Fort Worth — What a story!
In May of 1869, a group of 10 men in small boats set out to brave the uncharted dangers of the Green and Colorado rivers of the American West—right through an amazing “who-knew?” stretch that would soon be called The Grand Canyon. Led by a one-armed Civil War major turned naturalist, John Wesley Powell, their river journey took them through parts of modern-day Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona—and through sights that had never before been described to the American people.
Six of the adventurers went the distance, a twisting course of almost 1,000 miles through rapids, rocks, drops, and canyon walls climbing a mile high. One man left midway and survived; three others broke off just days before the end of the trip, their fate a mystery.
Circle Theatre ends its 37th season with Men on Boats, a contemporary playwright’s retelling of this ripping yarn, with plenty of comedy, a definitely modern vibe, and things—in the delightful way of new work for theatre these days—that aren’t always quite what they seem. Variety called it “off-the-canyon-walls funny.”
Award-winning playwright Jaclyn Backhaus (her latest, India Pale Ale, will open off-Broadway later this month) grew up in Arizona fascinated by Powell’s journals of the expedition. She started writing Men on Boats as a straight-up adventure story, she said recently, but began to notice she’d created a whole cast of characters she could never play herself.
That didn’t change how and what she put on the page for these 10 male roles—but Backhaus (pronounced BACK-us) gave Men on Boats one big, game-changing tweak. She specified that the show be cast entirely with (in her words) “female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender fluid and/or non-gender-conforming” actors.
In the nicest possible way, she was saying that this time the boys don’t get to play.
And, having once been Girl Cooking Dinner in Sherwood Forest (while the boys played Robin Hood, Little John, and all the exciting “guy” roles in one of our neighborhood epics), this writer is completely jazzed about that.
Director Noah Putterman (he directed Lyric Stage’s recent Newsies, and was Casa Mañana’s youth theatre head for five years) found he had no trouble putting together a vibrant cast within Backhaus’ parameters—and TheaterJones sat down to talk with Putterman and three of the actors: Camille Monae (Doubt, This Random World, An Octoroon), one of the first woman of color to play leader Powell in any production of the play since its NYC world premiere in 2015; and two non-binary actors, Gazelle Garcia and Chris Herrero, who seemed to find themselves surprised and a bit emotional that this show is big enough for the both of them. Garcia is a popular children’s theatre performer in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas (but very pleased to be the “elder” of this show!); Herrero, a Texas Christian University senior, was seen in Uptown Players’ The Legend of Georgia McBride last year.
The cast is rounded out with Jordan Desmarais, Dana Schultes, Ellen Eberhardt, Giovanna Grimaldo, Rachel MacKnight, Nicole Neely, and Octavia Y. Thomas.
TheaterJones: I am very excited about the concept of Men on Boats, and there are great pictures of all of you cowboyin’ around downtown Fort Worth. Have you become a band of brothers?
Camille Monae: Yes, we’re getting there.
TJ: Swaggering into the saloons?
CM: Not yet. [She laughs.] I think right now we’re just trying to make it to opening!
The interesting casting instructions reminded me of the big group games we used to play as kids up and down my block in the evenings, because the ‘girl’ parts tended to be boring. So you’re living my dream—you get to be the adventurers, in the action.
Gazelle Garcia: A lot of people feel that way. Those roles are usually more fun, more developed. It’s the adventurous part versus the “I’ll wait at home for you to come back” part.
Jaclyn Backhaus was already writing the play when she came up with her “what if?” Do you get that from the script, that it was written as straight-on adventure, with only the casting changed?
Chris Herrero: It’s certainly stylized, and a lot of the comedy is heightened to a degree. But there isn’t even one place where we joke about not being straight white men.
GG: And there’s no moment when the fourth wall is broken for a comment on that. I think her choice [about the casting] didn’t influence her writing of the men at all. That was the point, and that’s what great about it, that these attributes can apply to anybody, not just cis[gendered] white men.
As the director, how did that affect or influence what you were doing, Noah?
Noah Putterman: Going into it, you know those are the playwright’s wishes—the casting is intrinsic to the play. And like Gaz says, it isn’t that it changes the characters she’s written, it changes how we perceive the story—until suddenly we’re not perceiving it differently. That’s something we talked about, that at first the audience is looking at it as a gimmick. But as things goes on, you realize the audience has forgotten these aren’t men; they’re enjoying the story.
I wasn’t sure how to approach it initially, because you could get into the mine fields of gender performativeness and I don’t honestly think that’s what the play is about. It’s about being true to these characters, and telling this really absurd, wonderful story. That’s where the comedy comes from, that the very notion of them doing this is absurd.
NP: I think that’s what attracted Backhaus to the story, how crazy the notion was of these 10 men volunteering to chart the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon, which nobody had attempted to do before, at least as a sanctioned government expedition…
Because the rivers just look so terrible?
NP: Yes, because you’ll die!
These are some of the most deadly rapids in the world. So the idea of going over them in old-fashioned wooden rowboats, having never navigated them before, having no notion of modern river-rafting techniques….They didn’t even know that you hit a crest head-on, you aren’t supposed to try and circumvent. They didn’t know you shouldn’t row backwards toward rapids. They didn’t have any basic understanding of what they were getting into—and Powell, who was the mastermind, thought this was going to be a perfect way to catalogue the birds, and the geology and all these things. They can’t go through the desert, so the only way to do what he wants is to go down the river.
And he only has one arm.
NP: Yes! He lost his arm in the Civil War, at Shiloh. He’s a fascinating character. They packed provisions for 10 months—we’ve all become experts on this stuff—and within a few weeks they’d lost more than a third of what they’d brought.
It’s like that Oregon Trail game my kids played on computer when they were little: lost food, bad water, wagons breaking down.
NP: It really is, and the fact that six of them made it out is truly amazing—seven, if you count the one man who left and survived. The other three who left were never seen or heard from again. None of them had any idea how much longer it was to the end of the canyon, and they left just two days too soon. So that’s what I mean by the absurdity of it all!
Camille, you’re the leader of this band? Are you a good leader? [Group laughter.]
CM: My character is passionate.
That’s not always a great thing, is it? [Putterman nods vigorously.]
CM: Well, he’s very driven. He knows what he wants to accomplish and the best way to do it, and he doesn’t want to be limited by his one arm. I think that’s an additional driver, he’s going to do all this in spite of the arm he no longer has—definitely some pride to this character. I think he must have been a fine leader during the war, and he carries that with him. Historically, there aren’t bad things said about Powell, except that he didn’t really know what he was doing, or how to lead precisely. But nobody ever thinks of themselves as a bad person.
GG: Powell and his brother–really his younger brother, though the play makes him older—were both university professors.
CH: And Powell was so invested in the science side—in [barometric] pressure readings, in the sparrows, the foliage, the curves of the water.
But the people on the expedition were lots of different types, right—mountain men, soldiers, editors, trappers?
CH: I’m the cook for the crew, and kind of the class clown as well. Even when things seem bleak, I’ll make a joke or goof around. My boat mate Hall [played by Rachel MacKnight] is my co-clown, though Hall also is there for the science, a mapmaker always charting things—but I swear I’m just there for the giggle.
Though I heard you had a pretty desperate scene I shouldn’t give away.
CH: Oh, that’s true. There’s a snake…
Say no more. And it’s also true the expedition’s four boats each have a different identity?
CH: My boat we call the party boat—we don’t take things very seriously. The first half of the show we’re going through rapids almost continuously, just yelling. [Waves arms to a drawn-out ‘aaaaaa-aaaaaaah!’]
GG: My character Old Shady is Powell’s brother, and he is the oldest, so I’m paired with the youngest, least experienced and most talkative member of the group. Old Shady is very silent, so we’re an odd combination. I feel like this is the babysitting boat.
CM: My boat has all the leaders on it.
NP: You have the ‘roommate drama’ boat.
CM: I have my follower and my antagonist on the same boat: someone I can rely on, and someone who makes me watch my back. And that character is always sitting right behind me, rowing.
NP: That was fully planned, of course.
CM: And then the other boat is a hodgepodge of weirdos—a sports guy who pays his fee just because that’s what he wants to do this week, and a pair of brothers who are very strange and stoic…
CH: And maybe shady.
CM: They have their own little world. Not really in the club, outsiders for sure.
How hard is it to do all that precise, synchronized movement, of boats on the river, and not lose track of the script?
NP: The scenes in the rapids are extremely challenging. The lines are rapid, the movement is rapid, everything comes at you very quickly. We’ve spent a lot of time on it, and tried to find different stylized ways of breaking it up.
CH: It’s exhausting! We’re in that for almost half the show.
CM: It’s hard too, because I don’t think most of us could memorize our lines until we were up and doing the scenes, doing the movement together with the words to get it into our muscle memory. I didn’t even look at the boat stuff seriously until we got to rehearsal.
GG: The lines [in the rapids] aren’t really a conversation, they aren’t indicative of where you are—but more like directions, or commands.
CH: Or just yelling!
TJ: What’s been a favorite part of this experience for each of you?
CH: For me, it’s the size of the cast. It’s a lot of people in a relatively small space, and discovering the group dynamics, the tensions between these characters—and how we navigate all the relationships—has been really fun for me. Some characters my character is close to, and others I actively depise.
CM: Getting to know these wonderful people; I haven’t worked with any of these actors before. And I don’t know that I’ve ever done a play that was not focused on cis white men—and purposefully not focused on that. It’s not the same thing as adapting Shakespeare to be ‘not’ about that. It feels very loving and supportive. Also for me it’s been interesting to learn how to do everything with one hand, and it’s the most physical play I’ve ever been in! I wonder every night why I’m so tired—but I’m using one arm much of the day, and I’ve also been fake rowing, fake climbing and running around excitedly for hours.
GG: I really like Circle Theatre. I’m from San Antonio and right now I’m based nowhere; I go where I get work. I keep bragging to my friends how welcoming an environment this has been—even on the first day to have most of the production team and the administration there to say ‘Hey, we’re here for you, this is why we like this show.’ There hasn’t been any of that weird disconnect you sometimes get between the artists and the production team.
We feel supported in everything we’re doing, and in the risks we’re taking. We’re pushing back the Hollywood myth that cis white men sell better than anything else— which is just not true if you look at the box office numbers for the past decade! To know that everyone at Circle is on board with what this show represents has been cool.
NP: For me, finding the play in rehearsal with this cast has been the best thing. When you begin working with a play, you say oh, we’ll find it on its feet—but a lot of times you don’t find it, you just end up copying something else. But none of us know this play and we are finding it together, what works, and what doesn’t. The 10 characters were just names on a page, and now are coming into such sharp relief, with each of these smart, talented actors shining through. It makes me feel really good about my casting abilities [grins]—because of what they’re bringing to it, what they’re finding in the script that isn’t on the page.
CH: And the diversity is just popping. We have two people of color, two non-binary people….I’d never even considered the possibility of being in a cast with another non-binary person.
GG: It’s incredible. [There’s a pause, both actors exchanging a look, smiling but serious.] If there’s a casting call for a character who is non-binary, I almost always am the only one auditioning. For this, I had to submit a video and travel for auditions and callbacks. There are lots of people around—but we often don’t show up because we don’t think there are spaces for us. We’re too used to being told there aren’t. So to find out that a professional theater was doing this show—that’s what brought me here.
CM: And they’re committed to Jaclyn’s wishes. There are theaters that have done the play but fudge things a bit, by not actively seek out these diverse talents. That’s another whole article.
I am reading Backhaus correctly, that she doesn’t include gay men in her note on casting?
NP: That’s right, though some of the productions I’ve seen or read of clearly had gay men in the cast. But we decided we wouldn’t cast anyone who identifies as male. I think [Backhaus] was very clear in her instructions, and she chose a very beautiful way of expressing her wishes. We were looking for good actors, first and foremost—to be open and not closed off, as Backhaus wants—and the people who were right for the play are right for the play. If you don’t honor her intentions, you aren’t honoring her play.
Though really, over the centuries there’s been a lot of playing in theater about gender, how much of it is a social ‘construction’ and how many variations there are of masculine and feminine along the spectrum. This isn’t that new, if you see it in those terms.
NP: It’s only new to be excluding [cis] men. I’m lucky to be directing the play—I recognize the irony, and would have totally understood if they’d chosen someone else. Kudos to Circle for being open to all sorts of possibilities, and not saying no to anything.
GG: I never even considered in auditions that I wouldn’t be cast as one of the two brothers who double as Native Americans. So it’s kind of neat that I wasn’t. There is still indigenous representation in the show, but I wasn’t held in that box.
Camille, you are one of the first women of color to play Powell?
CM: Yes, I believe there has been one other. I was told by one of her friends that Jaclyn wishes she’d been more specific, to also say “and don’t cast mostly white women.” I think that’s one of the great benefits of doing new work. When you get stuck doing the same old shows, you get stuck in the same old casting. I love that theaters are breaking out of that more and more for existing plays—but it’s wonderful when they do new works and bring fresh voices to the table, so you can work with diverse casts and play great characters you haven’t seen before.
And if you do the classics, do something interesting and different. That’s one reason I’m excited to see Joanie Schultz’ adaptation of A Doll’s House at WaterTower—because for the first time I know of, the husband is being played by a black man. When I played a young nun in Doubt [at Theatre Arlington in 2014], we really got into discussions: Were there black nuns? Yes. How would a black nun identify and connect with this black child who is possibly being victimized? What is that relationship now?
NP: But you were cast because you were right for the part. And when we cast you for this, it was because you came in and you were Powell.
Even in Newsies recently, there was some pushback about casting. We had girls playing some of the newsies, and not all the boys we cast were white. But in fact, the real New York newsboys were Jewish, Irish, Slavic—ethnic groups that weren’t considered “white” at the time.
Maybe the point is we need to keep doing it, tweaking it—until it stops being a thing.
CM: It won’t be a novelty anymore!
CH: That’s the dream.
NP: And that’s why we’re grateful that Circle Theatre intentionally chose to produce this great play that Jaclyn intentionally wrote for people who otherwise wouldn’t get to play these characters.
» Men on Boats launches with a preview performance on Thursday, Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Opening night is Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. The production runs through November 17.