Invention and Discovery: An Interview with Men on Boats Director Tamilla Woodard

By Simon Hodgson

For Men on Boats Director Tamilla Woodard, the audience’s experience is her benchmark. “When theater is successful,” she says, “we laugh, we cry, we forget where we’ve been. That’s what I’m after.” Woodard is rapidly developing a reputation as a director who really draws audiences into her stories, whether in immersive works staged in hotel rooms or on proscenium stages such as A.C.T.’s Rembe Theater. As Woodard prepared for rehearsals, we spoke with her about the voyage of exploration in Men on Boats.

A.C.T. General Manager Louisa Balch and Director Tamilla Woodard at the first rehearsal for Men on Boats.

What makes Men on Boats a show for a Bay Area audience?
The Bay is still a frontier, not only across the physical environment, but also the political and social justice environments. It’s a place of adventure, a place where people find unknown territory, and a place where movements start. It’s the perfect city for this play.

How is Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus shifting the audience’s perspective for adventure tales such as Powell’s?
Often, hero stories have been the territory of male, cisgender [a person whose gender identity is the same as the gender assigned at birth] writers, mainly white men. The hero is always the guy who gets to say what happened. It’s essential that we make room for other people’s experience of history. Jaclyn proposes a space for an adventure story to be occupied by bodies and psychological experiences that are not those of white men. This may feel a bit disorienting, but it allows us to see something differently. That disorientation invites illumination, and that recognition spurs laughter. When we laugh, we physically take in more oxygen, and things move through us differently—perhaps more coherently. I like putting an audience in a place that’s filled with disorientation and recognition.

What inspires you about American theater today?
Oh gosh! I’m inspired that audiences are beginning to widen in terms of perspective. When I’m sitting in the middle of an audience that actually looks like America, it feels wonderful. I work to create a wider perspective of storytelling and story purveyors, and an audience that has different points of access to these stories—familiarity, curiosity, even disagreement. The more often we can tell each other who we are, the less suspicious we become of each other. Let us deliver stories that represent the entire collection of humanity. Theater is a place where you’re reminded that you are of value, that you count. And that the person next to you counts too, even if you didn’t see them sitting there before.

Men on Boats runs through December 16 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Get your crew together, check out our discounts on group seating, and get your tickets today!

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