Everyone Aboard! Embark on the Colorado River with the Cast and Crew of Men on Boats

By Annie Sears

Everyone aboard! We snuck into the first rehearsal for Men on Boats—playing at The Strand from October 17—and got an early look at the cast and creative vision for this subversive and exciting adventure.

Men on Boats follows one-armed, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell and his team of nine explorers as they traverse the Green and Colorado Rivers, ultimately “discovering” the Grand Canyon. Historically, these expeditioners were white, cisgender [a person whose gender identity is the same as the gender assigned at birth] men. But when the story is mounted on A.C.T.’s Strand stage, the characters will be embodied by a racially diverse cast of female-identifying actors. The script toys with traditional gender conventions, and because the script also contemporizes language and offers opportunities for bold physicality, it does so through comedy.

“You are embarking on bringing to life what I think is a masterful—do we say mistress-ful—play,” said Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon. “Build something bigger than yourselves, and laugh while you’re doing it.”

When MacKinnon accepted her job as Artistic Director here at A.C.T., she knew she wanted Men on Boats in the season lineup. MacKinnon started her theatrical career at Clubbed Thumb, a New York theater company that “develops and produces funny, strange and provocative new plays,” and that originally commissioned Men on Boats.

The play was conceived on the East Coast, but playwright Jaclyn Backhaus believes it will find its home here on the West Coast. “It’s really a special thing to see this play, which deals with Manifest Destiny, on the coast that our country expanded toward,” said Backhaus, who attended via Skype. “I feel like there’s something about the West—the beauty and the nature and the terrifying consequences—that just gets this play.”

Designers certainly get it. They’ve done their research and found inspiration in all sorts of outlets. Costume Designer Christine Crook deviated from historical realism and pulling saturated colors from dime novels. Sound Designer Kate Marvin combined orchestral works that “speak to a romanticized version of America” with music of “nostalgia for a certain idea of the American west: 1960s television Westerns, Roy Rogers, and songs about characters like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.” Scenic Designer Nina Ball pulled from personal memory. “Many of us have experienced the Grand Canyon, either above looking in or floating down below,” said Ball. “So how do we capture the majesty? We’ve taken a nice trip figuring it out.”

“I am very, very happy to be able to usher forward this kind of beautiful work with this amazing company into this space at this time in this city,” said Director Tamilla Woodard. “Thank you for welcoming me into your world.”

So the adventure begins. Previews for Men on Boats start October 17. Get your tickets today!

Director Tamilla Woodard and Assistant Director Nailah Harper-Malveaux laugh with Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, present on the phone via Skype.
Photo by Joy Meads.

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