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Trinity graduate earning buzz for latest play

By Deborah Martin
11/29/09

When the Denver Center Theatre Company commissioned playwright Octavio Solis to write a play a few years ago, they told him he could write about whatever he wanted.

He decided to challenge himself.

He also decided that it was time for him to tackle a family drama, something he’d stayed away from. And he wanted to get away from magical realism and the stylized language that characterizes much of his work.

“I was anxious to work out of a certain style I had fallen into that felt as if it was getting to be rote,” Solis said during a recent visit to San Antonio to work with AtticRep on it’s staging of “Lydia,” the piece he wrote for the Denver theater. “I wanted (to find) a much more realistic voice – get rid of the lyricism and the poeticism and just write solid prose, the way people talk. I said, ‘Can I do that? Can I ? write a one-room drama?’ Because that’s not what I usually do .?.?. I wanted to get more realistic, get more prosaic with my language.

“But that’s not what happened.”

Instead?? Well, let’s let Ceci, one of the characters, demonstrate in the opening lines of the play:

“She touched me and I flew. Touched my fault-line. And I flew. With her hand, laid holy water on my scar. And I flew on wings of glass. My body como una bird racing with the moon on a breath of air. Flying out of range of pain, purpose, this thing we call Vida, soaring into the blueness of memory, closing my eyes for the thud to come.”

Ceci’s family isn’t privy to any of that – a car accident left the girl unable to communicate beyond infant-like grunts. It also left Solis with a problem.

“I have this girl that’s locked in her body. And how does she communicate? Well, she talks to the audience. So what does she sound like? When I started writing (for her), it came out in this weird way. And I said, ‘Uh-oh. Here I go again. I can’t escape this.’ So I just said, follow that.”

As for Ceci’s speeches, he said, “I can’t take credit for them. (They came from) her. I’m just the conduit. I’m the conduit for all these people.”

San Antonians will get a chance to meet Ceci and her family – including the recently hired Lydia, whose presence helps expose some long-buried secrets – beginning Wednesday, when the AtticRep production opens in the Attic Theatre at Trinity University.

“This is the great American Latino play,” said director Marisela Barrera, who has directed Solis’ work before. “It’s so multi-textured and crafted so well.”

Solis is one of her favorite writers, she said, partly because his language “is very poetic, but it moves and grooves and it’s able to capture an audience’s imagination.”

The piece is generating big buzz across the country, and the reviews echo Barrera’s comments. The New York Times’ review of the Yale Rep production described “Lydia” as “fresh, penetrating, often blissful”; the Denver Post review of the world premiere called it “an astonishing, expertly crafted tragedy that seduces and repels you at once. It tempts you with its pulsing rhythms and evocative language until it has you fully under its spell.”

American Theatre magazine published the script last year. Roberto Prestigiacomo, AtticRep‘s producing artistic director, read it then and was immediately taken by the writing. As it happens, he was also looking for plays with Latin themes.

“If AtticRep wants to be a San Antonio company, then it needs to reflect all of San Antonio and all of its social community,” he said. “(‘Lydia’) takes place in El Paso, but I think Latino families in San Antonio will find some similarities.”

The company was able to bring Solis here midway through the rehearsal process. He spent a week in residence at Trinity University, AtticRep‘s home, taking in the work the cast had already done and answering their questions about the characters and plot points. He also worked with Trinity students.

Prestigiacomo said he saw more “specificity” in the performances as a result of the actors being able to talk to Solis about the work.

Solis was the first playwright AtticRep has brought in; he won’t be the last, Prestigiacomo said, calling it an “essential” part of the company’s development, partly because it may help raise its profile: “When Octavio was here, he talked about other productions of ‘Lydia,’ in Denver, Yale Rep, the Marin Theatre (Company in Mill Valley, Calif.); I think he’s going to talk about At-?ticRep, and that will help bring AtticRep and San Antonio theater national recognition. I think it’s time San Antonio was recognized for the work that’s done here.”

The AtticRep cast includes actress Gloria Sanchez. It’s her second go-round with Solis’ work. She also appeared in a searing 2005 production of his drama “Santos y Santos” in the Cellar Theater of the San Pedro Playhouse.

“This one, it’s a little bit more meaty. And the language definitely attracted me to this one,” Sanchez said.

She’s already looking forward to her next chance to dig in to his work.

“I hope he continues to write,” she said. “I want to do more and more of his plays.”

Solis’ visit was a bit of a homecoming for the El Paso-born playwright, who studied at Trinity in the ’70s. Back then, though, he planned to become an actor.

“I was always writing, but I thought of it as a hobby,” he said.

The Trinity theater program required acting students to take courses in all aspects of the art, including directing and playwriting. He was especially taken with the latter, and ended up taking classes in it all four years.

Even so, he was still committed to acting as a career. After he graduated from Trinity, he moved to Dallas, where he was teaching at an arts magnet high school and bartending at a punk club. The club let him stage his plays, which he initially wrote as a way to showcase his acting skills to casting directors.

“In the end, they were the ones that told me to keep writing. But they didn’t have much good to say about my acting,” he said. “They said I was all right; but the plays – ‘Give us more of that.’ So I kept writing and writing; I took the hint.

“I thought, I could write plays for myself, and get my acting yayas that way, but I didn’t want my plays to be perceived as vanity projects.”

Solis has set several of his plays, including “Lydia,” in El Paso. But, he said, “It’s an El Paso of the mind.

“I don’t want people, especially El Pasoans, to say, ‘That’s what you think of El Paso? El Paso’s just that to you? Drug dealers and low-lifes and adulterers and whacked-out love affairs? You think it’s all about the border all the time?’ No. Of course not. But that’s the journey I take when I go to El Paso in my dreams. It’s an El Paso that’s recollected and mis-recollected.

“And I don’t just write about El Paso. ‘Prospect’ is set in Dallas, I have a play called ‘Marfa Lights’ (set in Marfa); ‘Quixote’ is set in Spain. So I travel in my work. But when I really want to tell my truth, I travel to El Paso.”

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