March 10, 2009
'Write what matters to you,' playwright Octavio Solis advises students
Writing plays is tough. Becoming a working playwright is even tougher. Playwright Octavio Solis remembers the rough spots and is sharing what he learned from them with Stanford students.
A visiting artist with the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) at Stanford, Solis is perhaps the most prominent Latino playwright in the country, author of more than 20 plays that explore the human condition in death, love, obsession and violence. His most recent play, Lydia, opens at the Marin Theatre Company next week and was lauded by the New York Times during last month's run at the Yale Repertory Theater.
Solis conducted a quarter-long workshop on writing and developing a collection of scenes inspired by "The Impertinent Curiosity," a tale within Cervantes' Don Quixote. The results will be presented at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, at Harmony House on campus. Admission is free.
The project meshes with Solis' own current project: an epic retelling of Cervantes' The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quijote de la Mancha for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (He is also adapting John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven, a collaboration between the California Shakespeare Festival and Word for Word.)
The upbeat and sunny playwright nevertheless writes plays filled with secrets and hidden fears, violence, infidelity, betrayal and self-deception. His plays have been called both shocking and magical.
Harry Elam, the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and director of IDA, said the program's visiting artists are chosen because of their national or international reputation. "Octavio Solis has been on our radar for some time," Elam said. "He is a wonderful playwright and we also knew him to be a great teacher."
Solis spoke about his craft to a gathering, including most of his students, at the Cantor Arts Center on Feb. 26, and recalled his own beginnings as a struggling young writer.
"There was a time I thought I was a hot-s--t playwright," he said. His mentor, the Cuban playwright Maria Irena Fornés, undermined his self-image in workshops and readings, however. "Who are you trying to impress? You are trying to impress me? You're not impressing me!" he recalled her saying. She dismissed his characters: "The characters—they all know it's a play."
One day he cranked out a draft he felt was weak and inadequate. "It was humiliating. I totally lost my voice," he recalled. The class, however, finally applauded the effort enthusiastically, and Fornés offered her own benediction about the new characters he had invented: "Maybe now you'll stop talking and let them talk."
For Solis, it was a turning point. Instead of asking, "What will they say next that's clever?" he said that now his characters "come to me in pictures, images, postcards."
But much of the early draft involves "getting rid of the editor in your head." And the editor isn't only the internalized voice of the author: "It's the director, the audience."
"Shakespeare is there, Sam Shepard is there somewhere—Caryl Churchill. Get them out of the room." Imagine a "big stretch limousine," he said. "Your mother, your father, Ibsen. They're all going to a party. Shut the door."
He told the gathering, "You can't write because it's interesting. You have to write because it's connected to you. Why does it matter? What does it matter to you? Take it personally."
Actor Sean San José, artistic director of Campo Santo, said of Solis' characters, "They just bleed—they're out there." San José assisted teaching the Stanford courses when Solis was called away to the theaters producing his work around the country.
One of Solis' Stanford students, junior Kendra Allenby, said: "He encourages us to really see our characters, visualize them until they start to talk and then we just record the words—and of course later, we get our hands dirty with editing. It's based on unlocking your personal stories and letting them come out slowly through your characters, as opposed to thinking of themes and plots and sticking characters in afterward."
The March 11 performance will be followed by two other IDA events: "Through the Looking Glass," performance poetry at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 12, in the Pigott Theater; and Song as Theater, a song cycle with Tony Award-winner Stew narrating an evening of songs written and performed by students at 8 p.m. Friday, March 13, in Campbell Recital Hall.