Theatre Program to Present "Men on Boats," a Rollicking, Reimagined Tale of Exploration

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The Frederick Gunn School Theatre Program will present Jaclyn Backhaus’ wildly funny and rollicking play, Men on Boats, November 10, 11, and 12 at 7 p.m. in the Tisch Family Auditorium of the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center. The public is invited to attend. No registration is required. Admission is free. 

“Based on the journals of John Wesley Powell, who led a geological expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers into the (then) great unknown called the Grand Canyon, 'Men on Boats' makes canny use of the obvious distance between performers and their roles to help bridge the distance between then and now," Ben Brantley wrote in his 2015 review of Men on Boats in The New York Times. The newspaper named the play a Critics Pick. 

The play follows Powell, "a stately one-armed army major, and his expedition crew as they wend their way through perilous waters to create the first official map of the region," Brantley wrote. "Along the way, they bond, scrap, joke, reminisce and argue about directions, rather like any group traveling together. The stakes, though, are mortal."

Director Kent Burnham, now in his second year as Director of Theatre Arts at Gunn, said he was first introduced to Men on Boats, when his wife, Tracy Liz Miller, directed it at Arizona State University in 2017. 

“I was immediately taken by its theatricality, the physical storytelling, the humor, how it reimagined history, and who gets to share that history. Ms. Backhaus turned the story on its head, creating an opportunity for theatre-makers to share this story, often populated by cisgender white males, with a diverse cast of storytellers, and she asked that anyone producing the play cast actors that depart from the historical record, not only with regard to race, but also gender,” Burnham said, noting, “We have plenty of reason to think that gender can be as much about perception as chromosomes.”

The cast at Gunn worked with Miller as a Movement Consultant on this production, and even practiced their rowing skills in boats on the Shepaug River in preparation for their roles. Students also worked with Lisa Wolpe, an expert on gender-flipping Shakespeare as well as an actress, director, teacher, writer, traveler, and distinguished scholar. Wolpe led a two-hour workshop and presented her powerful, one-woman show, “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” at the school as an artist-in-residence October 20-21. 

“Theatre tells a story; it doesn’t re-enact it,” Burnham said. Men on Boats tells a story that “allows us to lean into and question history and ask: Who gets to share that history? Whose stories were untold or erased? Why does that serve us as a society? If we were more curious, inquisitive, and questioning, we could create room for new history, new  stories, and new heroes.”

The cast of Men on Boats includes: Will Dyer '23, Graham Ince '23, Daisy Moriarty '25, Sofia Panzer '25, Audrey Richards '23, Sonia Romanenko '24, Michal Schroeder '26, Neda Strelciunaite '24, Grace Stutt '23,  Avery Warren '24, Jo Wimler '24, and Stella Zhu '25. 

The crew includes: Katherine Aguirre-Felipe '26, Nina Dai '26, Ava Hu '26, Katherine Johnson '25, Joshua Ly '23, Drew McKessey '26, Polly Ross '26, Sofia Sandoval '26, Aryel Sealey '25, and Sophie Smart '26.

Additional Images

Lisa Wolpe, an expert on gender-flipping Shakespeare as well as an actress, director, teacher, writer, traveler, and distinguished scholar, worked with the cast during rehearsal.

Tracy Liz Miller (left), Theatre Professor at the University of Rhode Island, director, and actor, worked with the cast in rehearsal as a Movement Consultant.

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