Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eduardo Machado Keynote Address June 5, 2006

Five years ago, I was forwarded this transcript via email in regards to the state of the theater. Just for the record, I never considered myself as an "Asian American" anything: actor, writer, performer. This was the label that was placed upon me over the years during my pursuit as an inspirational performer. Granted, I received my undergraduate degree (BA) in Ethnic Studies from Cal State Hayward, however I took the courses with an understanding of creating dialogue and solutions to drop such labels.

The 2006 Laura Pels Foundation Keynote Address was delivered by Eduardo Machado on June 5 at the American Airlines Theater as part of Curtain Call, the Allaince of Resident Theatres/New York's annual celebration of Off Broadway. Eduardo Machado is the Artistic Director of INTAR Theatre and Head of Playwriting at Columbia University. He is the author of more than 40 plays including Kissing Fidel, The Cook, Havana is Waiting and The Floating Island Plays. Mr. Machado was introduced by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson.

Mr. Machado's remarks:

Every day when I get up. I think about the wall. The wall they are building on the Mexican border to keep Latinos from picking lettuce and mowing lawns and baby sitting. I think about the nine thousand national guardsmen being sent to keep the others, the aliens, away. The fact that the others, the Mexicanos, used to own California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas is an aside. Not an issue, not important.

What is the message? Conquer it and it is yours. History yields no payback. If you are not one of us you are not important. And you do not deserve anything, even though you help our economy function and thrive. Even though we need you. But as a nation, as your neighbors, we have no time or mercy. Not for you.

The only important thing to us is the debate. We hear it every day from a machine breeding racism that looks like patriotism. Spilled out every hour on the hour with a saccharine smile. Filled with Contempt.

Just listen to the hours of rhetoric on our television screens. When will it all end? When they've left? When we deport every Latin American here illegally? Keep them out, they're taking our jobs! Screams Lou Dobbs. Send a million bricks to congress to let them know, we don't want them here!

What's gonna happen when they are gone and a head of lettuce costs ten bucks? Who is gonna baby sit for the family where both parents work for a joint income less than 60,000 bucks. Who's going to pour the water and keep the dishes clean in every restaurant in this country from Seattle to Chicago, New York to Los Angeles, Houston and Miami.

What is the message? Keep out 'cause we don't want you to be part of our world. Spic, beaners, out of here!

I watch TV. I listen to the debate. And I wonder. Does that mean keep me out? I don't know. I did get a greencard at age eight because by my leaving Cuba I was fighting Communism. I was a special kind of Spic, a Cold War Spic. But it could be me.

I remember in 2000 when my play "Havana is Waiting" was at the Humana Festival. The Actor's Theatre of Louisville realized that it was going to be a hit, so at the last moment they decided that the big party, on the big weekend, should be a Cuban themed party with Cuban food and a very hot band. During the party I was sitting outside on the steps smoking a Habana cigar. And I remember one guy saying to his friend, "These god damn Latinos they want to take over everything." I looked at them and said, "I'm the god dammed Latino and don't worry. It's just one night in forty years. The rest of the parties belong to you." They walked away without an "I'm sorry" or an "I liked your play." I would've been happy with an "I hated your play." But no, just self assured silence.

So what is the message? Maybe it is me that should get out of the American theatre. Maybe the message has always been "This is not your country, not your theatre, get out."

Then again I am standing onstage at the American Airlines Theatre. I have been asked to give a speech... But I was picked by a French woman.

If you don't know me, you don't know my deep sense of paranoia. I am sure you will by the end of the speech. But in all paranoia there is a solid stream of the truth.

I never thought of myself as a Latino til I became an actor. And that's when the balancing act began. I think of my life in the theatre: how it saved me, how much I love it. And how much it's
changed, how for the past ten years I have longed for and cried for the theatre I walked into when I became an actor in Los Angeles in the seventies and when I first came to New York in 1981.

I got my SAG card at twenty, so for the last thirty three years I have been a professional in the arts. I wrote my first play in 1980. So for the last twenty five years I have been a playwright. I am a part of the theatre because I have worked for it. If I have any place on this
stage. I have earned it.

But I have always felt a separation. I have always felt another kind of wall. An invisible wall. Which are so much harder to walk through or break down. And for a paranoid like me, I wonder, am I imagining this wall? And then I bang my head against it. And I know.

When someone tells me, "We are not interested in your play, it's about Cubans, what do we know about Cubans?" What do you know about Russians, Germans and the Brits? But you do them. I would prefer you told me the play was not good enough.

Or, during my play "Broken Eggs," when a producer said to me, "Since the bride's family is Cuban we should just get really tacky costumes on fourteenth st."

Or "Listen Eduardo when they commissioned the play, they heard your name and they were expecting Carmen Miranda... You gave them Ibsen." Who knew a comparison to Ibsen could be a put down?

I have given every piece of my existence to my plays. I have compromised and sacrificed to be a part of the theater. But when I hear things like this I hear the message underneath. You are not one of us. You don't belong here.

Some of you might think I'm being dramatic. Some of you might think I'm making this up. But some of you know I'm telling the truth because I'm quoting you.

Still, I respect anyone who is in the theatre. I have spent so many, many years around you, seen you get old, seen you grow up. Maybe you didn't know what you were saying. You couldn't have known how much it hurt. But just because you didn't know, doesn't mean it didn't happen. You may not know which side you're on. But there is a wall, and it is not just about race.

Prejudice and fear is ingrained inside our molecules. But how far will we let it go? Are we afraid of style? Content? Maybe we're just afraid of Conflict. And where is the theater without conflict? If we are not open and brave where are we going? What is non-profit for anyway if
not to risk it all. Right?

I was told I could talk about anything so I'm going to speak my mind. If I insult you, fine. Conflict is not supposed to be comfortable. Let's argue. If we don't start arguing we are all going to drown in a sea of complacency worse then when Treplev was heard saying "when in a thousand variations I am served the same thing over and over and over again - then I feel as Maupassant when he fled from the Eiffel tower, which made his brain reel with vulgarity."

But I do feel we are on shaky ground. And while I may not have an American passport, I have a greencard, and on this side of the wall, I am afforded the right to protest what I see around me.

No matter how well intentioned and believing in their statements, The New York Theatre workshop showed us how afraid of the audience we truly are. And I find that horrifying and the worst kind of censorship imaginable.

As you know, New York Theatre workshop cancelled a play because members of the community warned them against it.

(At the end of these remarks, please find a brief response from New York Theatre Workshop.)

And I quote from the New York Times, "Mr. Nicola originally said that he had spoken to "Religious leaders" in making his decision... that the workshop did a "Wide reaching out into the complexity of the community in New York" that included reading Palestinian views on web sites. Mr. Nicola did say "We had a conversation with one board member who said that his rabbi had concerns about the play. An old friend who is Jewish, also questioned the play's message." End quote.

I cannot stomach a theater that will shut itself down because they're afraid of an audience's reaction. When the invisible wall is erected directly in front of the stage I have to speak. But at this point, I don't have the objectivity to find the right words. So I will defer to some other writers whose deaths have made their authority undeniable.

"The majority is never right. Never I tell you!. That's one of these lies in society that one free and intelligent man cannot help rebelling against. Who are these people that make up the biggest portion of the population- the intelligent ones or the fools? I think we can agree it's the fools, not matter where you go in the world, it's the fools that form the overwhelming majority." -Henrick Ibsen.

"I must warn my readers that my attacks are directed against themselves. Not against my stage figures" -George Bernard Shaw.

"It is because the public are a mass... inert, obtuse, and passive... that they need to be shaken up from time to time..." -Alfred Jarry.

"Yes the public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius" -Oscar Wilde.

How they all must have turned in their graves at the thought of it. Asking the audience... How do you feel? Are you ready to be challenged? Oh you're not? Then we won't insult you. Please let's breed silence and passivity here at home so there's nothing to compare with your fascist wars all over the world. Let's all be happy. Buy those tickets make those donations. And we will please you.

It is 2006. We are the theater in New York. And we are asking for permission. Where does that leave us?

What kind of theatre is it that asks whether or not it should censor itself. Is that even a question? And I am not just blaming New York Theatre Workshop, "Rachel Corrie" is just the most recent example. I am blaming all of us. Myself included. Even if I wanted to say everything all at once. I feel the wall. I know the words I dare not utter. Even in this speech.

What's happened to us?

Lorca died because he opposed the fascists in his community. If Ibsen's producers would have thought about their community the characters in "Ghosts" would not have had syphilis. Nora would have ended up staying home. And not slamming that door. What is going on?

I don't feel we are brave enough. I feel the theatre that I see for the most part is watered down.

It's getting ugly out there. Let's show it as much as we can on our stages.

And I beg you let us stop being afraid of the audience. They are supposed to be afraid of us.

But ever since the National Endowment got cut down to barely nothing we have had to follow a corporate model. We have to show profit in non-profit. Isn't that ridiculous? It's like an Ionesco play. We have become Rhinoceri. I know we feel we have to go along with it to survive... by it I mean pandering. Because we think we need a certain amount to make it. But how much are those dollars worth? And exactly how much do we need to survive?

Lorraine Hansberry asks, "Do I remain a revolutionary? Intellectually-without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts? This is what I puzzle about."

INTAR doesn't have a body right now. It was given up in the struggle. Because I decided that to raise 8 million dollars to build a theater had nothing to do with survival. A theater with a million dollar budget does not need a 500 thousand dollar flexible floor and it most definitely does not need to be in the basement of a Luxury Condominium. It needs to produce as many plays as it can, and that's it. This simple goal was not well received at the Department of Cultural Affairs. They kept telling me if I hired the right consultants, everything would be fine. I would be able to raise the millions needed for the building. But where to find the funding for

Which leads me to the biggest headache from the biggest wall that I have walked into every day for the last two years. The language and bureaucracy of grant giving on the part of both corporations and foundations, New York City and State. Their insistence on a for-profit model is really at the heart of our problem. We're back in the land of The Bald Soprano.

We must all fight against this. Non profits theatres should not sell tickets for a hundred dollars a seat. That's criminal. How are we ever going to find a new vital audience at those prices? Even sixty five to forty-five is unrealistic. Not everyone has a trust fund. Not everyone in New York City is rich. The audience we're missing can barely afford 20 dollars. But if we gave them a reason to, they'd get the money together. I did.

We have given into the worst kind of greed. The corporate model. And I'm sorry but our work has suffered because of it.

But we fill out the applications because we have no choice. It's just how it's done. Are we really willing to continue this way? How can we break through this wall of walls?

I suggest that DCA and NYSCA spend their time lobbying for more money for the arts and less time reading forms and policing institutions. We can't steal the money. We have audits that are freely distributed. So why give the same information in form after form? Report after report?

But no. It's just how it's done. I had no idea about any of this until I took over INTAR. And suddenly I realized why artistic directors always look a little mad. It's from the endless hustling. How can we focus if all we talk about is the 5 year plan.

We have to find a way to be ruthless with ourselves. Change the rules. We need an environment where it is safe to investigate. To discover. To fail.

Finally I'd like to discuss one of our biggest problems: Education. By now I think we all know we train too many people. I am guilty of this more then most of you. I run the playwriting program at Columbia and I am required to let in ten student playwrights a year. When I first started working there it was only six a year. It should really be two.

But because the university wants money. Because even at the educational level they feel art does not have to be subsidized, ten playwrights graduate every year from my program. How can they all
really be playwrights? They can't and they are not. And since when did theatre people need a master to be actors, directors and playwrights, designers and producers?

I barely graduated from high school.

I went to an acting school that was down an alley in Van Nuys. I learned about playwriting from Maria Irene Fornés in an abandoned building called INTAR 2 on 53rd street, and by having my first three plays produced - not workshopped - at The Ensemble Studio Theatre. No degree. Just what came my way. What I sought out. If we have so many students graduating every year then what happens to the self taught, the inspired, the different? They are buried under piles of graduate scripts, resumes and 8X10s.

There is a wall that is making the theatre a place for only those who can afford it. But who is being kept out? The voices of the hungry and unknown. Of those who don't fit in. Of those whose future is dependent on their ability to Scream.

Let me be frank, I teach at Columbia because I need the money, there is no grand scheme or noble purpose, just dollars and cents. And I try very hard to do a good, professional job.

But is that mentorship? Is it inspirational? I do my best, but I don't think so.

The way we have turned the art form into a factory is criminal and we all have to start talking to each other about this. We need better quality control. At all the schools.

Because not everyone is talented or exceptional. No matter how much they are willing to pay. We are creating a theatre of the average. That cannot be good.

I have seen the theatre change so much... Just since the early 90's...from the feeling of being delinquents of society and feeling proud of that. To this farce where we believe we are all entitled to talent and success. No one is entitled to that. All we can hope for is the joy in
the work, the joy of expression, the joy of creativity.

We are the theatre in New York City. We're not supposed to be proper. We're not supposed to be corporate. We need only love creation. Finding value in true talent. In harsh criticism. In hard work.

We're supposed to belong to each other.

I hope you still feel this. This sense of community.

I feel it less and less. Maybe after years of being called difficult I have made myself invisible. Yet I still want to be a part. I want to scream with all of you. In this city. In this theatre.

But I will risk that inclusion. Because as Ms. Hansberry says, "The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely."

Let's forget about budgets and grants and is the audience happy. Let's create. Let's find that part of us that got us here in the first place. The part that does not feel like the rest of the world. The part that wants to rebel.

That part is on the other side of the wall.

And if we can prove that it's worth the struggle of climbing over, the theater in New York will again be something to reckon with.

My thanks to Virginia Louloudes. And the generous and daring Laura Pels for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with all of you.

Good night and thank you.

In response to Eduardo Machado's remarks regarding "My Name is Rachel Corrie":

New York Theatre Workshop did not cancel the play. This is a frequently misstated point. In fact, we asked the Royal Court, the original producer of the play and its rights holder, to allow for a postponement in order for us to more thoughtfully prepare for the production. We were never afraid of audience reaction; indeed, part of our institutional mission is to foster community dialogue.
- New York Theatre Workshop

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