Teo Castellanos never thought of himself as a writer until he started winning awards for it
Teo Castellanos never thought he would be a writer. In fact, he was writing professionally for several years before he finally started to consider himself one.
“I wouldn’t call myself a writer for a long time until I kept reading it in the press,” Castellanos says. “I referred to myself as an actor and director. When I won an award for stage writing in 2003 I said, ‘Okay, I’ll call myself a writer.’”
Castellanos was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami. He was turned on to performance poetry in the mid-’80s, when he started writing and performing at open mics. He decided to study theatre and earned his degree at Florida Atlantic University, at which point he had abandoned writing entirely. “I thought I was a better performer than a writer,” he says. But in the mid-’90s he received his first commissioned work as a writer for a 20-minute solo theatre piece. “That’s when I started writing again and creating my own theatre work,” though it would still be several years before he felt confident enough to call himself “a writer.”
He started with three small commissions that he turned into a trilogy called War, Resolution, and The Projects that focused on Puerto Rican characters. Then he got his first major commission from Miami Light Project for NE 2nd Ave, an evening-length one-man play that introduces the audience to a cast of nine different characters that all represent the people you will find on 2nd Avenue in downtown Miami, a main thoroughfare. The characters were a cultural hodgepodge of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Jewish, gay and lesbian, Jamaican, and African American, and Castellanos used these characters to explore underlying issues of racism and social injustice in Miami’s marginalized urban populations. The production toured for 10 years and celebrated its anniversary with a sold-out homecoming run in Miami. NE 2nd Ave won the Fringe First Award at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world, among other recognitions.
In 2003 he received a commission for a hip hop theatre piece called Scratch & Burn, a response to the invasion of Iraq that toured China, South America, and throughout the States. After this piece toured in South America he would get comments from people to the extent of, “If more people saw this work our perception of America would change,” and a Fulbright scholar told him, “I can once again say I’m proud to be American.”
As more commissions came in, Castellanos got tired of solo work and decided to form a company. “It gets a little lonely on the road, just me and my TV and my stage manager,” he says. Now Castellanos is Artistic Director of his own contemporary dance and theatre company, Teo Castellanos D-Projects, which produces original works fusing world cultures through music and ritual, examining social issues through performance. Another company production that will wrap up its tour this may is Fat Boy, about American consumerism and waste juxtaposed with world hunger and poverty.
But just as he got tired of solo work previously, after 10 years with the company he is now ready to return to smaller, more intimate solo performances. “I need to travel light right now, literally and figuratively.” He is currently focused on a new work, his first screenplay which he is now adapting as a solo theatre piece.
“At the point that I decided I would write a screenplay it had been in my head for about a decade,” says Castellanos. After he decided to focus on the screenplay, he received a commission for another solo work. “When I got this commission I didn’t want to sidetrack the screenplay for another three years, so I decided I would go ahead and write the screenplay and adapt it for theatre.”
The screenplay is entitled Third Trinity, and it is based on his own family life with one brother who is a Puerto Rican nationalist and revolutionary and another who was a drug smuggler. “It’s about how those lives are vastly different, the juxtaposition, but at the bottom of that was always love.” The story is narrated by a grandmother whom he has never met. He currently has a draft of the screenplay and is focused on the theatre adaptation, trying to retain some of the filmic qualities. The Third Trinity theatre piece will premiere at Miami Light Project on October 10, 2014.
Although he was hesitant for many years to take ownership of the title “writer” for himself, he feels now that he has grown tremendously as a writer, and after nearly two decades of stage work he is ready to take his writing to the next level, into film. “I’ve grown as a storyteller and as a healer,” he says. “Ultimately we actors and theatre-makers and filmmakers, we’re all shaman, we’re all healers, we all have to go somewhere and come back with an elixir to heal our communities.”
Being a politically and culturally motivated artist, Castellanos cares most about “inspiring new perceptions, exposing audiences to culture and subcultures, changing perceptions, and hopefully igniting some passion and maybe even activism, whether in my immediate community of 2nd Avenue or the world.” He pauses, then laughs: “I’m a citizen of the world!”