Today we’d like to introduce you to Julio Catano.
Hi Julio, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
In 2015 a good friend of mine, Ryan Burtanog, raised a question, “what if there was a theatre in San Diego that uplifted Asian and Latin actors?” The question stemmed from the constant lack of BIPOC representation in the professional theatres in San Diego. At the time and up until the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, professional San Diego theatres would only call us when they were looking for ethnic specific characters or roles. Ryan and our friend Kevin “Blax” Burroughs were working in community theatres where we were seen as capable of playing archetypes outside of our race. Community theatres for those that are not familiar with the system are theatres that are focused on performers who enjoy the craft as a hobby and so are unpaid productions. You perform in community theatres for fun or to learn more about theatre. At the time, I had a BFA degree in dance from Fordham University and a Broadway tour in my resume. When the pandemic began, I was working in New York, as many actors of color in San Diego find themselves needing to leave San Diego to survive. The pandemic stimulus presented an opportunity especially with the social reckoning around the country. Ryan, Kevin and myself held a series of meetings with dozens of artists of color around San Diego to comprehend the state of the community and industry in San Diego in regards to treatment of BIPOC artists. We founded Teatro San Diego that summer in 2020.
After much research, we set as a goal to start with an all BIPOC board of directors with the mission to service the neighborhoods that were of lowest median household income as well as geographically far from these San Diego arts institutions, our focus is mainly south of the Interstate 8. We only had our own resources and word of mouth through friends and family, because we did not grow up in affluent neighborhoods, our budgeting always has to be very frugal. Thankfully with the help of our first head of development, Camille McPherson, we were able to find a few donors that helped propel us in funding our first production, Songs For A New World. At the same time that we were working to fund a full professional production, we were working with a school that served over 90% of students who qualified for title 1 benefits. Unfortunately, we learned that the schools and neighborhoods we work in have a very unstable track of administrative continuity. We continue to fight to give children from our southern neighborhoods the arts education and exposure they deserve.
It’s rigorous work, but if we truly believe that representation matters and that change is vitally necessary in the San Diego performing arts sector, we have got to do this ourselves.
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The difficulties are many but I will focus on three specific areas. 1. Our communities do not care about theatre or dance because we have never had appropriate representation in the art forms and if so, we were always reduced to a stereotype. There have been countless of generations of artists of color coming out of San Diego, but most if not all of the time, these iconic performers from our inner-city neighborhoods had to fight against their own community and family push back. 2. School funding in the inner-city schools are run by board members who do not agree on much. The result is a constant firing-hiring-firing of principals and administrators, we see this in the school clusters of Lincoln, Hoover, Crawford and Morse high schools and the middle schools and elementary schools that feed them. 3. None of the founding members of Teatro San Diego come from affluent neighborhoods so we are heavily at the mercy of donors from outside our communities or grant foundations. We need administrative support in marketing and development.
Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
We primarily are focusing on musicals because it’s what we love to do and have the most experience in, initially we wanted to launch a dance company congruently but are still exploring financial possibilities. Funding would be a challenge to do everything at once. I would say one of the things that sets us apart is that, at the moment, Teatro San Diego is really managed and influenced by the artists themselves. One of our primary objectives is getting the artists paid, so a big part of our unique structure is that in itself being a priority. Creative designers, performers and teachers get paid first. The other fundamental core in our system is education. We are constantly reaching out to the schools in the inner city and southern neighborhoods in the charter system, San Diego Unified School District and Sweetwater School District in order to provide performing arts training. We are passionate about becoming a resource of arts education that demonstrates that we will not leave our community. Our desire is to provide consistency for our students.
We’d love to hear about how you think about risk taking?
We had nothing to lose. Our risk was starting a theatre company during a pandemic when no one was going to live events and the country’s economy was in a downward trajectory. We were not seeing opportunities in theatre and dance in San Diego because of our skin color and facial features. Risks meant nothing to us. Our biggest risk would have been to do nothing to contribute to change, we owe it to the young student in kindergarten or in college to not allow their experience to mimic ours.
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Katie Ezell, Steve Suslik