AMERICAN THEATRE | Teo Castellanos, Miami Theatre Transformer – American Theater

The moment that seemed like it would launch Miami theatre artist Teo Castellanos into the world turned out to be the one that kept him at home. He was performing his first full-length piece, N. E. 2nd Avenue , a multi-character solo show of only-in-Miami personalities, from a Haitian jitney driver to a Cuban rafter, at the particular 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show had been a hit back home. But in Scotland, an increasingly despairing Castellanos faced an empty theatre each night. When he ran into a group of visiting Ohio students from an arts program at a predominantly Black high school, he pleaded with them in order to come. They filled the house that night, screaming with delight and recognition at seeing people they knew onstage.

In their midst was Edinburgh’s leading theatre critic, Mark Brown of The Scotsman , whose rave review called N. E. 2nd “so brilliantly conceived and so fabulously acted that it goes instantly to the compartment of the brain marked ‘reasons I go to the theatre. ’” His praise led to the sellout run and a prestigious Fringe First Award.

It also convinced Castellanos in order to double down on telling Miami stories and helping more young people like the particular ones who’d borne your pet up that night to find their creative way.  

“I love my people, ” Castellanos recalled of that will moment. “I made the decision not to go to L. A. or New York but to stay and cultivate the scene here. ”

Teo Castellanos may be Miami’s most transformative theater artist. He has empowered generations of Black, Latino, and socially or financially disempowered adolescents, like he once has been, to tell their own stories via theatre, poetry, and performance. He has devoted painstaking years to teach everyone from hiphop b-boys in order to combat veterans how to be theatre artists. His solo and group devised pieces, from And. E. second to last October’s F/Punk Junkies , which channeled Afro-Caribbean myth and raging punk spirit, have given voice to the unique culture of this immigrant-shaped city.

Castellanos is neither well-to-do nor well-known outside a relatively small circle of mostly Miami-based theatre and contemporary performance performers and the institutions that support them. (He has been a 2021 Doris Duke Artist within theatre and a 2019 United States Artist Fellow. ) But he has lived, will be living, exactly the life he wants.

My dreams have become reality, ” Castellanos, 60, once told me. “I never equated success with becoming rich plus famous. I did equate it with forging my own path, creating my own existence and lifestyle, doing what I love, and loving what We do. ”

His the majority of famous student, Tarell Alvin McCraney, chair of the particular Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program, sometimes wonders which of them got it right.

“As kids we wanted to get out of Arkansas, ” McCraney said through his Yale office. “Teo said, ‘You’re letting individuals fool you out associated with paradise. ’ ”

Teo Castellanos in “N. Electronic. 2nd. ” (Photo by Pedro Portal)

Miami wasn’t paradise for Castellanos in first. Their family moved here from Puerto Rico when he was 6, and he grew up within Carol City (now New mexico Gardens), then a notoriously violent area divided between Blacks and Latinos. (“Sister city to the South Bronx! ” he calls it in the autobiographical Third Trinity . ) His single mother worked two jobs. Castellanos dropped out of school, got into drinking plus drugs, and worked for years as the bus driver and supervisor. He exulted at balancing his straight job along with getting high and maintaining a hipster night lifestyle: dancing from clubs, singing in punk and ska bands, going to gallery openings, attracting women.

By his mid-20s, drug dependency threatened in order to destroy that will balance. Yet Castellanos stepped back through life on the edge. This individual got clean and sober. And something opened inside him. “All these feelings came up, ” this individual told me for a 2005 story.. “One of the big ones had been: I am a good artist. I actually want to be an artist. ” 

He obtained a theatre degree from Florida Atlantic University in 1994, plus bought the two-bedroom house where he still lives that same year, cultivating a lush jungle of a garden. His girlfriend Lorna Burke, who helped him get clean, became his wife of 32 years; their particular daughter Jaquen (a name they invented, combining Jamaica, where Lorna is through, and Borinquen, the Indigenous name with regard to Puerto Rico), born in 1990, writes for TV in L. A. And he grew to become a devoted practitioner of Zen Buddhism, which came to shape his living as much as theater and teaching have.

Their saga was enormously compelling. I’ve known Castellanos since he was a regular at a poetry night within a South Beach club in the particular late 1980s. Small, lean, his sleek head shaved, he has been so lit then, he or she seemed electrified. As an arts writer with the Las vegas Herald , I wrote a profile detailing their journey “From the Street to the Sage, ” as the headline put this.

But Teo is done informing that story. “I don’t want to focus on that will at this stage in my life, ” he said recently. “It’s irrelevant. ” 

What remains relevant is usually how driven he has been to create himself as an performer, and in order to give others the tools to find meaning and produce community that he had to discover regarding himself.  

Castellanos began inventing his own model associated with theatre while soon because he started studying. He had been confounded and incensed that will his college teachers pressed him in order to lose his accent, and that forms which were natural to him—hip-hop, improvising in the circle of peers, spoken word—were excluded. “This idea that you have to erase your culture, your own upbringing, your ancestry, is definitely ludicrous, ” he stated recently. “I was like, ‘This can be not right! The ancestors in me are revolting. ’ ”

He read Peter Brook, Augusto Boal, Grotowski, plus Puerto Rican poets; researched African griots and pre-Colombian shamans, Theatre of the Oppressed . In retrospect, he sees that exactly what he was trying to do was in order to decolonize theatre before that became a catchword. “When that word came out, I realized that’s what I’ve been doing, ” he said.

He or she immediately integrated these ideas into training. McCraney has been one of their earliest students, in a program Castellanos led from 1995 to 1999, for teens to write and perform items about drugs and AIDS in their Black plus Latino neighborhoods. A counselor who understood McCraney’s mother was inside rehab sent the eager 15-year-old to audition.  

“Teo didn’t think I was very talented, but he saw my passion, ” McCraney said with a laugh. He stayed with the program through high school on New World School from the Arts, Miami’s renowned public-school conservatory, and even via his first year at DePaul University. That experience molded McCraney since an designer and inspired his determination to foster dramatists from outside the particular mainstream in Yale who can speak for their own communities.

“I call Teo my father in art, ” said McCraney, who became a close friend and colleague to Castellanos. “I started taking the work as not really just one portion associated with myself yet my full existence. Teo knew that will, like him, we needed the various tools of storytelling and hope to understand the world of chaos we came from. We couldn’t lie. Those tools, that method, is always in our mind. If I’m performing a play and it can’t happen on those streets, this doesn’t pass the Teo test. It’s not authentic enough.

“I never felt like Teo has been taking pity on us, ” McCraney continued. “It was always, ‘I realize; here are some ways we can work through that will. ’ Teo made me personally the author associated with my very own tale. Teo says: Don’t just accept the dreams that are given to you. ” 

Castellanos offers continued to show similar programs. In 2014 I visited him as he coached college students in WordSpeak , the citywide poems program intended for high school students, for a national voiced word competition, which this individual did to get nine many years. Castellanos adored his learners, many of them dealing with fraught families or communities.

“I’m simply floored by their commitment plus resilience, ” he mentioned. “I do not know why some people are blessed with that and some are not. ”

He was also meticulous and demanding. “Better impress me—let’s see what y’all got! ” he exhorted a trio of young Black and Haitian men doing a poem on gun violence. This individual had all of them research plus write poems on social themes: terrorism, disappearing languages. “They come to understand that will the world is bigger than their community, ” he or she told myself. “It deepens their compassion and understanding. ”

Mary Luft, whose nonprofit Tigertail Productions went WordSpeak, said of Castellanos’s rapport along with the students, “They believed in your pet. He had the ability to reach into their creative self and pull out the particular best associated with who they were. ”

At the beginning of his career, Castellanos served in local plays, and in TV shows and films (usually as a Latino thug). He or she found his métier within the late ’90s, when he began making solos for Here & Now, an annual festival of short original works produced by the nonprofit Miami Light Project . Artistic and executive director Beth Boone suggested Castellanos expand one single, commissioning what became In. E. 2nd Avenue , MLP’s 1st major project with a local musician. The company grew to become Castellanos’s artistic base, commissioning and presenting his devised pieces. He and Boone became close, and he assisted inspire her to make fostering Miami musicians and tales central in order to MLP’s mission.

“We both have the deeply held commitment to community, ” said Boone, who phone calls Castellanos, now president associated with MLP’s board, her creative partner. “His work is not about making something therefore he may visit New York or L. The. His life’s work is about being right here, right now. It’s about deepening our roots where we are. ” 

The ’90s were the particular heyday of multi-character solitary shows simply by the likes of John Leguizamo plus Danny Hoch. Castellanos was a fan—to a point. “They all represented Nyc really well, ” he informed me in 2005. “I thought, We want in order to represent Ohio. ”

D. E. second , which premiered in 2002, transfixed Arkansas. Castellanos experienced an eerily chameleonic ability to embody their characters: the stiffly correct posture and indignant Creole of the particular Haitian jitney driver, the Cuban-Yiddish accent of a confounded Jewban (Jewish-Cuban) grandfather trying to connect with his mixed-race grandson; the particular survivor’s bravado and ricocheting Spanglish of the Cuban rafter selling fruit at a traffic light. We knew these people. But this town, though deeply shaped by generations associated with immigrants plus where Latinos dominate the culture and population, got always acquired seen itself validated by means of white and/or outsider eyes, whether it was in the film Scarface or within the much-hyped arrival of Art Basel. Castellanos instead gave us the pure, pungent refraction of Miami because only somebody from here could. The particular piece had multiple revivals and tours. Despite his many other projects, there’s a way in which he will forever become identified with N. E. 2nd .

After Edinburgh this individual formed D-Projects, based from MLP, plus expanded their teaching into Scratch & Burn , his first group piece. He gathered hiphop b-boys, virtuosos with breakdancing and freestyling, plus spent a year and the half teaching them each traditional and non-Western forms of performance, through Chekhov to African rituals; then acted as director and collaborator to bring them together for an incandescent, movement-driven item raging on the war in Iraq and the particular human drive for domination and violence.

One of those b-boys was Rudi Goblen, after that 23, that, like McCraney, was transformed by working with Castellanos. He became a theater artist and is now getting his MFA in Yale’s playwriting program (I profiled him for this magazine in 2020). Castellanos remains Goblen’s close buddy and foundation. “There hasn’t been 1 stage I have been on that Teo hasn’t been there along with me, ” Goblen told me.

His influence hasn’t only been upon the young. The transformation among the Combat Hippies, a small team of middle-aged Puerto Rican war experienced whom Castellanos began working with in 2015, under the particular aegis associated with Miami Dade College’s live arts system , may have already been even more profound. He spent four yrs training plus helping them create AMAL (Arabic for hope), a wrenching piece within text, movement, and music around the racism and trauma that comes with being from a good island colonized by the U. S., then fighting its wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

The process was not easy. “Getting those guys to move and perform was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, ” Castellanos sighed in order to me once. Antony Torres, who today manages plus raises money for the Combat Hippies, recalled thinking, “ This dude wants me to dig deep in to childhood and war, plus now he or she wants me personally to memorize this shit and perform it onstage? I had been so scared. ”

Castellanos gave all of them courage. Plus something more, said Torres: “What we connected over deeply was the universality of trauma we’d all been through, including Teo—understanding that’s not all we are usually. We have something to say regarding survival and resilience plus growth. ”

Castellanos, too, uses theater to process the pain within his personal life, and the empathetic stress he carries from assisting others deal with theirs. This individual came to the Combat Hippies from 2014’s Third Trinity , a multi-character solo about him and his 2 cousins, raised as his brothers, a single a Puerto Rican nationalist and the particular other a Miami drug smuggler, finding redemption plus mythic power in their struggle to control their destiny and find purpose. Directed by McCraney, it was Castellanos’s most personally revealing display.

Afterwards he swore he’d never do it, or another solo piece, again. “It was as well personal, ” he stated. “It took a lot from myself emotionally. ”

Teo Castellanos (second from left) with daughter Jaquén, brother Lenny, and wife Lorna Burke during his Zen priest ordination trip to Vietnam.

Buddhism has been key to managing his emotions. He’s an ordained Zen priest who else for years has began each day (except Sunday, when he sleeps in) with a pre-dawn hour associated with meditation. He’s a follower of the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh , whose teachings on interconnectedness, as well as the duty to ease others’ suffering, have sustained Castellanos’s devotion in order to helping other people and helped him deal with anger at injustice, as good as pain at their own or others’ trauma. He or she often refers to “no mud, no lotus, ” the particular title of Nhat Hanh’s best-known book, which invokes the concept that good grows through bad, that they are inextricably linked.

His latest piece, F/Punk Junkies , began gestating pre-pandemic as a dive into the Black punk and Brand new Wave songs he’d loved in their 20-something nightclubbing days (dancing is still the go-to release). But more than the three years it took to make, it also became a celebration from the power of its five Black color and Latina women performers: three middle-aged, two non-dancers, none traditional actors. Staged at MLP’s Wynwood space in early October, it mixed surrealism with Afro-Caribbean religious myths and folklore, and the looming spirit associated with blues legend Robert Johnson. Castellanos, which initially meant only to direct, had a relatively small role, like a fey version of a Santeria deity who also gets the beatdown whenever he tries to sneak into a female secret society.

Among those women was Haitian American singer-songwriter Inez Barlatier, in whose father directed a Haitian music group Castellanos performed with in the ’90s. She experienced never carried out theatre before, but “Teo said, ‘You can perform this—I will certainly teach you’, ” she told me after a show attended simply by her beaming father.  

Castellanos, whom had knee surgery plus, after two years of pandemic discipline, caught COVID just before the show, had sworn that, at 60, F/Punk would end up being his final live performance. Right now he’s not really so sure. “I must admit I had a blast, ” this individual said.

With that task done, this individual was looking forward to a rare chance to travel with his spouse for any week’s vacation in London. He wants to collaborate along with Barlatier again, and with Shamar Watts, a charismatic Jamaican-born dancer-choreographer whom Castellanos calls “phenomenal. ” He desires to further explore the potential of surrealism, “where I can make up worlds. ” And through Adrienne Arsht Center, he’s operating with some former WordSpeak students on a display they published which will tour public high schools, which Goblen directed, persevering through “hell” in order to get the script approved by administrators nervous over Florida’s repressive new “don’t say gay” law restricting teaching on race, gender, and sexuality.

We spoke soon right after F/Punk closed over coffee in Wynwood, where the awestruck barista recognized Castellanos from an appearance at the girl senior high school. This individual has lived through the particular neighborhood’s transformations, from late-night adventures when it was obviously a crime-plagued region, to his years in Miami Light Project’s nearby space like Wynwood grew to become a cultural and street art haven. Now it’s filled with condos and tourists, plus development offers driven MLP to a new neighborhood.

Yet Castellanos continues to be equanimous.

“I still love my city, with all the gentrification and right-wing politics, ” he or she said, seeing that we settled at a good outside table. “It’s hard. I guess it is my Zen practice. In case I take a stick plus say I’m only fond of the left side and cut off the right end, I nevertheless have the stick. We only know happiness because we know suffering. ”

Jordan Levin (she/her) is an arts writer plus editor within Miami.

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