Small business owner a contemporary Texas born playwright, author and director.
Octavio Solis is more a painter than a playwright. He just happens to use words instead of oils to paint vibrant pictures of his hometown, El Paso, Texas — a town that has garnered its share of the news spotlight in recent weeks.
“I keep returning to El Paso as my inkwell, the paradigm from which I draw,” Solis says of the far west Texas town where his family – mother, father, sister and brother – still lives.
What happened in El Paso is for him to process. “It’s tough to say how the El Paso events have affected me,” says the 60-year-old award-winning playwright, but he does know they have heightened his awareness of what he has been doing for over 40 years, writing about what it means to be a Mexican American.
As a part of the Mexican American writing community, Solis is quick to point out that “our words haven’t mattered for decades.
As writers, we have never gotten the respect or attention or acclaim that we deserve. We haven’t mattered. Now because of these events, I feel like everyone is looking to us for an answer. We’ve been writing for decades and people have ignored us. It’s time to reassess all the Mexican American literature that has been written since the turn of the century. Go back and look at all that.”
Raised only a few blocks from the Rio Grande River, Solis maintains a strong connection to and affection for the place.
A majority of his over 25 plays have been set against an El Paso backdrop. And even his latest work, “Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border” is replete with incidents from his childhood in this historic border town. He even narrated an audio version of this book using the voice-over talent that landed him a part in the Pixar movie, “Coco.”
He served as cultural consultant on this first Pixar hit to highlight Mexican Americans.
Solis doesn’t like to refer to “Retablos” as a memoir, although it clearly is autobiographical. Instead he says, “All of the stories in “Retablos” are true, but I gave myself permission to make them work like short stories. In the end, I’m more interested in telling a good story, creating an environment that has its own integrity beyond what really happened.”
Growing up in El Paso
His stories of growing up in El Paso chronicle his life including his time at Riverside High School, two blocks from the border of Mexico and Texas, where Solis caught the theater bug. He went from El Paso to Trinity University in San Antonio, because as Solis put it “that was the only place I got accepted.” Trinity’s theater program, however, was exactly what he wanted, and he earned both an undergraduate and a master’s degree in fine arts. Today, having reached the pinnacle of his career, Solis looks back on those who helped him succeed.
One that stands out is his mentor, Cuban-born María Irene Fornés. Fornéswas a leading figure of the off-off-Broadway movement in the 1960s. This giant of the theater, Solis says, died last year.
A six-time OBIE Award winner, Fornésenabled Solis to forge a network of writers, playwrights, authors, directors and poets that he would depend on throughout his career. He began studying with Fornésin the early 90s when he left Texas and the Dallas Theatre Centre where he had worked while pursuing his MFA in Theater.
“We have to pass the craft on and provide support to those who are coming after us,” said Solis.
The business of producing and writing plays
When asked what it takes to stay in the business of producing and writing plays, Solis returns to his roots. His success, he says, comes from hard work and persistence. “When I first started, I cleaned toilets, swept the floors, sold tickets, took tickets, anything to make sure that people saw my plays. It’s not until you get down on your hands and knees and work, that you realize how much more you have to learn.”
“Initially, I was struggling to find my voice and my audience,” Solis said. But then he began to see that people were very interested in seeing plays about his culture.
“There was an audience out there hungry for something that reflected their American experience. Even white audiences were hungry to see how Latinos interacted.” He started taking on commissions.
“I took on every assignment that I got, because I needed the money and exposure.”
Today, Solis doesn’t have to take every assignment.
With a burgeoning library of plays to his credit, Solis has turned to other forms of writing, like his stories in “Retablos” and he says he even wants to try poetry. He is still, however, penning plays.
His latest, “Mother Road,” premiered in March at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play pays homage to John Steinbeck as it portrays a modern-day sequel to Grapes of Wrath. The audience follows William Joad from California to Oklahoma on a journey to pass on the family farm before he dies. He is humiliated to learn that the only surviving descendant of his family is a Mexican American named Martin Jode, an ex-migrant worker.
Solis envisions “Mother Road” as a tribute to those who live in the edges of society today as he tells their stories of poverty, family ties, resentments and an environment poisoned by greed. The play will run in Washington DC’s Arena Stage from February 7 to March 3 next year.
His secret to success as a playwright, he says, is because he is reliable and never compromises his scruples or his ideas in his writing. “I am not writing purely for entertainment. My plays come with a moral and political message as well as entertainment.”
Producers and directors usually allow Solis to have his way, however. “That’s a special place for any playwright to be,” he said. “Trust your vision and make it come to life.”
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