Teo Castellanos – Changing Lives and Telling Miami’s Story

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.

            “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.”

            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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(L to R) Teo with his teacher, Zen Master Thích Trí Hoâng; Red Carpet for World Premire 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

ABOUT MIAMI LIGHT PROJECT

Founded in 1989, Miami Light Project is a not-for-profit cultural organization which presents live performances by innovative dance, music and theater artists from around the world; supports the development of new work by South Florida-based artists; and offers educational programs for students of every age.

Since our inception, we have reached a diverse cross-section of communities throughout Miami-Dade County with an extensive outreach effort that includes partnerships with other arts organizations, universities and social service agencies. Miami Light Project is a cultural forum to explore some of the issues that define contemporary society.

ABOUT JORDAN LEVIN

A writer and journalist since the early 90’s, Jordan Levin was an influential voice on arts and pop culture at the Miami Herald for over two decades, as both freelancer and staff writer. During her time at the Herald, she wrote and produced numerous radio pieces for WLRN, two of which aired nationally on NPR. As a freelancer, she has written for the New York Times, the L.A. Times, American Theatre Magazine, Dance Magazine, and many other South Florida and national publications. Since leaving the Herald in 2017, she has worked in content marketing and community engagement for Miami cultural organizations including Miami New Drama and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where she hosts a series of dance talks. She has taught feature writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Communications.

Before becoming a journalist, Jordan worked as a presenter and administrator for Miami’s Tigertail Productions and Miami Dade College Cultural Affairs. Previously, she was a dancer/performer in New York’s downtown scene, performing with artists such as Tim Miller and Yoshiko Chuma at venues such as the BAM Next Wave Festival, Performance Space New York and The Kitchen. She is working on a cultural memoir of the East Village in the early 80’s.