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Teo Castellanos: Changing Lives and Telling Miami’s Story

April 5, 2020

By Jordan Levin

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Theater artist Teo Castellanos has always been driven by two missions: to make original theater that speaks to and for Miami, and empowers the community – particularly those who are black, brown, poor, or otherwise excluded from social power.

Teo Castellanos 4
Teo Castellanos 4

“The goal was always to help others, to become a mentor,” Castellanos, 58, said recently. He believes in theater as a place where “the community feels that healing, that catharsis and pain and laughter, and comes closer together.”

Castellanos has shared these missions with Miami Light Project executive and artistic director Beth Boone. He’s inspired her to focus on Miami artists and work that change the world for the better. She has commissioned and presented his pieces, from 2002’s groundbreaking NE 2nd Avenue to his latest, F/Punk Junkies, which he’s slated to premiere at The Light Box in late 2021.

They’ve been crucial to each other.

“He’s the embodiment of the power of art and culture and connection,” says Boone.

“I owe my career to Miami Light Project,” says Castellanos. “It means the world.”

Even as the Covid-19 pandemic has led Castellanos to quarantine himself at home, he’s continued working on F/Punk Junkies and two other projects, meeting weekly with collaborators online.

“It’s important to keep building our community, stay connected to our community,” he says. “That and keeping our heads up. We should cultivate what’s joyous and what makes us happy. That’s just as important as staying balanced and staying sane.”

Theater saved Castellanos. Puerto Rican born, he was raised by a single mom in Carol City, a black and Latino neighborhood torn by poverty, violence, and racial conflict. In his teens he began drinking and using a buffet of drugs, ricocheting between jobs as a Miami-Dade bus driver and supervisor and the hipster/arts scenes. In his mid-20’s, he had a terrifying epiphany.

“There was always a voice that said ‘you are better than this’,” Castellanos told me in 2003. “One day the voice said ‘you are this’.”

He went into rehab, got clean, and met his wife of almost 30 years. And realized who he was meant to be.

“All these feelings came up,” he said. “One of the big ones was ‘I want to be an artist’.”

After getting a BFA at Florida Atlantic University, he started over at 32, auditioning, writing and performing poetry. In 1995 he got a job at The Village, a rehab center, leading a teenage troupe in original shows on substance abuse and AIDS awareness. (An early member was a tormented 14-year-old Tarell Alvin McCraney, who went on to become the renowned playwright and “Moonlight” Oscar winner – and a close friend.)

He was transformed by working with teenagers like the one he’d been.

“When I saw myself in these black and brown kids I grew very passionate,” Castellanos says. He researched the likes of Peter Brooke and Augusto Boal, and their theories of community and activist theater; explored the rituals of African griots and indigenous shamans in the Americas. They inspired him to dedicate himself to “art for people in the community, who need it the most, who need the knowledge, the mentoring.”

In the late 90s, he began making short character-driven solos for the nascent Here & Now festival. When Boone became leader of Miami Light Project in 1998, she commissioned NE 2nd Avenue, their first full-length work from a Miami artist. (She also hired Castellanos to head their community outreach and education programs.)

“We were at that moment in Miami history where we needed to invest in Miami artists,” Boone says. “It was a harmonic convergence.”

The show was a game changer here, the first to portray Miami’s unique, cross-cultural glory, with personalities like a Haitian jitney driver and a Cuban rafter selling coffee on the street. It was the heyday of multi-character solo shows by artists like John Leguizamo. “They all represented New York really well,” says Castellanos. “I thought ‘I want to represent Miami’.”

His faith in the 305 was repaid in 2003, when he took NE 2nd Avenue to the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where, an unknown amidst hundreds of acts, the discouraged Castellanos faced an empty theater each night. When he encountered visiting students from Liberty City’s Northwestern High School, he invited them to the show. They packed the house, screaming with laughter and recognition. Unbeknownst to Castellanos, so was the city’s leading critic, Mark Brown of The Scotsman, whose rave review led to a prestigious Fringe First Award. (Plus selling out for the rest of the run.)

“I love my people,” Castellanos says. “I made the decision not to go to LA or New York but to stay and cultivate the scene here.”

(L to R) Teo with his teacher, Zen Master Thích Trí Hoâng; Red Carpet for World Premiere of Third Trinity, Miami Film Festival 2020; Teo with daughter Jaquén, brother Lenny and wife Lorna
(L to R) Teo with his teacher, Zen Master Thích Trí Hoâng; Red Carpet for World Premiere of Third Trinity, Miami Film Festival 2020; Teo with daughter Jaquén, brother Lenny and wife Lorna

He launched D-Projects, his hybrid devised hip-hop theater troupe, for 2005’s anti-war Scratch & Burn (where the young B-boy Rudi Goblen started in theater, going on to make his own powerful pieces for Miami Light.) He followed with 2011’s Fat Boy, on Western materialism; and 2014’s haunting Third Trinity (directed by McCraney), the story of Castellanos and his brothers, a Puerto Rican activist and a Miami drug dealer.

He’s continued mentoring Miami teenagers in the life-changing possibilities of creativity and theatrical activism. For years he led Tigertail Productions’ WordSpeak, a spoken word program for teens; and Dranoff 2 Piano’s Piano Slam, shaping teenagers’ poetry for an annual show at the Adrienne Arsht Center. Most recently, he’s directed the Combat Hippies, teaching military veterans to become writer-performers in AMAL, a riveting work on systemic racism and the military (and the only piece he hasn’t done for Miami Light Project), which has toured nationally.

Castellanos stays centered with a zen-like personal life. He and his wife live in the same small, peaceful South Miami home where they raised their daughter, a screenwriter. A Buddhist, he meditates each morning; he recently went on a pilgrimage to Vietnam to meet Thich Nhat Hanh, a revered Buddhist teacher. Though he’s done film and TV (including Empire and Burn Notice), he’s not pursuing mass-market fame.

“I never equated success with becoming rich and famous,” he says. “I did equate it with forging my own path, creating my own life, doing what I love and loving what I do.”

The loves inspiring F/Punk Junkies are alternative 80s music (and his youth dancing at legendary Miami club Fire and Ice), Afro-Futurism, and black punk bands like Bad Brains. He has incorporated Caribbean folklore and Santeria, and is collaborating with Afro-Brazilian choreographer Augusto Soledad and a crew of mature black and brown women, including singer-songwriter Inez Barlatier and dance teacher Michelle Murray, whose impact doesn’t come from traditional virtuosity or Western beauty standards.

“In the spirit of punk I wanted to create something where the political message was the bodies onstage,” he says. “So it’s a revolution in itself.”

F/Punk Junkies may be Castellanos’s last performance. Though he was honored with a prestigious United States Artists Fellowship last year, he’s become almost paralyzed at the prospect of getting onstage. Particularly in Miami.

“It’s a respect for the art,” he says. “I’m a conduit. I respect and love my community in a way that – if I’m going to represent it I better be damn good.”

He’s more involved with Miami Light Project than ever. A board member for eight years, last fall he became president, starting intensive weekly conversations with Boone (which they’ve continued via Zoom.) She says he’s re-inspired them all to focus on “changing the culture of Miami and the country, building community, keeping art at the center of everything we do.”

The empathy that Castellanos has cultivated in his Buddhist and theatrical practice has made the pandemic deeply painful for him. Though he’s at peace with being at home (he’s overcome a long antipathy to working online, even leading a weekly meditation group via Zoom), he finds himself absorbing the anguish enveloping the planet.

“Compassion is the heart of my practice,” he says. “It’s been a struggle to transform this deep sadness I feel at this suffering in the world right now. It hurts me.”

But he’s also sustained by his faith in the power of theater and community.

“We shall get through all of this together,” Castellanos says. “We will learn from it too. We will come out on the other side with so much more knowledge.”

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Kristina Villaverde

Special Projects Manager

A native of Miami, Kristina Villaverde became Miami Light Project’s Technical Director in 2014. Kristina is also the director of Miami Light Project’s Technical Fellowship, a program designed to train emerging theater technicians and prepares them for professional work. A long time staple in the South Florida theater community, Kristina has worked as the Head Electrician at Byron Carlyle Theater, The Colony Theater and the Olympia Theater. Additionally, she has built her theater skills as Light Designer and Stage Manager for numerous productions, and worked for local arts organizations as Young Arts and Miami Lyric Opera. Kristina has been a member of I.A.T.S.E. Local 500 and had the opportunity to work as a stagehand for a variety of productions from Broadway, Comedy Central, CBS, Telemundo to Live Nation at a great number of venues in South Florida.
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Terrence Brunn

Marketing & Communications Manager

A native of St. Thomas, US Virgin Island, Terrence Brunn is an arts administrator and designer with a B.A. in Business Management from the University of Miami. Terrence Brunn joined MLP in 2012 as part of the Miami Light Project’s Technical Fellowship Program inaugural class where he explored all aspects of stagecraft. Now Terrence is the communications manager for Miami Light Project and the program coordinator for Miami Theater Center. Terrence currently resides in Miami and enjoys traveling when not working.
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Regina Moore

Director of Planning & Development

Regina Moore joined Miami Light Project in October 2012. Previously, Regina worked as an independent consultant and grant writer for nonprofits in South Florida. Since 2003, Regina has worked with cultural & arts and community services organizations on projects that have generated more than $4 million in grants. She has 18 years of experience in grant proposal development, strategic planning, building collaborations and program evaluation for small/mid-size nonprofits. Regina holds a master degree in business administration from the University of Miami (Coral Gables, FL) and bachelor’s degree in business from Pontificia Universidade Católica (Sao Paulo, Brazil). A native of Brazil, Regina currently resides in Boca Raton with her husband, John, and two children, Thomas and Emilie.
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Eventz Paul

Technical Director & Facilities Manager

Eventz Paul is currently the Technical Director and Productions Manager at Miami Light Project. He has been a part of this organization since 2011. He participated in Miami Light Project’s first class of the Technical Fellowship Program held at The Light Box. He joined this program hoping to improve his existing theater skills. He received training from experts in the industry that mentored and further his theater technical skills. Now, he has successfully used his professional knowledge and has had the opportunity to work with various arts organizations and venues throughout Miami including Miami Theater Center, National Young Arts Foundation, the Colony Theatre and many more. He has become an instructor and conducts audiovisual classes to incoming technical fellows.

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Elizabeth Boone

Artistic & Executive Director

Beth Boone has been the Artistic & Executive Director of Miami Light Project since 1998, developing critically acclaimed artistic programs that have asserted the organization as one of the leading cultural institutions in South Florida. These programs include: the establishment of Here & Now, South Florida’s most respected commission and presenting program for community-based artists; premiere presentations of internationally acclaimed; pioneering historic international cultural exchange with Cuba; and the creation of The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, a multi-use performance and visual art space in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. She previously served as Associate Director of Development for Florida Grand Opera, Deputy Director for the Department of Cultural Affairs at Miami Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus, co-founded an Off Broadway theater company (New York Rep), and served for six years as a Program Associate in the Arts & Culture Program of the AT&T Foundation. She received a B.A. in Fine Arts from the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and a MFA in Theater Arts from Brandeis University in Boston, MA.