Dana Castellano, Who Bravely Battled Cancer In Public And Online, Succumbs Saturday

Dana Castellano at the  curtain call of The Dana Plays on July 14 / Photo courtesy of Charlie Flenniken

Dana Castellano at the curtain call of The Dana Plays on July 14 / Photo courtesy of Charlie Flenniken

Update 2 p.m. Tuesday: Church service for Dana Castellano will be at held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, November 15 at Spanish River Church (2400 Yamato Road in Boca Raton). A Celebration of Life Luncheon will follow immediately at Village of Boca Barwood Rec Center (8900 SW 20 Street in Boca Raton. Everyone is welcome.

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
.                                                      —Dylan Thomas

By Bill Hirschman

Brandishing pink boxing gloves as her totem and a defiant “F*** cancer” as her catchphrase, artist and theater activist Dana Castellano fought valiantly and very publically against the disease that ended her life Saturday.

Her battle, waged on Facebook and a crowdsourcing site as well as in her body, galvanized the South Florida theater community.

Without a shred of self-pity or embarrassment, she and her friends charted her fight every few days with postings on social media including photographs of her deteriorating physical condition. She posted online progress reports and they responded with a steady stream of encouragement.

On August 25, she posted in Facebook, “Had a rough day yesterday. Ended up in the E.R. after throwing up non-stop for 3 hrs.! Thought my skeleton was going to come out! But thank God, I’m feeling better & was able to come to chemo this morning! Sorry cancer, I win this round! Go Team Chaos!! F. U. Cancer!!!”

Castellano, of Deerfield Beach, died in Hospice By The Sea in Boca Raton early Saturday morning at the age of 45 after fighting cervical cancer since January.

dana-castellanosmDetails about a service or memorial have not yet been announced.

Her day jobs often involved tattoo artistry and working with tiny “stone” crystals in intricate designs on clothing, most recently on competitive swimwear for female body builders at CJ’s Elite Competition Wear.

A Love Affair With Theater

Castellano was never an actress, a director or producer. But for more than a decade she was an integral part of the fabric of theater in the region. She was notably supportive of Naked Stage, GableStage, Boca Raton Theatre Guild and especially The Women’s Theatre Project, serving on its board of directors.

A proud lesbian with a spiky haircut, a series of smiles ranging from shy to joyful and a body covered with tattoos, she was easily spotted as a volunteer in nearly every behind-the-scenes job. She might be running concessions, staffing the box office, painting scenery, creating social media marketing, pushing a broom or supplying vocal moral support that the more visible practitioners needed.

“She didn’t want to be in the spotlight,” said her friend, the actress Sally Bondi. “She was absolutely comfortable just being the support.”

Castellano’s love of theater was stoked when she began a long-time relationship with local actress Lela Elam. Castellano accompanied her to rehearsals and they attended plays around the region.

When Elam was cast in 2004 in the inaugural production of The Women’s Theatre Project in Broward County, The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women, Castellano began helping out, said WTP co-founder Jacqueline Laggy. But Castellano’s involvement continued even when Elam wasn’t cast in a production.

“We would work the bar together,” recalled another friend, Franchesca D’Amore. “She made a really mean martini.”

Castellano’s work with WTP culminated in 2010 when she became an official board member of WTP, which has increasingly produced plays addressing LGBT issues, including an annual festival of short plays called Girl Play.

“She’s a very tenacious, very giving person, but she also has that spunk,” Laggy said.

“A Special Soul”

In interviews over the past two weeks, friends shared story after story about how they met her, how she enriched their lives with unreserved, non-judgmental friendship.

The same words independently flowed from several of her friends to describe her: selfless, trustworthy, filled with unconditional love, real, authentic, tough on the outside while gentle on the inside.

Naked Stage co-founder Katherine Amadeo wrote in an email, “There are a handful of people you meet in this life who are just special souls — they glow, from the inside out — and Dana is one of those people. She is full of light and love she radiates it. It is impossible not to smile when she is around.”

D’Amore, an actress, recalled meeting her eight years ago at a South Florida Theatre League party. “She was like an inked warrior on the exterior, but you could tell she had soulful eyes and you just gravitated toward her awesome energy.”

As they became closer, they compared notes on being a lesbian and being a man in the process of becoming a transgendered woman.

“Dana and I had a real inside joke: If only we could trade bodies like (the movie) Freaky Friday, the things we could do,” D’Amore said. “That made us kindred spirits on an exceptional level when you live in a world of gender stereotypes and you don’t fit those stereotypes. Dana was Dana and that was it. You can’t put a label on someone’s soul.”

Some close friendships had little to do with theater. Lisa Ellenbogen-Sfarzo met her in 1987 when she was growing close to the man who she would later marry, Don. He and Castellano has been buddies back in Spanish River High School a few years earlier. “I knew immediately she was one of the people who he was going to seek approval from; she was going to protect his best interests at all costs.”

But they bonded almost immediately and when she married Don, they all agreed that Lisa could call herself Castellano’s sister-in-law. Her support was crucial when Don died.

Lisa Manuli, a former Florida actress now living in Atlanta, said when Manuli’s mother-in-law died unexpectedly in June, Castellano called. “She said, ‘If you guys need anything, I want you to know I’m here. If you need to talk, call me. If you need to get away, just come down here and you guys can stay with me and you can hold my head while I puke.’… and then she laughed that hearty Dana laugh…. And the thing is…she was serious. With everything that she was dealing with and fighting, just a few months back she was serious about us coming to stay with her if we needed her. “

Ellenbogen-Sfarzo expanded on that: “You just immediately feel like she really wants to understand you, she wants to know the answer when she ask you a question. She’s really she’s doing it from her heart and she is genuinely interested. So many people (are waiting) to talk when you’re conversing with them.

Another key word repeated often was accepting. Having fought prejudice as a lesbian for much of her life, she unreservedly extended acceptance to people in general, even to those who might not quite embrace such things as her penchant for tattoos, several friends said.

A Fight In Public

Her willingness to battle the illness publicly reflected her inner strength and self-confidence, said Manuli.

“Once she was able to talk about what was going on, she did not have any problems acknowledging… ‘This is what was happening, this is what I’m going through, I’m going to fight, come along with me.’”

She and her friends created Team Chaos, an informal group of friends, organized through Facebook, to support her fight against cancer and, in part, to raise funds.

Besides raising money, Team Chaos’ Facebook presence bonded Castellano’s friends across the country, Manuli said. “It has kept us all connected and that was something that was very important to her, keeping the people she holds dear connected to what was happening to her in her life. It did so much good to have all of us in a place where it was positive, because she was so positive.”

Ellenbogen-Sfarzo said it was extension of her character: “Her way of approaching every situation is hit it head on, get it out there, cut the crap…. I think her desire, knowing what she needed to do to help herself, was surround herself from the love and support (of people and give them) the opportunity to walk with her, really walk with her on her journey, to consciously decide to pick up arms and consciously battle something that is larger than herself.”

Some of it came from an adulthood in which she refused to hide her sexuality, Ellenbogen-Sfarzo said, “This is just another thing that was going to be transparent about, like any other quality: I am smart, I am beautiful, and I am funny. I have cancer.”

It has been difficult for her friends and extended family to see her losing ground when strength and a fighting spirit had been a hallmark of her life.

Amadeo wrote in an email interview, “You know, logically, that it’s not always just about will, but it’s a terrifying and heart-wrenching thing when someone as strong as Dana — someone who is determined to fight with all of her might to beat it — can’t.”

Manuli said last week, “Stage four, that’s serious right out of the gate, but there was not one doubt in my mind that she was going to beat this.”

One indication of the widespread feelings she engendered was The Dana Plays, a quickly-created evening of nine short plays about fighting cancer, written, directed and performed for free by dozens of people in the theatrical community on July 14.

The idea occurred when she held a party to celebrate shaving off her hair. Among the guests were Amadeo and her husband Antonio. The Amadeos then created the forthcoming event to raise money for Castellano’s medical bills, although she insisted the money be shared with the American Cancer Society.

Although weakened and shockingly thin, she attended the evening at the Miami Theater Center. She came on stage at the curtain call holding her boxing gloves aloft and was embraced by scores of colleagues and loved ones.

Ellenbogen-Sfarzo recalled, “I spoke to her the next day. It had given her so much joy and love and said she ‘was just floating on cloud nine that people would come together through me and do something like this and raise money to help me and other people.’… It was the happiest I heard her for several months; it carried her for some time.”

The Amadeos also pledged the proceeds from Oct. 27’s 24-Hour Theatre Project of short plays written and produced in a single day, an annual event normally serving as a fundraiser for their own theater.

Castellano’s passing intensifies an emotional six months for the South Florida theatrical community which also lost producer/supporter Jay Harris in June and actors Terry M. Cain in June and Jerry Gulledge in February.

Castellano was born in New Hyde Park, New York, on Jan. 2, 1969 to Annmarie Porter and Matthew Castellano Sr. She moved to Florida in 1978 and received her GED from Palm Beach County in 1990.

She had celebrated her last birthday at a bar with 19 friends on Friday, January 3. On Monday, she stayed home from work complaining that she was unable to walk because she was in so much pain. After much persuasion, she finally went to the hospital and was admitted. For two weeks, she underwent extensive tests, not expecting the eventual diagnosis until a biopsy of a lymph node proved she had advanced cervical cancer. She underwent chemo and internal and external radiation therapy plus hospitalizations. She was hospitalized in late mid-September, returned home, but was admitted to hospice Oct. 13.

Survivors in her immediate family include her mother, Annmarie Porter of Sunrise; brother Matthew, sister-in-law Allison, step-father Jack, step-brother Michael, step-sister Michel, brother-in-law Michael, Matthew Castellano Sr., step-mother, Becky, step-brothers Brian and Jason; four nieces and one nephew.

But she had built a very close and large extended family as well, plus the members of Team Chaos.

Castellano requested all donations be made to the Florida Humane Society, 3870 N. Powerline Road, Pompano Beach FL (she had four cats), or the American Cancer Society.

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