want to see in the world.

Don't Miss Cate Wiley's New Play, "The Liberation"

The 14/48 Partner Projects, in collaboration with Ghost Light Theatricals, will be presenting the world premiere of Cate Wiley's brand new play “The Liberation” at the Ballard Underground November 2 - 17, 2018. The Salon hosted a staged reading of Cate’s script in March and couldn’t be more thrilled to see it hit the stage.

Set against the background of terrorist attacks in Paris, “The Liberation” asks how far women have come from the sexual double standards of the past. After a scandal forces her out of her position as a history professor at a prestigious university, Marianne moves to Paris to reinvent herself. When a bright young assistant and the son of her lover from graduate school each appear, full of hope, on Marianne's doorstep, she's forced to wrestle with who she is and how she can move forward.

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