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TBA Online: News & Features: January 2014

Who Am I Today? Talking "Cristina" with Octavio Solis

Monday, February 10, 2014  
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By Sam Hurwitt 



A native of El Paso, Texas, playwright Octavio Solis has been a marvelous presence in Bay Area theatre ever since he moved to San Francisco from Dallas in 1989. His plays such as June in a Box, Lydia and the Glickman Award-winning Santos & Santos have graced the stages of Intersection for the Arts/Campo Santo, Thick Description, Magic Theatre, Shadowlight Productions, El Teatro Campesino, California Shakespeare Theater, Marin Theatre Company and San Jose Repertory Theatre, among many others nationwide. Debuting last January, Se Llama Cristina brought Solis's work to the Magic for the first time since 1996, although he'd directed Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brothers Size for the theatre in 2010. I sat down with him in a San Francisco coffee shop last month to talk about Cristina, a play we're proud to publish in its entirety in the January/February issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine.



Playwright Octavio Solis. Photo: Anne Hamersky

What brought you to write Se Llama Cristina?

This play started as another draft of a play called Eden Crow. I started writing it in 1994, the year my daughter was born. I had been working on La Posada Magica at South Coast Rep, my Christmas play. It was such a jolly, happy play that I wanted to write something really, really dark about my own night terrors—about being a dad, about whether I would be a sufficiently good dad for this child. I didn't automatically assume I would be a wonderful father, because initially I didn’t even want to be a father. I also thought my career was over. I said, "Time to get a job." That's a terrible burden to put on a child, to say, "It's because of you I'm not a writer anymore." I was wrestling with all those things.

I guess I was too much in the belly of the beast; I got 30, 40 pages in and I shelved it. Then, when the Denver Center commissioned me to write a play after Lydia, I pulled the old script up. I still had it on a floppy. It was terrible, but the germ of the idea was right. A couple would wake up in a room. They don't know who they are. They don't know how they got there, and there's a crib with a chicken leg in it. And where's the baby? That initial idea was correct, but I was in the thick of things and I didn't understand what I was doing. Now I do, because I have hindsight. I know how my daughter turned out. I know how I turned out as a dad. Everything was cool. So I wrote it.

This play premiered at Magic Theatre, a company with which you have a long association.

Under different leaders, though, different artistic directors. First it was Harvey Seifter, who produced Man of the Flesh there [in 1990]. John Lion had been running the Magic Theatre for years. He liked my play, liked me, and said, "We want to do this." But he left abruptly and Seifter came along, so he inherited the play. Then under Mame [Hunt] we did Prospect in '96, and then more than 15 years later, Se Llama Cristina with Loretta [Greco].

I have a commission I've been working on since then for her. Two years ago I did a reading, and it was horrible. I was very disgusted with the play. It was bloated, it was unwieldy. So I shelved it. Then when we were doing Se Llama Cristina, Loretta scheduled these readings at the Costume Shop, and scheduled my play in there. I was like, "Ay yi yi, I don’t want to do a reading of that play! Let me rewrite it. It's a mess." She said, "Get to it!" I was so exhausted from Se Llama Cristina, but I still did it. I got through the first act, so that's what we read. I made the play better and listened to some things that were being said in the group, and it was really good.

I've been dealing with some writer's block since then. I haven't been able to write a word of dramatic work—tons of emails, even Twitter. And I've been doing some of these little flash fiction things that are a way to just keep my hand moving. But plays? Nothing. Until the last couple of days, I started working on Act Two. I'm cracking this thing. Also I've done a lot of revisions for Se Llama Cristina, especially for the Dallas production. Now it's going to get done in Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena. I made some adjustments in the script for that, but that's a lot easier than writing something new.

The characters in the play go from Texas to California, and you also moved here from Texas.

Oh, yeah. I took the same journey. I felt like I had played out all my options in Dallas. Things were happening, and it was really exciting, but in the end I said, "I've got to go if I'm going to grow." And as soon as I did, the world exploded for me. Immediately, I had a production at South Coast Rep, the Magic, Intersection, San Diego Rep, within a year. I moved here in December of '89, had a production by June at Intersection, and then September at Magic. And that journey was a road trip. I got in a pickup truck with all my stuff packed all the way to the top, and our dog, and did the road trip.

And now you’re moving to Ashland?

Yeah, my daughter's in college at the University of Arizona, so we're empty nesters. We've been going to Ashland since 1990, before I even entertained the idea that I would get my work done there. We bought a property three or four years ago that we've been slowly fixing up. It's about 15 minutes outside of Ashland. My wife's going to be retiring in a year and a half, and as soon as she retires she wants to move to the country. So we're going to move to Ashland in about a year and a half. And we're going to be farmers; we're going to raise goats and chickens and bees. We have an orchard already being planted.

I know it's going to affect my career. I don't know how, but I know it will. I've been working out of state a lot anyway. Most of the productions I get nowadays are from out of the city, or out of state. I can work anywhere. In fact, I'll be working better there, because I'll be more isolated. I'll be able to focus more. I really, really need that in my life. So it's time.

How has Cristina changed since the first production?

Very little. I think I allowed the work to get a little deeper. That only happens when you've had some time away from the script. Even though you wrote it, you don't hear some things until you've had some space and time.

This time I feel like the play is kind of going to be finished. I don't think that you get to the finished draft with a world premiere. I think it takes three productions to really finish a play. I'm not going to write a perfect draft the first time out. My plays are a huge mess when I first write them. Each subsequent reading, each subsequent production is about finding the real jewel in the crown. That just takes time and a lot of effort. I know that with every subsequent production that I get of any play, if I'm in the room, I'm going to be tempted to tinker with it. Even if it's in print, I don’t care. I want to find the best possible text for that production.

Sometimes, if the play is old enough, then it feels like it was written by somebody else. I've found with some of my older work that I could easily revise it, knowing what I know now, and make it 10 times better, but it's a product of its age. It's a product of a younger man who knew what he knew then and with that limited wisdom was able to craft this work, and that’s another writer.

There's a lot of shifting identity in this play.

I think that's why I'm having a hard time writing, because I feel like I'm changing, and that has to be assessed before I can really write with any kind of confidence. I have to take stock of the changes that I'm undergoing. And I think the play reflects that. I think the play reflects the kind of identity shift that I'm having as I become a different kind of man. I'm 55. I'm going to move to the country, I'm going to be a farmer. My daughter's out of the house, and after 30 years of being a playwright, I feel I have to take all that deeply into consideration.

The characters also go through those changes, and the markers are their names. They start out with no names at all, and as they discover who they are to each other, she becomes Vespa and he becomes Mike, and Mike becomes Miguel, and Miguel becomes Miki. Every time they learn more about each other, and they get deeper into the relationship, each of their identities starts to change. She goes from Vespa to Vesta to Vera, and then for the rest of the play she's Vera, which to me has a connection with truth, verisimilitude and all that. Mike is a music reviewer for a rag in Canyon, Texas. That's who he is as Mike. He's going around in circles about his own identity, and winds up in the end owning again the name that he had as a child, that his mother gave him.

That reflects the kind of changes that I went through, growing up in El Paso. As a kid at home, I was Flaco or Flaquito, the skinny boy, or Junior or Tavito, which is a pet name for Octavio. At school, I was Tavo or Octavio. Then when I got to college, they started calling me O. They called me Tav at the Dallas Theater Center, which to me sounds Jewish. To those people who know me as Tav, I'm a very different person than I am when I'm at home and I'm Tavito. And when I'm called that by my parents, I don't act the same as I do when I'm here with you, or when I'm in theatre. When I'm teaching at St. Mary's, they call me Mr. Solis, and I feel different. Even if I try to act the same way, they don't treat me the same way.

I think identities are always shifting, and they shift for me also. I'm a Latino writer, I'm a Chicano writer, and ultimately I'm an American writer. Then, at some point, I'm not even a writer at all. I'm just a dad, or a husband, and those things are as meaningful to me as those other identities, these labels that people attach. We're always wearing masks wherever we go, and just when you think you know this is the real face, you find out this is just another mask. But which one do you feel most comfortable wearing?

Did you know how you wanted to use the flashback structure of Se Llama Cristina from the start?

No, I didn't quite know how to jump around in time. I would write what Loretta calls turn signals: "We're about to go back in time. Get ready. We're about to go. Here it comes! Boom! We're there." Loretta said, "Don't tell the audience you're going to turn, just go! We'll follow. We won't get lost." And people didn't. We asked them, "Did you ever get lost?" They'd go, "No. And if we did it was okay, because the characters were lost too. And when they found their way, I found the way.”

In a real situation with people that can't remember, a trigger would happen, and they'd go, "Oh! Hey, remember that time? I called you, and you answered the phone, and it was a wrong number, remember?" That's really what's happening in the scene, but that’s not interesting to see. What's interesting is, let's just go there. Let them replay the scene as a way to remember it. But I don't think of them exactly as flashbacks, because anything that's remembered is never going to be accurate. The sequence of events that actually happened and the way we remember them are two very different things. And what they're playing out is what they remember.

How do you think this play fits into your work in general?

I don't know. Maybe I'll have a better answer for that later on. I'm still finding the play, even as finished as it is now. I think I'll only know where that play sits once I've written two or three more plays, because it's the latest, the newest thing I have. It's really hard to place it in the canon of my work, except that I think it's one of those plays that is tracking my relationship with my daughter.

There's a whole series of plays that are about tracking my relationship with my daughter. All the heroines in each of these plays is a young girl. In La Posada Magica, her name is Gracie. In El Otro, it's Romy. That play's about killing the bad dad in favor of the good dad. In Dreamlandia there's a character named Blanca that is also a young daughter looking for her father, to kill her father, and finds out that she actually loves her father. There's June in a Box, which my daughter actually acted in. Each of these works is about the young girl who is coming to terms with her father, who's either been absent or is trying too hard or not trying at all, which are all my hang ups.

I like to bend time and space in theatre. All these things, all these events, never go away. They're still here, and they're still constantly being played out, constantly happening all at the same time. Our consciousness can't wrap our heads around this, so we string them along like a string of pearls, but they're always still happening.

In Se Llama Cristina, the structure is the road trip. They remember when they met in Canyon, Texas. The next memory is of the road, and the next memory is Tucumcari, New Mexico. Finally, the last memory is in Daly City right before they shot up. When I got to that point, I said, "Oh, my God. I'm getting to the point right before the curtain rose, so where do I go now?"

That's when the girl came through the window, and I said, "Ah, the future! The next scene, the head of the snake, is the future." Then we get a glimpse of what's to come, and that affects their choice about whether to shoot or not to shoot up, and they don't. Then that means the play doesn't start like that at all. They get a do-over. And where in life do we get a do-over? In their nadir, in the depths of their despair, they get a little vision of the future. That not only impacts their choices, but the choices they make impact Cristina, the girl. So the past changes the future—yes, we know that happens—but the future also changes the past. So I guess she is her own deus ex machina who comes in and says, "Here I am! Don’t do that." It's kind of a miracle that happens. I think there's still room for that.

The full text of Octavio Solis's play, Se Llama Cristina is published in the January/February issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine.


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