HC Theatre produces “Men on Boats”, puts a twist on history

As the first production of the 2021-2022 school year, the Hastings College theatre department is showing “Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus at the Chautauqua Park Pavillion on October 7-9 at 7 p.m. and October 10 at 2 p.m.

The department originally planned “Men on Boats” as an accompanying production to the 2020 Lecture Series Student Symposium theme “Breaking Barriers: The 19th Amendment and beyond”, and ultimately chose to perform the play when a live, in-person audience would be possible.

While the play is about men, and is based on the published journal by American explorer John Wesley Powell from 1895, there is a defining choice in the play’s casting: every male character is played by female-presenting, nonbinary or otherwise non-male actors as requested by Backhaus.  

“The idea behind the choice to cast female-presenting and nonbinary actors is to allow actors that wouldn’t usually get to portray these larger-than-life explorers the chance to do just that, but it also sheds a light on whose historical stories are told,” said adjunct professor of theater Sarah Nottage-Tacey.

The play has a comedic tone and uses modern language conventions, and the casting requirement allows for subtle commentary on the theater industry and larger themes of representation in history, media and on the stage. Westward expansion, in this case the exploration of the Grand Canyon, is still the main focus elevated by dark humor and simple set design as the script follows Powell’s journal.

“Since this is based on a true story it reminds the audience of what these men were thinking on this dangerous expedition. Reflecting on how they may die and they may never see their crew mates again, it stands out and I feel like it brings back the audience to the seriousness of the story,” said junior Audrey Weeks who plays Hawkins.

Playing the characters, done up in fake beards and baggy clothes, was both fun and challenging for the cast. In addition to the obvious gender difference, every one of the titular men had a unique personality to embody.

“I think at first it was a challenge. Having to act like a man and sound like a man was hard to get used to at first, especially with the (behavioral) aspects of it…” said sophomore history major Maggie Price, who plays John Colton Sumner. 

“I think not casting men to challenge the notion of all white men telling history is really empowering,” Price said. 

With the theme of representation in mind, the only major adjustment to the play’s script in the performance is the removal of a scene involving members of the Ute tribe as appropriate casting was not available. 

The play is free to attend, with the option of providing a donation. The audience will also be served refreshments and food by local businesses. Prior to the show and during intermission for the performances on Thursday-Saturday, Special Scoops is serving ice cream. On Saturday, P’s Lunch Box is serving comfort food.