I met San Francisco playwright and director Octavio Solis a few years ago when I was doing a radio story about him and his Pulitzer-nominated play, Lydia, which the Marin Theatre Company staged. The play, about an unhappy 1970s El Paso family, was like nothing else I’d ever seen—very funny, but incredibly dark and disturbing. So I didn’t really know what to expect from Solis—but it wasn’t that he would be one of the sunniest, most considerate people you can imagine.
In Lydia, the border and the Rio Grande are powerful images. Growing up in El Paso, so close to the river, had a big impact on Solis. If his birthday had been a few weeks earlier, he would have been born on the other side of the border and his destiny could have been totally different, he says. His Texas background still influences him, but now he considers himself, a resident of the Sunset, a San Franciscan.
A big reason Solis moved to San Francisco more than twenty years ago from Texas was the Magic Theatre and its reputation for new works and nurturing writers such as Sam Shepard and Michael McClure. Within a year of moving here, his play Man of the Flesh was produced on Magic’s stage, followed several years later by Prospect.
Solis, who credits the theatre with helping him get his start, is now back at the Magic with his latest play, Se Llama Cristina. It is billed as “multi-layered fever dream” about a woman and a man who wake up in a strange room with no memory of who they are or how they got there. Oh, and they might be parents who have lost their baby.
Loretta Greco, the artistic director of the Magic (and who is also directing this play), says Se Llama Cristina is the perfect Magic play and quintessentially Solis—muscular, lyrical, and adventurous in structure. While she was in the theatre with the actors rehearsing, I met Solis in the lobby. With a chart and a map showing the journey of the characters from Texas to California on the wall behind him, Solis was working on his iPad. Apologizing for being tired, he talked about how the Magic is all about the writers, how your identity changes when you become a parent, and reinventing himself with every play.
The Rumpus: You say this play was inspired by night terrors and being a parent. What night terrors are you talking about?
Octavio Solis: I initially started writing Se Llama Cristina under a different title—Eden Crow, as a pun on “eating crow.” I started writing it when Gracie, my daughter, was just born, back in 1994. I got twenty pages in, and I shelved it because I didn’t know what I was writing about. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t get it, and I didn’t like it, so I just put it away and worked on something else—mainly worked on being a dad.
But I trotted it out a few years ago when the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts commissioned me to write something after Lydia. So I felt like I could write it now, I could better approach the subject because I am a dad. I’ve had eighteen years with my daughter. I feel like I know that journey a little better, about the trepidation I had about being a parent and whether I’d be a good dad. When you’re in the belly of the beast like that, it’s too dark in there. And it was dark! I was really scared. But she turned out okay. So I feel like I could better approach it.
Night terrors are something children have when they’re asleep and you don’t know why—they just wake up screaming and they’re scared. But I think the night terrors are something we also have as parents, and we imagine at some point after we’ve taken care of them [our children], we have to let them out in the world and we can’t protect them anymore. Hopefully the things we’ve done will kick in when they need them, and she’ll make the right decision. So, the play is about the doubt and fear people have when they have a baby.
Rumpus: How is the play about identity and memory?
Solis: I changed immediately as soon as the baby was born. I had a new title, I was a new person—I was “daddy.” It changed me. So identity is so wrapped up in that notion. As far as memory is concerned, I think in the play, when the characters lose the baby, they can’t remember how. They can’t even remember who they are and their relationship to each other, and it happened because they wish the baby gone. For a time they say, “Let’s just pretend we don’t have a baby now.” It’s almost like…what’s that movie with Jimmy Stewart?
Rumpus: It’s a Wonderful Life.
Solis: Yeah, it’s almost like It’s a Wonderful Life, where he wishes he’d never been born. Well, this is what happens when they wish the baby away, then the baby is gone. That changes everything. They lose their identity that way because they were parents. When you take their parenthood away, you kind of take their relationship away because they were parents. They start with a blank slate–they don’t know who they are, they don’t know where they are, they don’t even remember having a child. There’s just an empty crib with a chicken leg in it.
So they have to go through a process of remembering everything: they have to go to the beginning [of] their relationship, the genesis, because that’s where the baby begins, when they met. So they go through the path of remembering their way back to their identities and their way back to their baby, and on that path they earn their stripes as parents.
Rumpus: When did you know you wanted to write plays, and how did you decide the theatre was a place you wanted to work professionally?
Solis: I was fourteen years old and got stage-bit when I was cast in the school play. I haven’t looked back since. I was an actor for a while and made the transition to playwright sometime in my mid-twenties.
Rumpus: You say that part of the reason you came out here from Texas was because of the Magic Theatre. Could you talk about that?
Solis: I went to Dallas to get my degree and that’s where I cut my teeth as an actor and a director and a writer, and eventually I started feeling like, I’m a writer. I’d already known the works of Sam Shepard and Michael McClure, and I knew a little of the history of the Magic, and I thought that was the place to go because I was feeling a glass ceiling in Dallas. The other places I thought would be good was Chicago or New York, but I wanted to go to a place with more of a Mexican American experience, so I thought, It’s San Francisco for me.
I knew about the Magic—it had always been kind of a shrine to me for new works. I dreamt of having my works there, but little did I know I would have a play produced in a year of my moving. I had had a reading of this play, Man of the Flesh, so that was my introduction to them. Then five years passed and under the aegis of Mame Hunt [former artistic director of the Magic] I was able to direct Prospect, and had a lovely time with that. Then I got busy with other theatres. I was developing a national reputation, so I was working a lot, and I fell out of the Magic’s umbrella, especially after Mame left. When Loretta came, we knew each other from the Public, [and so] I knew she understood my work. When she came here five years ago, she said, “I want to commission you.” I was so busy! I was working with Shadowlight Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Company, and Lydia was at the Denver Center, and I was working on Cloudlands, my musical, but she brought me in as a director for The Brothers Size here. It was fantastic–it was really good.
So that was my new relationship with the Magic. Then Loretta commissioned me to write a play for her. We had a reading of it last year, and I’m still working on it. Then out of the blue she calls me, and says she wants to produce this play. She said, “I think the title’s wrong–you called it Baby Girl, but I think the title’s in the play, Se Llama Cristina.” I almost did a spit-take when she called me. I was working on my musical down at South Coast Rep. I was astonished. That play—when the Denver Center passed on it after a couple of workshops, I didn’t take it personally. I thought, This is the biz, and they still believe in me and want to commission me to do some more. They said, “This isn’t for us,” and I kind of agreed, so I shelved the play. I couldn’t think about it because I was doing so much at the time. I was teaching at Austin and working on my musical.
Loretta found the play through Shirley Fishman who works at La Jolla Playhouse. She had attended a reading of it at the Denver Center, but she said, “This is a Magic play.” They all read it, they all agreed and all loved it unanimously, so they all wanted it in their season. So all they had to was notify me, and ask me to change the title.
Rumpus: Did you have any problem with that?
Solis: Oh, no—heck no. I didn’t even like Baby Girl. I thought that was just a start. A good start, but still not the right title. This is the title. It really makes sense. So Loretta and I sat here across from each other and we read the entire play, her and I reading all the parts and then she gave me some notes. Then in October we had a little workshop on it at Oregon Shakespeare Company, and then I did a rewrite after that. I got some notes and that’s where we built this chart for the play.
Rumpus: You say you dreamed of having a play at Magic. What about it drew you?
Solis: They really put their money where their mouth is as far as new work is concerned. They do daring new plays, but also plays that have literary merit. It’s for the writer. They do new works in other cities all the time, but it always seems to be about the actors. Theatre companies like Steppenwolf and Goodman—those places are known for tremendous, powerful acting, actors who are now movie stars. The Magic didn’t spawn a lot of movie stars, but it spawned a lot of great writers, great plays. So the emphasis is always on the writing. I’m doing the kind of writing that really stretches the notions of reality. This isn’t the place for realism at all. There are ways in which they like to bend time and realism and do things that are just crazy, and that suits me.
Rumpus: Who influenced you in theatre?
Solis: Maria Irene Fornes and Eric Overmyer are my theatre influences. But I am also influenced by artists in other fields, like Tom Waits and Cormac McCarthy.
Rumpus: How has being a Latino playwright influenced your writing and the types of stories you want to tell? And how is it being a Latino playwright working within American theatre culture, which has been so much about white experience?
Solis: I don’t think of myself as a Latino playwright. That’s a label others place on me. I’m just writing for the theatre. Because of my upbringing and my past, I inevitably delve into issues of my Latino heritage, but it’s not my Latino-ness that dictates what I write. There are stories that take place along the border near El Paso because that’s where I am from, and because I think that region is full of untold stories. But even as many of my characters are of Mexican descent, I feel that their tales are universal stories of love and betrayal and loss.
I’m still trying to keep others from pigeon-holing me as this or that kind of writer. No one thought of August Wilson as a Black playwright. He was simply a writer portraying the lives of African Americans in this country, and at some point in the telling, people realized that they were seeing stories about themselves. There are so many ambiguous expectations of what a “Latino play” must do, and how it must represent its people, none of which match the reality of their lived experiences. But that’s what happens when people deal with “the Other”. They tend to want it to conform to preconceived notions, or to glamorize or exoticize it. I’m just interested in showing Latinos as people with the same capacities to succeed or fail in their lives like anyone else.
I go back and forth with this term–Latino playwright–and wrestle with its ramifications. Sometimes it means I am appreciated more but only within this rubric, and sometimes it makes me visible to a wider audience with no access to the culture. So there are benefits and pitfalls. Still, if I don’t tell these stories about the people I share my culture with, someone else will. So I feel a responsibility to share what I can. The use of Spanish in the title of this new work is indicative of how culture matters in the story. And my characters go from being Vespa to Vera, and Mike to Miguel, and become aware of the character changes within them and how they will factor in the struggles of the play.
Rumpus: How do you think your writing style has changed?
Solis: It changes from play to play. I try not to repeat myself. I really work on reinventing my style in some respects. But some things never change. I’ve always had an emphasis on language and lyrical language at that. Language that seems both profane and realistic but that can soar and sound almost angelic and kind of poetic. So those things don’t change, but from play to play I’m a different writer. The play I’m writing for the Magic now is very different than this one. I have a wide palette to work with. I don’t just sort of do variations on a theme. That’s why I enjoy working with different theatre companies, or writing an adaptation of a novel like Pastures of Heaven and Don Quixote. Those things stretch me in ways that this does not. But then I get to do some things here I could never do in Don Quixote. Every theatre has its aesthetic and I have to find my way through that to my play. Oregon Shakes has that outdoor stage and there’s a certain kind of stage you can do there. This kind of play would never survive there. You need a tight, small, pressure cooker experience of the Magic to be able to do it.
Rumpus: When I talked to you a couple years ago about Lydia, you talked about having grown up near the Rio Grande and how that influenced your writing. How does San Francisco influence your writing?
Solis: Now I really feel like a San Franciscan. I’ve been here long enough I feel like I’m now firmly entrenched in the legacy that includes people like Sam Shepard and Armistead Maupin and Dashiell Hammett, and Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great poets of the Beat Era. There’s a strong writers’ base here, and I feel like I’m part of that tradition now. But that doesn’t mean I have to forsake where I’m from or who I am as a Latino. That’s what I bring here, that tradition, and I don’t lose that. I still end up going back to Texas. And this play, which goes from Texas to California, really accurately reflects the kind of journey I’ve had as a writer and a person. But I’m now a Californian–I’m a San Franciscan.
Se Llama Cristina is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. It opened January 30th and runs through February 17th at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. After the Magic production, it will go on to the Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas and The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.
Photograph of Sarah Nina Hayon and Sean San José in Se Llama Cristina © 2013 by Jennifer Reiley.
Photograph of Octavio Solis © 2010 by Ed Ritger.