This week, Kitchen Dog Theater begins its 15th annual New Works Festival, in partnership with the National New Play Network. The event features six staged readings of new works, and this year, on the second stage, there’s a solo performance written and performed by KDT company member Tim Johnson, called One: Man. Show.
The centerpiece production is Se Llama Cristina by Octavio Solis, which is part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. The play first opened January 30, 2013, at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. In Dallas it runs May 24-June 22. Then it will appear in the next season at The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, Calif.
The play concerns a nameless man and woman who wake up in a dingy room with an empty crib. Never leaving the room, they travel geographically and psychologically towards recognition and identity. Gritty yet poetic language and unusual turns in the plot both please the ear and require close audience attention. KDT company member Christie Vela directs.
Solis, a Texas native who began his playwriting career in Dallas, has had his plays produced by Dallas Theater Center, Undermain Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Oregon Shakepseare Festival, and many other regional theaters.
For TheaterJones, Teresa Marrero, an Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Theater at the University of North Texas, interviewed Solis via Skype. Marrero first met Solis in 1989 while doing graduate work on Latino theater at the University of California, Irvine, as Solis was participating in South Coast Repertory’s Latino Playwrights Lab.
TheaterJones: Octavio, could you please elaborate on your relationship with Dallas area theater scene?
Octavio Solis: I came to the Dallas Theater Center as a graduate student at Trinity University. When I graduated, I thought I would go to New York, but I needed to raise some money first. I got an offer to start teaching at Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School in Dallas. Then, one thing led to another and I started acting in a show, with Stage Number 1, which was a fantastic, little theater that Jack Clay from SMU started for his graduate student directing program. It was located over on Greenville Avenue. It burned down because the bar that was next to it, Zanzibar, burned down. But, I did a show there called Native Speech, and it really turned my head around. I thought: I can write like this. This is exciting writing; it’s not the staid sort of dusty work that we studied in graduate school, you know, the stuff like Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, and Miller or Chekov. It was bold, new American work and I was really digging it.
I started bartending at the 500 Café, which was on Exposition Blvd, next to the 500 X Gallery, and started doing my works there. I hosted an evening of new works called Words on Wednesdays. The café is gone now, but I really dug that little place.
This was my first foray into “professional theater!” [laughs] Well, it wasn’t exactly professional because I wasn’t getting paid; nobody was getting paid! We would rehearse for two weeks and perform for one night. But I did a play every six to eight weeks there. It was part of that new wave scene in 1984-'85.
What happened next?
I went from the Dallas Theater Center to Stage Number 1 to the 500 Café, and then I got involved with a great writer who is Texas born and bred—Dallas born and bred in fact—Scott Mathews, who passed away, sad to say. But he was a fantastic writer who really wanted to do new stuff and shake up the scene. So we started working together in Deep Ellum. We did our first work together called Cash Flow. That was a lot of fun. In fact, I think that came first before I started working at the 500 Café. It introduced me to Deep Ellum, when Deep Ellum was really mean—really exciting but a really mean, crazy, dark place. We started to do our plays there and it was crazy, wild-hair plays. Really fun.
The Undermain [Theatre] started about the same time. And then I got a call from a fellow by the name of Matt Posey who was starting a new theater called the The Deep Ellum Theater Garage with his wife Carla. [Posey now runs the Ochre House in Exposition Park.] I started working there; I was directing and writing my own work. I had two plays done before moving away, so I had developed a relationship with Deep Ellum Theater Garage. And I met those cats at Undermain, Katherine Owens and Raphael Parry, but we were diametrically opposed in terms of aesthetics, so I kind of stuck with Matt at the Deep Ellum Theater Garage. [Undermain eventually produced one of Octavio’s plays, Shiner, in the mid-1990s.]
Cora Cardona called me and she had just started a new theater company called Teatro Tejas, I think that was the original name before Teatro Dallas. She commissioned me to write a play, and it was the first time anyone had paid me money to do a play. And so I wrote a play called Man of the Flesh that we did there at the Bath House [Cultural Center] back in 1988, I believe. So that was the next company I got involved with. I had been working with various little companies, but never again with the Dallas Theater Center. I could feel the glass ceiling. And after I did that work I started thinking, “I need to get out of here; it’s time to leave Dallas.”
Where did you go?
So I left to move to San Francisco. But, after I left, [DTC] got a new artistic director called Richard Hamburger and somehow he got a hold of a play of mine that he read, and loved it, and he wanted to do it. But he didn’t know me; he didn’t know my history in Dallas or my history at the Dallas Theater Center either. But he chose it. We met and we had a blast ─ a party. He directed the hell out of that play and subsequently got it published in American Theater magazine. That was Santos and Santos. That went up in 1993. Just three and a half years after I moved out Texas, I got the call back! That was weird, because I thought I was done with it, done with Texas. Yeah… well, my wife and I had been scouting places to move to and pretty much had decided on the Bay Area, but we needed to save money.
Why the Bay Area? I have read that the draw was the Magic Theatre, right?
Yep. They have done three of my plays. Frankly, they just get me; they just really get me here. I have carved my niche and created my audience from the ground up. I work both with small, storefront theaters but also with large theaters. I just had a play done a few years ago with Cal Shakes, which is across the Bay, the California Shakespeare Festival, a meditation of a Steinbeck novel called The Pastures of Heaven. But I also do work with small companies, like Campo Santo, which is the resident theater for Intersection for the Arts, and I also do shadow puppet work with a theater called Shadow Light. And then there is the Magic, which produced me almost as soon as I got here in 1990. Both they and the Intersection for the Arts are the two organizations with whom I have had the longest relationship. Just with Campo Santo alone, I think I have done five or six plays.
With the Magic I had one in 1990, another in 1996, followed by a long spell of silence until just this last February when they did Se Llama Cristina. So, they just seem to get me. I struggled a lot in Dallas because I still didn’t know who I was as a writer. I didn’t know what my thrust was going to be. I credit Cora Cardona for really pointing out to me that I have to tap into my Latino culture to do that, to write honestly about that. But frankly, prior to Cora, I didn’t know there was any Latino theater. I didn’t know there were any Latino actors, so I didn’t write for them. I could not really tap into this in Dallas at the time, except for the really punk theater aesthetic.
In 1988-89, you were accepted into a workshop with Cuban-American, Obie-winning playwright Maria Irene Fornés in New York City as well as South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project, then run by playwright José Cruz González.
Yes, the Fornés workshops were an incredible experience, very important. About that time SCR [South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, Calif.] got a hold of one of my plays and we reworked it completely, so that was almost a different play, and ended up producing it. That was Man of the Flesh; they produced it in 1991 when I was already in San Francisco.
I read somewhere that you do not consider yourself a Latino writer. Is that a correct assessment?
Yes, it is correct. Correct for when I said it, but I am always changing my mind [laughs]. In the next interview I am going to give I am going to say, “Yes, I am fully a Latino writer!” … I just hate labels. I can’t stand being pigeon-holed. Because then in people’s minds we have to conform to all of these standards…and false criteria that has no resemblance to who we really are. I am a Latino; I am from Texas; I’m Mexican. In the final analysis if we are born or naturalized and raised here, we are all Americans.
How about the border, how does that play out in your work?
Now that is real. The Latino stuff is just labels, but the border is real. My mother and father came across the border. I was conceived there and born here. And the border was like in our backyard, practically. So, I am really, really connected to the border, and everything it means. It is the repository of so many stories, so much lore and myth that I am really connected to the mythology of the river…
Having read Se Llama Cristina, if I were an actor I would find this play a great vehicle.
Well, I write for actors. I don’t feel I am writing for directors or designers. I write for the words to be spoken and felt. Having been an actor myself, I think I know how actors want to be challenged. So, I write toward that. I am not surprised that you think that it is an actor’s work; that it is really kind of juicy. I want to write words that actors are going to love saying. The challenge is finding actors trained outside of the strict parameters of realism, finding actors who have the emotional depth, willing to go the distance.
In the play…why, oh why druggies?
They are not druggies.
He wakes up with a needle hanging from his arm…
That is the very first time they bought it. That is as low as the sunk. They never crossed that line before. They are not drug addicts. They don’t sit and shoot up. He is at his rope’s end and he wants to check out this one time. He says to his wife, “I bought us a vacation, just this once.” Let’s just check out this once. They like their booze, but they are not druggies. They eventually make the choice not to shoot up. They actually never did. They get a do-over. This play was inspired by my night terrors of being a father, many, many years ago. I was terrified that I would fuck it up. I guess I didn’t since my daughter is 18 and graduating next month.
Will you be here for the opening?
I can’t. It’s my daughter’s graduation. But I will be in Dallas in June, for the Theater Communications Group Conference [June 6-8, hosted by Dallas Theater Center].
See you then! Thanks for sharing a piece of Dallas theater history.