The Willamette University Theatre Department is back with a new rip roaring comedy, “Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus. This reiteration of the story follows John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition of the Grand Canyon through a new lens: with no men. Instead, the cast is made up of non-male identifying actors playing the roles of the men who rode the rapids down the Colorado River.
Directed by Susan Coromel and assistant directed by Katy Payne (‘21), “Men on Boats” focuses on giving every member of the expedition the same attention that Powell had. According to Payne, it “really deals with the question of who controls the narrative of history.”
By bringing new context to the story through the cast’s unique portrayals of the expeditioners, “Men on Boats” has changed the way the cast had thought about history and its portrayal today. Having the cast be composed of people who do not identify as men brings to focus many of the issues involved with historical retellings while also taking that story away from the people that history is normally filtered through.
Emma Chang (‘23) reiterated this when she described how working on this play has impacted her worldview. “It made me consider how we tell history and how the perspectives of those who tell it or write it often obscures the stories of others.”
Beyond giving a retelling of the expedition’s history, the play has also given the actors the chance to play roles they normally wouldn’t have held. Nikolette Olson (‘23), who plays John Wesley Powell, spoke further about playing the expedition leader in her first show at Willamette:
“I’ve not only had the privilege to be apart of a cast full of extremely committed, wonderful people, I have also had the opportunity to play a role that I otherwise would not be able to. Having the ability to enter this rough-and-tumble sort of world that these frontiersmen were a part of, especially in a role of leadership, has been a theatre experience like none I have ever been apart of.”
These perspectives were not lost upon the performers, as many of them discovered that this story brought them closer as a crew both in and out of the rehearsal room. From rehearsal to an organized kayaking trip on the Willamette River, the cast has had a lot of time to bond with one another.
Rion Iverson (‘21), who plays George Young Bradley spoke more about their experience with their cast mates: “This is my favorite show I’ve ever a part of. I’ve never felt like such a sense of camaraderie with a cast before, I feel like we’ve all become really good friends.” They continued on to say, “There’s a line where Powell says, ‘We’ve all become like brothers.’ I hope that sense of camaraderie comes through.”
According to Payne, it does. Payne even spoke to the ways that the actors are demonstrating their newfound bond through the rehearsal process. She said, “This entire cast has been very kind and very funny, and everyone is definitely looking out for each other in the rehearsal room, which is more important now than ever.”
In addition to the cast, the crew has been working hard to construct, design and paint the finished set and prop pieces needed for this production. From costumes, to lighting, to the large map of the Grand Canyon, every aspect of this show has been a group effort. People from all production areas have put their all into making the theatre’s first show of the season the best it can be, no matter what their relationship is with the theatre.
Payne has one more piece of advice for anyone interested in seeing the show: “Go into the show ready for a ride. It has some deeper themes that you can’t necessarily see through the surface level, but if you’re paying attention, they’re there. They’re very powerful.”
Men on Boats opens Thursday, Sept. 26, and runs through Saturday, Oct. 12 in the M. Lee Pelton Theatre with showtimes at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets for the show cost eight dollars for students, $12 for general admission and $10 for seniors.