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.