The Proteus Project: Our Own Odyssey by Chris Rivera

Thanks to support from The Sheen Center, Turn to Flesh Productions was able to introduce a new part of the play development process: The Proteus Project.  A step between Monthly MUSE - a place to workshop individual scenes - and our Annual Staged Reading Series, The Proteus Project gives our playwrights the chance to hear their project in full at a music stand reading for a small, private audience.

Thus far, the Proteus Project readings have all gone on to further, exciting development.  TTF playwright, Duncan Pflaster's Cockeye(D), an updated take on The Bacchae in the light of Kevin Spacey and #MeToo, has played at TOSOS, while Artistic Director Emily C. A. Snyder's The Merry Widows of Windsor, a feminist sequel to Shakespeare's Merry Wives, will receive a fully staged reading at The Sheen Center in on Sunday, June 24th.

Up next for the Proteus Project is board member Alexi Sargeant's Writing Stories for Children: Or, How to Give Birth to Gods, for which there are a very few seats remaining.

And today we bring you an exciting interview with our Artistic Associate Producer Chris Rivera who opens a new play, Our Own Odyssey at FuerzaFest this week! Chris still took time to answer a few questions about the play, their experience as part of our Proteus Project this year, and a few questions straight from our Turn to Flesh Community. (Questions from our community denoted with an *)

What inspired you to write a retelling of the Odyssey?*
I fell in love with myth, particularly the Greek pantheon, in Elementary school. That’s what I read instead of young adult fiction. My mom always knew what section of the local library she’d find me in. A project last year made commit more firmly to representation of queer and trans people and people of color in art, and as I thought about the Odyssey, I had a spark of inspiration.

In the many humans and monsters Odysseus meets at sea, I saw very real parallels for young LGBT people. The title simply means: this is our story and our struggles to find the safety of a home in this world, and that struggle is as beautiful, worthy, magical and epic as the story of Odysseus.

Why are you passionate about telling stories of POC and LGBT lives?
Last year I wrote Gender of Attraction: A Gender Non-Conforming Romantic Comedy. It also ran as part of the Hispanic Federation’s FUERZAFest, where I knew the audience was gay and gay friendly, but not necessarily trans-competent. I created a love story with a gender non-conforming main character. I wrote to get audiences to fall in love with and identify with this character, and root for a relationship they may have felt uncomfortable with before seeing the show. I achieved all of my goals. I wrote a play that was very well received, and that educated and entertained but never felt like it was teaching people. I got the exact feedback I wanted from the artists at the festival and the audience.

What I foolishly did not expect was the reaction of my trans and gender non-conforming friends and audience members. A young person came to me after a performance with tears in their eyes and told me that they had never seen themselves in a love story before. They shared that they had an unsupportive mother but feared transitioning because they were afraid. I, of course, started crying right along with them. Other trans and gender non-conforming friends of mine also were profoundly affected by seeing something closer to their own life reflected on stage too.

Then I remembered being a young brown child and one day realizing that none of the characters I loved on TV looked like me. I remembered looking in the mirror and crying because I thought I would never be able to be the hero of the story. So this one isn’t just telling our stories, it’s making us into heroes and creatures of myth.

And there are no gendered pronouns in your script?
Correct. Except for Mamá, no one’s gender is firmly dictated in the play. I made my choices in casting this first production to reflect certain current issues I wanted to address. This production leaves the gender identity of several characters open to interpretation, and drops hint they aren’t cisgender.

How is this play similar to and different than Homer's epic?*
Each person (or monster) our young hero encounters wants essentially the same thing from Des that their counterpart wants from Odysseus. I'll give a few examples.

One of the first challenges is the Lotus Eaters. They came to me immediately in my first spark of inspiration. This group of people happy with the status quo of their life, addicted to a substance that brings them joy but steals other life ambitions. I don't think I have to explain further.

The Cyclops is still a story where the hero expects hospitality but finds a creature that wishes to devour, however that devouring is very different here. The Sirens still attempt to lure Des to their death, but in a much different more personal way that takes too many young LGBT lives each year.

What inspired the narrative between the lovers and their age difference?*
CC/Circe has probably the most complicated relationship with our hero. In myth, Circe is sometimes a goddess of magic, a nymph, a sorceress, or witch. Although youthful in appearance, Circe is usually portrayed as hundreds if not thousands of years older than Odysseus.

In Our Own Odyssey, CC is a modern witch who is older than Des. It's never said if that is five years older, 10 years older, or 10,000 years older.

To answer more directly I felt the story dictated CC was older, and I decided what that love would mean to a young, newly out person with no home or family left.

Do you believe this (the age difference) made more of an impact on the protagonist, having supportive older folk on their journey?*
Absolutely! Both in writing CC and playing them in this production, I have focused on the difference in the character’s life experience rather than age. Des’ life before the show was a mix of being sheltered and being oppressed. They have so much to learn about life in their new world, about love, and about themselves. CC on the other hand has spent many years surviving in this world, and knows old magic and mysteries about that survival.

CC is a lover and a teacher, yet ultimately not the final place on Des' journey to find home. I think we learn so much from our first real relationship. It changes us.

And then there is wisdom and fabulosity of the prophet Tiresias! In this play the importance of community, mentorship, and knowing the history of your community is incredibly valuable and mystical.

A few people presumed you, the playwright, would play the part of Des.  Why did you take on CC?*
So to explain to people who do not know, I played the main character in my play Gender of Attraction at last year's festival, and many assumed I would take the leading role in this production.

In both projects, I cast myself where I felt I was needed. Where it would have been most difficult to find someone else. If I had found another actor for CC and had trouble casting Des, I would have considered playing the role and handing over the duties of director completely. However Joe, the actor playing Des, is a talented spitfire who got my language right away. He brings so much to the role that I would have never thought of.

He's also a much more appropriate age for the role than I am! Playing the seemingly youthful yet secretly ancient one is a better fit for me.

Is the play in verse?
Partially! It wasn't technically at first. I always write with very specific punctuation to dictate rhythm. This was more lyrical in places than some of my projects. Suddenly I realized: this is poetry. But lovers of classical theater please note, it's much more the poetry of Naomi Iizuka than Shakespeare.

How did having your Proteus Project reading with TTF help? What did you learn?
You never really know how things will play or what jokes will land until you get an audience in. Oh, by the way, it hasn't come up yet and I should probably mention…besides all the drama and classical inspiration this the play is actually quite funny in sections. Having the wonderful curated group we did for the Proteus Project, I learned a lot about what to amend, what to trim, what to cut. It was amazingly helpful. I also gained so much support from the audience. I feel like so many people are rooting for this play now. For this production and beyond.

I also was stunned when for the first time in my life in the theatre I witnessed an audience erupt into applause mid-play after a bittersweet relationship based scene. I'm so glad to have created work that seemed to profoundly resonate so truthfully to people's experiences in heartbreak. 

You also brought that scene to Turn to Flesh’s monthly MUSE, our open workshop for new work, with two actresses in the roles. What was that experience like?
So inspiring and helpful. It really motivated me to finish the play. I brought in that scene because at the time it was arguably the most experimental thing I have written.  A spell has the characters show us a year of a relationship over the course of a few minutes. I went in worried it wouldn’t work, and it turns out the magic was there. We have such a smart supportive group playing with us at MUSE, and they gave me really great specifics feedback about moments that took them out of the spell during the process.  So I took that feedback, and at the reading we were ready to create the magic.

I wrote almost all of my play Curse of Cassandra, which received a fully staged reading last year, by workshopping scenes at MUSE. As a part of Turn to Flesh I try to let visitors claim slots before I do, but I think for me it is most valuable when I have something I feel passionate about, but need to work out how a specific scene will play.

So how can people see this show? Plug away!
Don’t mind if I do!

by Chris Rivera
performs along side Atomic Intimacy  
as part of the Hispanic Federation's FUERZAFest

Our Own Odyssey is a retelling of Homer's epic reimagined as the modern tale of a queer Latinx youth's journey to find a new home after being abandoned by family. Along the way are drug using Lotus Eaters, an appealing witch, an ancient prophet, and terrifying monsters within.

Joe Ottavi Perez, Michael Johnnie Lynch, Sophia Introna, Michael John Improta, and Chris Rivera

May 17th and 19th only at 7pm
The Julia De Burgos Theater
1680 Lexington Ave

Tickets are $20 cash at the door, 
but may be reserved by emailing
This Festival does sell out and reservations are recommended.

***Ticket includes both evening’s performances and a complimentary open bar with beer and wine in the center’s art gallery starting at 6pm


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