Q&A: The Inspiration Behind Shey Rivera Rios’ Innovative AntigonX
The show will see a limited run inside the Wilbury Theatre Group’s newly constructed theater space at WaterFire Arts Center from March 31–April 10.
AntigonX, the latest production from the Wilbury Theatre Group, is not the Greek classic-and-tragic story of Antigone that you read in high school — it’s much, much more. Though the plot is familiar (like the original play, the main character is pitted against the crown following the disgraced death of a family member), AntigonX’s writer and star Shey Rivera Rios (pronouns: they/them) masterfully reinterprets the setting and characters through a Latinx and queer lens and focuses on the sibling relationship between the leads, Antígona (they/them) and Ismene (she/her). We chatted with Rios to learn everything from their inspiration for this adaptation to what they hope audiences will take away from the performance.
Let’s start from the beginning: Have you always loved theater?
I did have several opportunities as a young person to attend theater. One was a show put on by my classmates and I think that was the most significant. It was super fun and made me feel really inspired about the possibilities of storytelling. I wasn’t a person who studied theater or anything of the sort, but I was always engaged in different kinds of mediums in art making. Then when I started working for AS220, I started really getting more into theater and performance, both as an audience person and as a producer. I worked there for eight years and was part of producing programming and cultivating community through different mediums, and experimental theater, specifically, really excited me.
How did you get involved with the Wilbury Theatre Group?
I’ve had a relationship with Wilbury since they first started doing the FringePVD festival in 2014. I was still with AS220 at the time, and I produced and curated an event that was part of the festival called Fluxus Moon Cabaret. But I started really working closer with them after I left AS220. There was an opportunity to build and continue some of my own programming with them, so I started doing my Luna Loba performance series at Wilbury’s space in Olneyville. It felt exciting to be in a new space and to just be an artist and not take on the role of administrator at the same time. Then Josh [Short, Wilbury’s Artistic Director] and I talked, and he said, “I want you to feel like the Wilbury is an art home for you.” So, I took him up on that offer! It eventually transitioned into a residency-style engagement. I was part of the Decameron Providence alongside multiple other artists that they brought in, and I produced the Fire Flower and a Time Machine production with them in 2020.
What first drew you to the idea of adapting the story of Antigone?
I read Antigone when I was in high school and again in college, but the version that really stuck with me was called La Pasión Según Antígona Pérez. That was an adaptation by Luis Rafael Sánchez, an Afro-Boricua writer and theater-maker. He took the story of Antigone and put it in a Puerto Rican context and dealt with the Nationalist movement on the island. I had initially wanted to bring that version to life, but after conversations with collaborators and friends, I decided to create my own adaptation to respond to current times. I just thought that it would be a much better approach to tell the story I really wanted to tell, which was a story about people in Puerto Rico, right now, and all these intersections that relate to our life here in the US. Of how we confront grief, how we hold family conversations and how we show up in times of social and political unrest. Those themes really stuck out to me. What does it mean to be a person in a time of social upheaval and what’s the path that you want to choose? I wanted to dig a little deeper with what I’ve been exploring in my own journey as a person from Puerto Rico, and as a person who is mixed race and queer. Antigone was always an interesting character to me, and I wanted to use that as a container for the story I wanted to tell.
What about this story made you feel like it lent itself to a queer narrative?
I think this story resonates for queer people because, to me, Antigone is a character who feels like they don’t belong in their world, a binary world in a political sense. It was easy for me to see Antigone as a non-binary character. This was a character who does not fit the norm and who is struggling because they have very specific ways in which they see the world and how they see justice. Everyone has an expectation of them that they just don’t subscribe to. Navigating that space, to me, feels queer, and I thought it would be great to pull that out. Also, in the original story, the roles, in a way, are inverted. In that story, Antigone is a woman engaged to the son of the current ruler, but in the conversation between those characters, it’s not a traditional man-to-woman relationship. And what motivates Antigone is not her association with this person; it’s really her connection to family. As queer people, we build families because we often come from families that are not necessarily the most welcoming to us, or we just develop different ways of building community because we need to in order to survive. I’m not sure how many adaptations there are of Antigone written by queer people, but the ones I’ve read are more by cis-heterosexual folks. I found it important to explore the story with a queer lens.
In AntigonX you put more emphasis on the relationship between Antígona and their sister, Ismene, while also giving Ismene a larger role in the narrative. How did that come about?
This is a spoiler alert, but the play is really about Antígona and Ismene. I came up with the title AntigonX since the original play is called Antigone, but the story is about both of them. I felt like there were so many gaps in the original. Ismene was shoved to the side in the original story and wasn’t given the space to be understood. I could not allow myself to believe that was the end of her story. In a world where you and I exist, we would have really intense conversations with our siblings and be like, “Real talk, I don’t agree with what you’re doing.” And the other person would be like, “Well, I don’t think that you should be doing this!” I wanted to bring more light to that relationship and rescue Ismene as a character. In the original she disappears, but in this one, what if she played a role in the revolution? I think about that a lot: the way that the stories of women and non-binary people are told. Especially when the people that are writing them are not people who identify with those identities. There is so much more there that I thought needed to be told.
Tell us about the development process.
AntigonX has been in the works for quite a while. I was going to present it in 2020, but then it felt more important to do something different, so that was why I chose to do Fire Flowers—to respond to the moment. But now it really felt like the right time to do this work. In the beginning, I was just trying to figure out the form of the story and what I was really trying to communicate. It was speculation and workshopping and throwing the ideas on the wall with friends. But then Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, Massachusetts, extended a residency opportunity to me. I was able to do one-week residencies with them a few times last year, and I would spend time with their team talking through the play, going to their open practice sessions, and developing and writing. Then towards the end of last year into early this year, that’s when it really ramped up and I finally finished writing.
What has it been like seeing AntigonX come to life?
Jackie Davis is directing this play. Working with her has been a dream—I had wanted to work with her as a director for years now and the opportunity finally came up. She’s amazing. I’ve still been part of how the whole play has come together, for sure. From selecting the people that we were going to work with to helping plan out the stage and wardrobe with the team to, of course, being part of the cast through all the rehearsals. We have a fun and exciting group of people that are making this project a reality.
How has it been for you taking on the role of Antígona?
Usually, I’m in the role of director or producer and it’s something I feel comfortable with, but in this project, shifting that role has been a nice change for me because it’s a new challenge and I get to nourish myself as an artist in a different way. But it’s also been scary! To embody a character that I created was definitely like, ‘Woah, okay, this feels really too close to home.’ It’s exciting, though, and meaningful. I think I’m learning a lot about myself by embodying this character. It also feels so natural which is weird. And a bit terrifying. Like, ‘Wow, I’m showing so much to all the people here.’
What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
My hope is that people can see themselves or find themselves in the work and feel a sense of breaking out of this isolation that many of us have been in. To just know that other folks have been having similar conversations within themselves in the past two years. Like, what is our role in family, in community, in social justice and how do we show up to this time of hardship? My hope is that people leave with hope and feel seen after seeing this work. I think this work will resonate with people who don’t often see themselves as protagonists in stories, especially queer BIPOC youths. That is really exciting to me.
I think something else that is important is the conversation about Latinx identity— unpacking that more has been a journey of mine. Because so often our ancestries that come from Black and indigenous people are erased. AntigonX is a very culturally rooted work, but specifically to Boricuas (Puerto Ricans). I hope that the people who see it can find connection to it. I am also excited by the idea of expanding the Puerto Rican identity and sharing with people where we come from in new ways. That’s why I am so passionate about storytelling and the arts, really. We get to tell our own stories, and that’s super important.
The limited run of AntigonX will go on from March 31–April 10 inside the Wilbury Theatre Group’s newly-constructed theater space at the WaterFire Arts Center. All attendees must wear masks and be fully vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID test (see website for more details). Tickets prices are pay-what-you-can and are available here.