Photo by Steven Mikulan

“I thought my play wouldn’t go over here, but shockingly, it did.” Eduardo Machado is discussing When the Sea Drowns in Sand, his homosexual-themed comedy-drama, which is running at the Actors Theater of Louisville during the annual Humana Festival. This is the festival’s big weekend, when critics, artistic directors and plain theater aficionados from around the country all converge on the town. Outside the interview room a cold Kentucky rain begins falling, perhaps underscoring how far Machado is at this moment from his native Cuba, from New York City, his current home, and from Los Angeles, where he grew up. “I was really surprised, reading the comment cards,” he continues. “Some were upset by it, but they all said it made them think about something in a different way. I like reading the comment cards.”

He pauses a moment, thinks about what he has just said and clarifies things: “I hate reading comment cards at the Taper — I think they pre-edit them.”

The Mark Taper Forum was the scene of one of Machado’s great moments as a playwright, where his Floating Islands quartet of stories about several generations in the life of a Cuban family premiered, but it also provided him with one of his most painful lessons in the theater. Some of it had to do with the dramaturgical pressures he felt at the Taper, but a lot also had to do with the kind of cultural politicking that makes doing business in Los Angeles such torture for many artists.

“L.A.,” he pronounces with deliberation, “that hellhole of political correctness and bullshit. The Latino community was so pissed off that [Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson] was going to spend $1,500,000 on my play — because I wasn’t Chicano — that they sabotaged the production in every way possible.”

Forget the cultural cold war — as far as Machado is concerned, he was caught in the middle of a cultural civil war over the meaning of diversity. “They sent Gordon faxes calling me an Uncle Tom because I wasn’t a Chicano,” he says, “and I will resent them to the end of my days.”

But the defining event of Machado’s Los Angeles theater sojourn was the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop and Festival, in which he first appeared as a 24-year-old actor.

“It was extremely challenging, and magical,” Machado says of those open-air summer performances in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The whole experience of an audience seeing so many plays, and of [me] being able to act in three plays at night. I had entrances where I was in trees — what else could you want?”

But Machado eventually did want more. Bitten by the writer’s spirit fostered by festival playwrights Maria Irene Fornes, Murray Mednick and John Steppling, he wanted to create his own plays. When he reached out to his colleagues with his newfound ambition, however, he says, he got a frosty reception — partly because he had stepped out of line as an actor and partly because his writing was so unlike the spare, elliptical prose of the festival’s leading playwrights.

“I was always just supposed to be the Acting Spic there, but the minute I got smarter they stomped me down. It was so hurtful and shocking when it happened that to this day I can’t figure it out. A lot of the actors were really great people — it was the writers who were very dictatorial in their beliefs and who, as a group, didn’t know how to be generous. Frankly, that lack of generosity is ultimately what brought Padua down.”

In a serendipitous way, though, the rebuff Machado says he felt from his Padua colleagues drove him out of L.A. at the best possible moment.

“I left Padua to become a writer when Murray called me an ‘idiot savant,’” he recalls. “It changed my life because I stopped seeing my possibilities as an actor in L.A., which was still a fairly racist town if you were Spanish and as white as I was.”

And so Machado moved to New York, where, like many other Los Angeles exiles before him, he found a nurturing, embracing home. “New York is willing to accept you,” he says. “New York seemed like the most open place on Earth — all doors are open to you because you are interesting, instead of them being closed because you are not ‘in.’”

He began working at the Ensemble Studio Theater, which produced his first New York play, Rosario and the Gypsies, a musical about an avant-garde flamenco troupe seeking an audience in San Diego. But L.A. still offered irresistible temptations, and he had productions of A Burning Beach and Stevie Wants To Play the Blues staged at the Los Angeles Theater Center. And then, of course, there was the Taper’s fateful production of Floating Islands.

The reviews more or less pummeled his six-hour epic, but worse, perhaps, was the playwright’s knowledge that he had buckled under pressure to cut 20 pages from each of his four stories.

“The experience at the Taper was as tremendous a learning experience as it was devastating,” he says. “The only way to have avoided it was to have said no. But at that point I was too hung up on that kind of success to turn it down. I wanted to be done in that theater in a blind way.”

Like his disappointment with Padua, however, Machado’s encounter with identity politics and institutional theater provided him with a positive revelation.

“I decided I was going to lead my life from that moment on in a different way. I wasn’t going to be interested in the campaign that was set up for me in the American theater, which meant following the right track, getting all the grants, getting all the productions at all the regional theaters, and then getting the Big One and compromising yourself by editing your plays and letting the press turn you into a thing that you’re really not.”

Machado, who has now written more than 25 plays and translations (he also appears in the film Pollock), lives on Riverside Drive not far from Columbia University, where he teaches playwriting. He is also co-director of the prestigious Cherry Lane Theater (where Sand will open this fall), has scripted and directed a feature-length film, Exiles in New York, and has written for HBO. For all that, he still maintains a residence in Pasadena, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. “I grew up in L.A., I like keeping in touch with it,” he says plainly, as though this explains why, where some can never go home again, others can never quite leave it.

LA Weekly