Wilfredo Rivera on the Importance of Bringing the Authentic Self to Theatre and the Arts

Wilfredo Rivera Wilfredo Rivera
Columbia Theatre faculty member talks about the importance of equitable representation and building bridges to understanding in musical theatre.

Wilfredo Rivera’s passion for the performing arts started in the 2nd grade when he began performing in school poetry jams, theater and dance productions, and ensembles. Now a Practitioner-in-Residence of Musical Theatre with a specialization in Dance, and Musical Theater Program Coordinator in the Theatre Department at Columbia College Chicago, Rivera has come a long way from his 2nd grade performances. He is a recipient of a 2001 After Dark Award, the Cliff Dwellers Arts Foundation Choreography Award in 2009, a 2016 Saints Award for the development of American Catracho, and a 2021 black album. mixtape. award for his multi-cultural work. He was also nominated for a 3ARTS Award in both 2017 and 2018. With significant experience in Musical Theatre and more than two decades as a Guest Lecturer, Co-Instructor, Choreographer, and in mentorship/coaching roles for the Music and Theater departments at Columbia, Rivera tells us about his work and his deep commitment to diversity and collaboration in the arts.

Why did you choose Columbia College Chicago? 

Columbia's mission and ethos is particularly appealing to me. I enjoy sharing with students the knowledge and experience I've garnered in the professional world. It is rewarding to give back to our Chi arts community and to collaborate and create art with our Columbia students. 

What is your experience in the field? How do you bring your experiences into the classroom? 

I currently serve as Artistic Director for the critically acclaimed Cerqua Rivera Dance Theater (CRDT)—a professional dance and music ensemble based in Chicago. I also work independently as a choreographer for regional theater and musical theater professional productions.

I’m deeply committed to diversity and collaboration—thriving in an ecosystem that others find challenging to create. Within Cerqua Rivera Dance Theater, I maintain a diverse collective of artists year after year, with BIPOC artists and women in lead creative positions as well as onstage and behind the scenes. I'm able to draw out the best of my full company while maintaining the strong personal narrative focus of each project. Every year we add to our repertoire of multidisciplinary pieces, each with a distinct and clear cultural narrative and together representing the full breadth of society—a focus that sets us apart.  

As an educator, I've been fortunate to have garnered an extensive teaching experience at all levels, from primary to secondary to higher education. In addition, mentoring, coaching, and training are key components of my work as a Choreographer and Artistic Director. 

I am deeply committed to the magic of collaboration and its necessity to creating meaningful artwork. In the multicultural, multigenerational company that is Cerqua Rivera, as well as the many theatres and other organizations where I have choreographed and taught, my work involves deeply engaging individuals and building bridges to understanding. In my own and my company’s art, I know the value and strength of any group comes from each person bringing their true and authentic selves to the process. The same is true in educational settings, and I focus on remaining sensitive to special needs among my students and building appreciation and respect within every group I lead.

Can you tell us about past projects you are most proud of?

My evening length work American Catracho, an exploration of the immigrant experience, debuted in 2019 at The Auditorium Theatre in celebration of CRDT's 20th Anniversary Season. Inspired by my own immigrant Honduran experience, this four-year project involved deep research, development, and collaboration with a robust roster of multi-disciplinary artists, educators, social justice practitioners, and immigration law consultants to unpack elements of the complex and harrowing contemporary immigrant experiences. It was quiet a remarkable and rewarding project that touched us artists as deeply as our diverse audiences.

What projects are you currently working on? 

CRDT's 22-23' season kicks off October 22. I'm curating and directing three premieres in tandem with coordinating logistics for CRDT setting foot on to the national stage, as the company begins to tour nationally.

What do you believe the greatest challenge of working in Theatre is today? 

The ongoing pandemic crisis, racial and justice uprisings, and the divisive social political climate continue to present both deep challenges in terms of sustainability, but at the same time amazing opportunities for structural and artistic growth and change.

How have you approached overcoming those challenges?

These current societal crises reconfirmed how purposely CRDT has stewarded diversity, equity, and inclusion for a while now serving as a catalyst through a meaningful and thoughtful pursuit of equitable representation both on and off stage. CRDT and I continue to evolve and mature in our approach to nourishing a culture of transparency and authentically embracing our artists, patrons, and industry partners. That is to say, the work is never “done,” but is a process we lead with compassion, heart, and intellect.

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing Theatre as their career field? 

Be bold, inquisitive. Seek to fearlessly unpack layers of truth underneath the hard questions. Lead all endeavors and interpersonal interactions with compassion