“The big joke is the math guy started the theater,” said Al Justiniano while reflecting on his role as artistic director/producer for Teatro del Pueblo. (Video below)
After earning a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Minnesota, New York native Justiniano followed his artistic passion and enrolled in film school. He is credited with making several short films, but his major work is in theater. In 1992, he started Teatro del Pueblo, a Latino-based theater located on Saint Paul’s west side. Now, as Teatro prepares to host their ninth annual Political Theatre Festival, Justiniano took a few moments out of his busy schedule to talk about his love of the Minnesota, the arts and Teatro del Pueblo.
D.P. How long have you lived in the Twin Cities?
A.J. Since 1982. I’ve lived here more than half, so I’ve lived here approximately 30 years.
D.P. What brought you here?
A.J. It’s funny. Some people say it was friends, but I say it was school. I was going to school in Pennsylvania and decided to transfer to Minnesota. I used to come here for summers. My brother lived here and my friends and relatives. So I decided to start with University of Minnesota. One thing led to another.
|Political Theatre Festival: February 25-March 13
Teatro del Pueblo is hosting the 9th Annual Political Theatre Festival. Since 2002, Teatro del Pueblo’s Political Theatre Festival has given voice to a wide range of contemporary Latino issues. This year’s festival theme, “Across the Divide,” seeks to explore the geo-political divide between the United States and Latin America, as well as the infamous “gender divide.”
The Political Theatre Festival will run from February 25 to March 13, 2010. Performances will be held at both the Gremlin Theatre, 2400 University Avenue, Saint Paul and Intermedia Arts, 2822 S. Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets available at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 1.800.838.300
D.P. That leads me to wonder what keeps you here?
A.J. Well, it’s not the snow. There’s something special about Minnesota and I started discovering that when I first came here. I know there are some New Yorkers that complain that Minnesotans are very reserved. For me, the experience was the discovery of a new people because they have different values. Even though it was cold, I really enjoyed the openness about how people here looked at the world.
When I go back to New York, I’m excited about being there, but then after a while, I want to go back home. It’s a different way of life. More at ease, more grounded I think. There’s an aura about Minnesota that I’ve always enjoyed. I consider myself a Minnesotan because like most Minnesotans, we complain about the weather but we never leave.
D.P. So tell me how did Teatro del Pueblo come about?
A.J. It came about because I opened my mouth. I still remember the day when some actor friends were complaining about their roles. They were tired of being type-casted in certain ways. They wanted to do work that was more relevant to them and they weren’t getting work that was Latino-based. And I said, “Why don’t you just start a theater?” And all I remember was them just turning their heads and looking at me. That’s how it all started.
D.P. So because you opened your mouth and suggested they change things, you became the point man?
A.J. Yeah, sort of. I started the theater that way. It took me about a year to get to know the community on the West Side (of Saint Paul). The first theater was based out of my house; I lived on the West Side. That was the ’92-’93 season.
D.P. What was the next step after that?
A.J. Really, how we got to be known in the community was because there was a shooting at Humboldt School. There was a community meeting and someone asked if I wanted to join it and I said, “Yeah, of course, I’ll see what I can do.” In the meeting, we suggested doing a show at the school and using techniques called Theater of the Oppressed. We developed three little skits and used some professional actors. Then we asked the principal if we could bring in the shooter and victim to be part of the play, even though they had both been suspended. We thought that would have a stronger impact on the students. Because you don’t preach to students, you teach them in the undertow. You show them. And it worked fabulously. So, then people in the community got to know us. We started growing and we’ve been around for 18 years.
D.P. I understand the Political Theatre Festival is the big event for Teatro, is that correct?
A.J. Yes, the Political Theatre Festival is what we call our hallmark because it really engages the audience into a deeper conversation about socio-political issues that affect Latinos in the United States, as well as Latin America.
In the 90s, I was volunteering in Northern Ireland helping integrate schools out there. That instilled in me a sense of understanding other cultures and other opinions and points of view. I felt that we (Teatro) could do something for some other community. This is based on my vision for Teatro and is based on what my father taught me: you can do something for your own community and that’s great. But, when you do something for somebody else’ community besides doing good, there is a bridge you’ve made. I like to build bridges among communities and that is seen throughout Teatro’s work including the Political Theatre Festival.
Al Justiniano explains how working in Northern Ireland influenced his vision for Teatro del Pueblo.
D.P. So, the Political Theatre Festival is designed to appeal to someone who is
non-Latino, not just to pull the Latino community together?
A.J. Teatro’s mission is to showcase Latino works and talents. It also requires us to educate Latinos and non-Latinos in the Latin American culture. So our mission is dual because in encompasses both Latinos, as well as non-Latinos. That’s why our work is in English; it’s the language of communication. That’s important if we’re going to educate everybody. We do some things in Spanish because we want to attract and outreach to the Latino community that doesn’t speak English. But most of our work is in English. We do a lot of work as bilingual too.
But going back to your original question…the duality of our mission. I think Political Theatre Festival lends itself to that because a lot of people are interested in Latin American culture. This is really socio-political, not just political. This year, we’re looking at women and immigration. Next year, we might look at alternative lifestyles in Latin America, which is an issue we don’t deal with in Latin America as much as they do here in the United States. We try to engage people in a deeper conversation. Again, it’s about building bridges. I see Political Theatre Festival as a lab. A lab to create techniques to engage audiences into deeper discourse. Like a forum of political discourse.
I’m hoping someday I’ll be able to expand it and for Teatro to take a step back and it becomes international, not just Latin America. We will always have Latin America, but we start partnering so we can do more works from Asia, Africa, the Middle East. so that our audience gets a wider canvas of political views and points of view. I think it’s about helping people feel comfortable with politics and social issues. It’s called Political Theatre Festival, but really many of the issues of the issues are social issues that have their connection to politics. That’s why I say socio-political issues.
D.P. So, do you believe you’re achieving your mission?
A.J. I believe that we are headed towards that direction. We are making an impact in our community because many people keep coming back. It’s getting to be known as a place where these issues are discussed; sort of a catalyst for social change. I’m proud of that. But quantifying whether it’s a success, I guess time will tell.
D.P. You said you are a filmmaker. What films have you created or produced?
A.J. I’ve got four or five five films I’ve shot or directed. One called “The Fisherman’s Daughter” is about a young girl who fights for her father’s job in a depressed town in New England. I co-directed a film for television about the Hmong experience and I shot a documentary in Northern Ireland while I worked out there.
My most recent film is called “The Campaign,” which is about a senator. I’m still editing it. The premise of the film is the shooting of a commercial. He keeps saying things that are politically incorrect. Then we go to mid-America and these guys are playing cards in a bar. They’re talking about how important it is to bluff and not mean what you say. Then they see the finished commercial on TV and they say that’s a guy (the senator) they need to listen to. The premise is our politics is just the luck of the draw. It’s a socio-political statement that I’m making, that a lot of the things we see are sound bites.
D.P. If you weren’t doing this, what would your dream job be?
A.J. My ultimate passion is to tell stories. I’m a playwright, so I do it through theatre and I’m a filmmaker, so I do it through film. Those are the two venues I’m passionate about. I struggle sometimes to make time for my art. It’s always a struggle between being an administrator or artistic director and doing your own art. But I’m committed to it, so I dedicate time to my art. I wake up in the morning and put my feet on the floor and say “I am a storyteller”.