Alumni Profile: Rivka Rivera
November 15, 2023
By Gretchen Suárez-Peña, MFA Dramatic Writing Candidate
Rivka Rivera made rice rain in the Rauh.
It’s an alliteration that tickles the tongue and sparks an image if you’re familiar with the black box theater inside Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) School of Drama (SOD) Purnell Center for the Arts. Yes, this past summer, buckets of raw rice fell from the grid ceiling of the Rauh, an idea born from scenic designer Michael Ruiz-del-Vizo. The falling grain was used to mimic the sound, look, feel, and symbolic intensity of a hurricane in a new play, “The Mourners,” written by CMU alum, playwright Rivka Rivera, as part of the inaugural ColLABo Project.
What is ColLABo? I’m glad you asked. ColLABo is the brainchild of Associate Professor of Acting, Kyle Haden. Haden describes it as, “A director and designer led incubator for projects that are in the stop between reading and production. We’re especially interested in developing new stories centering marginalized voices.”
Haden and Rivera both agree that in the world of new play development often the only opportunities are residencies, readings, workshops, or the big time crunched high stakes production. There is no time to really think through the technical elements that make a play theatrical, when a product is always needed at the end: a script, a performance, a show. ColLABo fills a hole in the American theatrical landscape. It gives playwrights the opportunity to work with directors and designers and orchestrate the moments integral to the story that require specific design elements. In the case of “The Mourners,” that moment is when Hurricane Maria strikes Puerto Rico.
“The Mourners” is about a multi-generational family on the eve of Hurricane Maria in 2017. This family is dealing with the loss of their daughter, mother, and ex-partner. For Rivera, this piece comes from a real and personal place having lost her sister and experiencing the pain of seeing family deal with the aftermath of Maria both in and outside of the island.
I’ll take a moment here to interject. I’m Puerto Rican and have real visceral feelings about Maria. Rivera and I are part of the same collective of writers at Conch Shell Productions (CSP) in New York City run by Magaly Colimon-Christopher. CSP is an organization focused on elevating stories of the Caribbean Diaspora. I was fortunate enough to read an earlier draft of this script and knew that it was truly special. So, the serendipitous arrival of “The Mourners” on CMU’s campus feels too good not to talk about as an MFA CMU SOD dramatic writing student, but I’ll get into more of that later.
Let’s back up: let me introduce you to Rivka Rivera and her journey from BFA acting student at CMU (class of 2010) to prolific artist. During her time at CMU, Rivera performed in such shows as “The Mill on the Floss” directed by Dana Friedman, “Richard the Third” directed by Matt Gray, “One Flea Spare” directed by Amy Clausen, and “A Boy Named Alice” written by Josh Harmon (CMU playwright alum), directed by Sarah Krone. Rivera is a self-identified “Jew-Yo-Rican”: half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican, and born and raised in New York. Known as Rebecca during her time at CMU, it was after leaving the school that she began to dig into her Jewish and Puerto Rican heritage.
“The industry really wants to put you in a box – what are you?” Rivera said. “I started saying ‘yes’ to Latin roles and felt a deep shift to further explore and expand my identity…The name Rivka came to me, and I changed my name without asking anyone’s permission.” Rivka is Hebrew for Rebecca. So being Rivka Rivera, “I was Jewish and Puerto Rican and could marry those two parts of myself.” Rivera will not be put in a box! She says that CMU gave her the tools to explore her identity and helped her not only expand her career in acting for the stage, tv, and film, but also in writing, facilitating workshops, and even hosting a podcast.
Rivera felt that bringing “The Mourners” to CMU was incredibly serendipitous. I told you we’d talk about it. As a high schooler, Rivera attended a theater camp one summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Who was working and instructing there at the time? Kyle Haden and Juan Rivera, both instrumental in the ColLABo experience of “The Mourners.” Haden was incredibly excited to have the first ColLABo Project invite a CMU alum. Rivera says that returning to CMU was incredibly healing, a full circle moment where she was able to work on this show centered around grief and deconstruct the notion of what it means to develop a play to its full potential.
Oh, and what potential! Rivera says that the best things about ColLABo were the resources it offered, time being the most valuable. Also, CMU provided props, space, a stipend, and even technical personnel, such as Tate Abdullah, a third year MFA Sound Design student. “We worked with Tate who blew our minds about how we think about sound.” said Rivera.
“We worked on building tension by creating these natural sounds with props within the space. The sounds began with the actors and then those sounds emanated outward. We even did some foley work with flutes. It was all very organic. It was awesome to be part of something so new and experimental.” said Abdullah of the ColLABo experience.
Rivera says that putting the show up on its feet in this collaborative fashion gave her the confidence to revise her script in specific and deliberate ways. That collaboration was built by a team comprising of director Francisco Rivera Rodriguez, scenic designer Michael Ruiz-del-Vizo, producer Lana Russell, with actors Juan Rivera (CMU Acting Faculty), Sam Marzella (CMU Actor ’23), Bryanna Felipe (CMU Actor ’23), and Moire Del Carmen Díaz (CMU Costume Design ’24).
Rivera says that finding these moments in space, with technical pieces in place, made it very clear what story was being told and how it should be told moving forward. “We can now go to interested producers and say, ‘Yes, this hurricane works with rice and fans and these props and these sounds, and this is how the actors work together on stage with all these elements because we’ve done it. It’s not theoretical, we’ve seen it in action.’”
This was Haden’s goal all along, to help secure the technical aspects of a piece before going into costly productions. He shared with me an experience that threw in design elements during rehearsals and how jarring it was. “If this had been done with designers a week before actors showed up, it would have been easier and safer for everyone to understand how working in this space changes how we navigate it and tell the story.” It seems like an ounce of ColLABo is worth a pound of cure, given it can cut technical issues down the line by addressing them early.
Both Haden and Rivera encourage all artists to learn about it and apply if they feel their team needs the opportunity. This is particularly important if there are directing or designing aspects of the script, integral to the story-telling, that need to be fleshed out. CMU SOD has the resources to provide teams the space and time to address those things with no pressure to have a product at the end of their time.
“We forget that theater is a collaborative art. As an actor, sometimes it feels like you’re just passing through gates of the playwright, director, costumer, etc.” says Rivera. She goes on to explain that working together in real space and in real time can help us see how all these things affect our way of telling the story. Rivera feels confident that after this experience her piece is more ready than it has ever been for production and that hopefully other places with similar resources will replicate the model. “I didn’t need another residency or reading. I needed this experience to show me what was actually tangible for this show.”
ColLABo applications for summer of 2024 are open now! Visit www.drama.cmu.edu/collabo for more information.
Photos by Louis Stein