Diversity-focused Teatro San Diego debuts with ‘Songs for a New World’
Multicultural company’s goal is to run professional theater and dance companies with artists making union wages
Julio Catano grew up in San Diego, but the musical theater artist spent the decade before the pandemic arrived based in New York City.
During those 10 years, Catano kept tabs on his hometown by reading casting announcements for shows being produced at San Diego theaters. Over time, he realized that the mostly White actors landing roles in local shows didn’t accurately reflect the city’s true ethnic diversity.
So when the pandemic shut down the theater industry in March 2020, Catano moved back to San Diego to begin work on his long-deferred master’s degree at San Diego State University. At the same time, he decided to invest his pandemic stimulus and unemployment checks in balancing the artistic scales of social justice.
The result is Teatro San Diego, a new “All American” arts organization that will produce and teach theater and dance that celebrates the region’s multicultural population as well as its LGBTQ and disabled communities.
Teatro San Diego’s debut show is a filmed production of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World,” which is now streaming through Aug. 15. Directed by Kevin “Blax” Burroughs, with choreography by Alyssa “Ajay” Junious and music direction by William “BJ” Robinson, the production highlights themes of social justice, feminism, White privilege, gender equity and sexuality.
The idea for Teatro was actually born seven years ago, when Catano, who is of Mexican and Chinese heritage, was in San Diego performing in a show with Ryan Burtanog, who is Filipino, and Burroughs, who is Black. At the time, they talked about forming a San Diego community theater that could give opportunities to artists of color in the style of East West Players in Los Angeles, which is the nation’s largest Asian theater.
That dream was put on ice when Catano returned to New York and spent a year touring the U.S. and Asia with “The Addams Family Tour” and three more years playing “Chino” on the “West Side Story” world tour, among other shows. When he returned to San Diego last year, the trio of friends re-teamed to officially launch Teatro, with Catano as founder and president, Burtanog as the artistic associate of theater and Burroughs as a a theater performer and director.
By June of last year, a diverse team of artists was assembled to run both the theater division and the still-in-development dance division. Teatro’s first project, coordinated by Burroughs and Catano’s high school classmate, actor Erin Vanderhyde, was last winter’s Zoom-style group video performance of the song “Light” from the musical “Next to Normal.” It featured nearly 20 San Diego artists of color.
Now comes “Songs for a New World,” which Catano said Burroughs has been conceptualizing in his head for the past four years. Written in 1995, “Songs” isn’t a traditional musical with defined characters, dialogue and a plot. Instead it’s a collection of 16 songs sung by different characters at points in history ranging from the 15th century to modern times. All of the songs are about a moment in time when disaster strikes, and the character must make a life-changing decision.
In the musical, these decisions include a death, a divorce, a job loss and a suicide attempt. In Burroughs’ production, the songs are performed against the backdrop of more recent events, including the murder of George Floyd, and the “new world” of social justice reform these events have spawned. Much of this is reflected in scenery and props designed by Reiko Hufffman.
Catano said his long-term goal for Teatro, once it achieves nonprofit status, is to build professional regional theater and dance companies that will pay union wages, and a theater and dance school.
“Songs for a New World”
When: Streaming at 4 and 7 p.m. daily through Aug. 15
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