This fall I’ve been part of a marvelous crew bringing to the stage the story of John Wesley Powell’s first (disastrous) expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon. Powell’s 1869 adventure is the subject of MEN ON BOATS by Jaclyn Backhaus. The show, directed by Genevieve Aichele and staged at WEST, is part of New Hampshire Theatre Project’s historic 30th season producing in Portsmouth. (Read more about NHTP’s season and about our show here.) Backhaus’s play intrigues on several levels–she includes seven scenes of the men riding the rapids, including plunging down waterfalls and capsizing with men overboard. So that is fascinating to stage! But the most notorious aspect of the script is Backhaus’s specification that the MEN ON BOATS, all ten of them, be played by non-males (cis-women, trans women or gender non-conforming actors). So I have the great privilege of portraying John Wesley Powell himself in a production with nine other actresses also playing male characters. Each of my cast mates is brilliant and uniquely talented, not to mention upbeat, supportive and funny. I’m absolutely thrilled to be sharing this experience with them.
Reviewers of the show in New York and regionally have been entertained but a little puzzled by the casting requirement. Is the play a satire on masculinity? The playwright has said she was intrigued by the story but wanted to give people like herself the chance to play such adventurous roles. No overt political message concerning gender is implied, although there is some pointed criticism of the violence and greed of white settlers as they “discovered” and stole possession of lands from the native people. Our director’s approach to all of this was to focus on each individual character’s strengths, weaknesses, motivations and relationships, without getting too hung up on gender, and while allowing the racial component to speak for itself. (Our cast does include two non-white actors and we’ve had numerous conversations in rehearsal about the nuances of the racial issues.) Gen did urge us to lower the pitch of our voices and reduce the melodiousness of our line delivery in creating these men, and we had a good time figuring out how to take up more space physically while standing, sitting, or miming the work of climbing, portaging, and navigating the rapids. Aiding us in our focus on the physical was a near-total absence of props or set. Using only rehearsal blocks as our boats, rocks and stumps for sitting, and even to build a mountain top, we were backed by projections of photographs from Powell’s second, successful expedition. The projections were created by Catherine Stewart. Quentin Stockwell designed our lighting, which he built on the black-and-white palette of the photos by eschewing added color and using footlights for a 19th century vaudeville feel. Robin Fowler designed the sound, using fantastic music of the period, along with lots and lots of rushing water.
I had to navigate some challenging obstacles to find my version of Powell. First, I researched him almost to a fault–sometimes the playwright left out aspects of Powell’s history or logic in how he led his expedition and I would feel frustrated by what I could not say! I had a good couple of weeks when an inner voice was saying, “Powell would say that he damn well knows what it’s like to have men die on his watch, he served in the Civil War, leading an artillery battery both before AND after he had his right arm shot off!” So I had to back off of the research, mentally tip my hat to the enormity of Powell’s personality and accomplishments, and just focus on the character Backhaus had created, who is only one part of a diverse and entertaining ensemble. My next obstacle was physical: I am the shortest member of the cast–there are two other short folks, Mary and Ollire, but as the leader of the expedition who needed to project an air of authority 99% of the time, I had to fight the fact that I was dwarfed by some of the other actors. Sometimes I can’t even see their faces from under my hat brim!
Additionally, there is that issue of Major Powell’s missing arm. The playwright emphasizes in her stage directions and the lines themselves that Powell’s movements can look “awkward” and that a faction of the group begins to find him “useless.” I looked at many, many pictures from other productions and could find no magic theatrical effect to help me–I was going to have to put one arm away for the duration of my time on stage, holding it either in front of or behind my body.
I began rehearsal with my right arm held in front of my body and began trying to do everything with my left hand. In our production, Powell has the only real, tangible props: a journal and pencil stub which I keep in a satchel. So I had to figure out how to repeatedly remove and replace my journal from the satchel, not to mention write in it. When I began wearing the naval-style coat chosen by the director and costume designer to help hide my arm, I felt lost in its huge, square woolen shape. Having my arm wrapped around my waist was tiring, because no sort of sling arrangement was working, and I also was distracted by feeling my soft, feminine tummy under my hand. I also tried leaving my arm by my side, with my hand hidden by my sleeve, but not using it at all. Gen let me know pretty quickly that that choice didn’t work–it was just impossible not to activate that arm when moving, especially in the rapids scene.
I had a breakthrough one week before opening during an extra rehearsal with our assistant director, Kate Kirkwood. I confessed that I was having trouble gaining and maintaining status when I felt like Spongebob Squarepants or Hugh Jackman’s ten-year-old son dressed up as The Greatest Showman.
Kate said, yeah, the arm’s not working, so let’s play! And we quickly found the solution: I have claimed my dominant right arm back, so I can competently, confidently use the one arm I have. This seems right in spite of not being historically correct, as Powell worked enormously hard to adapt to using his remaining arm (and to cope with the painful neuropathy in his stump). He would have been confident with his hand, rather than fumbling and weak. He climbed Pike’s Peak in a blizzard with that one arm! So, I am using my right arm. Next, in spite of the mild stress it puts on my shoulder, I am wrapping my left arm behind my back. Putting the arm in back automatically makes me puff out my chest and pelvis in a more masculine stance. I can hook my hand in my waistband and then allow the arm to relax, instead of holding it up the whole time. And, my lower back is probably my thinnest and most muscled body part right now, so it’s less feminine feeling for me to touch than my waist. As soon as I made this change, my ability to take status in the group skyrocketed. Thank goodness everyone was supportive of the change as we barreled into tech week and opening.
We’re in the second weekend now and we’ve packed every house and sold out several performances. I love being onstage with this crew and fielding the questions of my friends after they’ve seen it. But MEN ON BOATS is not a seamless escape from the concerning realities of the day. As our Powell declares, “My friend, the [effing] President of the United States, needed a better knowledge of the arid lands of this nation.” The goal of these expeditions was to explore the geology of this previously unmapped region, to understand if it could sustain populations of settlers. Powell brought his answer back to Congress: proceed with caution. There is not enough water to settle the West as thickly as we have settled East of the Mississippi. Over-population will cause drought and water-rights wars. Congress didn’t listen. Unfettered growth, the conquest of natural resources, and the fulfillment of the white man’s destiny in North America were too important to worry about dust bowls or catastrophic fires decades or centuries in the future.
So here we are, surrounded by fire and flood as the current Congress squabbles. There is much more I could say about John Wesley Powell, his prescience about climate change, and the ways his story intersects with the physical and cultural hegemony inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the United States. But you can read about that elsewhere, particularly in John F. Ross’s The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and his Vision for the American West.
Until then, MEN ON BOATS runs at WEST through December 2nd. Join us for this wild ride! Ticket information is here. And many, many thanks to the cast and crew of MEN ON BOATS for their artistry and good company throughout this project.