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INNOVATORS Q&A

Sharing stories of inheritance, connection to land, migration, and healing in new bilingual theatrical experience

Shey Rivera Ríos will present a virtual iteration of ‘Fire Flowers and a Time Machine’ (Flores de Fuego y una Máquina del Tiempo) with the Wilbury Theatre Group starting Dec. 16.

Shey Rivera Ríos, formerly of arts incubator AS220, is an interdisciplinary artist, arts administrator, and cultural strategist who explores a variety of themes in their creations at venues such as the Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence, R.I.Wilbury Theatre Group

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.

Shey Rivera Ríos, formerly of arts incubator AS220, is an interdisciplinary artist, arts administrator, and cultural strategist who explores a variety of themes in their creations, including the home to capitalism, queerness, magic, and society’s relationship with technology.

They have more than 10 years of experience in the sector, having been part of the team at the Community Innovation Lab (MIT CoLab) of the school’s urban studies and planning department after studying psychology and sociology at the University of Puerto Rico and culture and contemporary media at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in San Juan.

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This month, Ríos will present a virtual iteration of “Fire Flowers and a Time Machine” (Flores de Fuego y una Máquina del Tiempo) with the Wilbury Theatre Group. The theatrical experience will spotlight 34 artists, reimagined for a virtual audience, as artists will embody ancestors or descendants, sharing “their stories of ancestral inheritance, connection to land, migration, and healing.”

Sussy Santana as one of the Spirit Ancestors in "Fire Flowers and a Time Machine" at Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence, R.I.Wilbury Theatre Group

Q: Why did you decide to perform “Fire Flowers and a Time Machine” last year?

Ríos: Last year, the performance took place in October and we were all trying to define and cultivate what theater meant in the middle of the pandemic. Many of us were struggling with the fact that we could not bring people together in the traditional way. So we [at the Wilbury Theatre Group] started hosting performances outdoors with audience members split into pods [still wearing masks and social distancing at the time]. And the thinking process was that we needed to heal our community in the form of artwork.

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This whole performance honors storytelling as medicine and it’s a way for us to honor our humanity in moments of difficulty. Slowing down and talking about social justice at a time when there was an uprising, as we were approaching the election, and while everyone was just stressed was essential.

Q: Talk me through the storyline.

Ríos: We come together as a community through this “portal” that only opens up on a full moon. We are greeted by a time sentinel who can open up the possibility for us to journey, visit ancestors, descendants, spirits that have wisdom or knowledge for us that we can use today and through a moment of difficulty. There were five stages last year, which ran for a full month. Each stage was a “portal” and on the river we had a “dream boat.” So people would walk along the river and watch a performance of a canoe filled with flowers with a musician playing — which represented the spirit of the river.

Saul Ramos Espola and Alex Rivera as The Two Fridas in "Fire Flowers and a Time Machine" at Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence, R.I. Wilbury Theatre Group

Q: Looking back, what kind of impact do you think the performance had?

Ríos: I still get notes and messages to this day of people sharing their own experiences of the performance. They’re from all backgrounds, races, genders, and ages, and they tell me how the performance allowed them to slow down and take a moment to ground themselves.

Q: What should audiences gain from viewing this new iteration, which will be online?

Ríos: Last year, the performance was outside and about 640 people attended in staggered pods. And it was during a time when people were still very nervous to be in the physical space of others. Now that it will be hosted online, and with a pay-what-you-can model [that Wilbury has adopted], I’m hoping it will be more accessible to anyone around the world.

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Q: What’s next for you after “Fire Flowers and a Time Machine”?

Ríos: “Antigonx” is a queer and Latinx reenvisioning of Sophocles’ “Antigone” [a Greek tragedy] and will debut at Wilbury Theatre Group next spring from March 24 to April 10. But it’s more than just an adaptation, and really zooms in on the story of Antigone and their sibling Ismene as they question their position in the revolution. This play has been inspired by “Fire Flowers” because it will be another moment where we enter a sacred time machine space and these two ancestors will have a conversation where they talk about their position in social change and social justice.

For me, it’s coming during a good time because we are all having conversations with our family members, or internal debates within our own community. All of us have an Antigone and Ismene inside us, questioning what our role is and how we partake in social change. We are all questioning “what is fair?” Everyone has their own perspectives on what that could be and what it looks like. This is an opportunity to use storytelling to visualize those points of connection and points of tension.

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Fire Flowers and a Time Machine will be available online from Dec. 17 to 31.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.