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A Master Playwright Teaches His Discipline: An Interview with Eduardo Machado

By Ulrika Brand

Eduardo Machado, seen in his Dodge Hall office, has directed the graduate playwriting program in Columbia's School of the Arts since 1997.

At the 25th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, Columbia Theatre Arts Professor Eduardo Machado emerged as a star of the festival—considered the nation's premier showcase for new work—along with his colleague, Anne Bogart. Machado, who heads Columbia's graduate playwriting program in the School of the Arts, debuted "When the Sea Drowns in Sand" to rave reviews and the play is now scheduled for a commercial run this fall in New York City at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Describing it as "a lovely and rueful comedy blending autobiography, a friendship on the verge of a love affair and the Elian Gonzalez mess," The Los Angeles Times wrote, "Machado's three-character piece emerged as this year's ringer."

The story of a Cuban-born man who returns to his homeland some 40 years after being exiled to the United States, the play is inspired by Machado's own experience as a "Peter Pan" child who returns to Cuba as an adult. Machado was one of 13,000 children of Cuba's elite who were sent out of the country in 1960-61 to the United States on Pan Am flights. This so-called Peter Pan Project entailed a relentless propaganda campaign on the part of the Voice of America, engineered by the CIA, to convince parents that their children would be sent to Moscow for retraining by Fidel Castro if they did not send them to America. The mass exodus and break-up of families took place with the tacit consent of Fidel Castro.

"Luckily for me, my parents came here a year later, right under the wire, because then they stopped letting people out of Cuba," said Machado. Many children never saw their parents again.

Machado began writing "When the Sea Drowns in Sand" two years ago, just after returning to New York from his trip to Cuba as part of the Festival International Del Nuevo Cine Latino Americano. It was the first time he'd been back to Cuba in 40 years.

When asked if the character in the play is based on his own experiences, Machado replied, "In some ways, yes, but then it becomes a play—people start saying things that have nothing to do with anything you've said."

Machado, who has written 25 plays and wrote and directed the feature film "Exiles in New York," has developed his own unique method of teaching playwriting and a large number of his students have gone on to success.

One of his students, Michael Schraft, who began studying with Machado at the age of 18 as a Columbia undergraduate and went on to the graduate program in playwriting, now 24, has just been hired by FOX Searchlight to do the screen adaptation of "Two Gentlemen of Verona." He also serves as associate artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Other former students include Rogelio Martinez and Jorge Gonzales, who recently received high praise from The New York Times for his play "Vieques" produced by Repertorio Español. Three of the five current young playwrights in the Mentors Project at the Cherry Lane Alternative (a program that pairs veteran playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein and Craig Lucas with newcomers) are Machado's students.

"People are starting to talk about them [the Columbia alumni] as a group, the way they used to talk about the Yale drama graduates and that's very exciting and encouraging," said Machado.

Machado's approach to teaching writing is influenced by his acting background. He started his career as an actor in Los Angeles, where he was part of an ensemble that presented the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, and studied playwriting with Maria Irene Fornes. "I had always written, but when I was around all these writers I realized I really knew how," he said. Part of the impetus came from his feeling that "there weren't any parts written for me, because I'm white and Cuban—I was playing people who were so foreign to me."

While he was an actor at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, Machado held a reading of a one-act play he had written, and received an NEA grant for it. "That's how I started being a playwright," he said.

A scene from Eduardo Machado's "When the Sea Drowns in Sand" in which the central character's American friend is confronted by their Cuban taxi driver. From left: Ed Vassallo, Felix Solis and Joseph Urla.

The acting discipline had a profound effect on Machado's teaching of writing. "I realized that as an actor I was really Stanislavskian, and therefore I approached all my plays from the point of view of what the characters needed and wanted. Then I thought how do you connect that to teach people to write? Because people write in a false voice, they write in a voice of someone they admire or in a voice they think makes them sound intelligent or poetic. And you have to crack all those voices to get to their real poetry and their real intelligence rather than the put-on airs. Writing is listening to the voices that are really inside your head, not the way you would like them to sound.

"I think if you're going to teach someone you have to ask the person 'why do you want to be creative?' 'What is it that you want to say?' and the hardest thing with students, especially students that come to university, is getting them past the embarrassment of what it is that they actually want to say."

Unlike many playwriting teachers who send their students home to write scenes to bring back for critique, Machado requires in-class writing. He describes a typical exercise: "This is a real easy one: I say to them, breathe, find a place in your body where you feel sore or empty. What need do you keep in that part of your body? They say I need to be comforted. And I say okay, breathe, feel that need and ask what character needs to be comforted. When they know who the character is I say put that into their body. At that moment it stops being an intellectual exercise. Now a character walks in who wants to oppress them. It immediately sets up what seems like a false drama but out of this simple decisions come out.

"I think you can't teach anyone to be an artist," continued Machado, "but I think you can have them concentrate on the essentials of art. Bergman said that the reason why he can write all those movie scripts and direct all those plays and be who he is because he can close his eyes and remember every smell in his grandmother's house when he was 6 years old. And I think those are the essentials of art; having the sensorial ability to create a world."

Columbia's playwriting program trains 24 to 30 students a year (with approximately 8 in each graduating class). Given its track record of success, is there anything Machado would change? "We need more teachers," he said. Typically, Machado runs the program with just one adjunct professor. "We need more resources so that we can expand."

In addition to his writing and teaching, Machado serves as artistic associate of the Cherry Lane Alternative, consulting on all artistic issues pertaining to the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre's non-profit wing. He is also a director of theatre and film.

Published: Jun 28, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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