064: “Cracking open awareness.” Exploring gender and the construction of history with MEN ON BOATS

Tori Grace Nichols and Mara Thomas in the green room before showtime.

No Men. No Boats. All Fun (or All Badassery, depending on who you ask). Actors Tori Grace Nichols and Mara Thomas discuss breaking down assumptions around gender, sexuality, and the construction of history as ensemble members in MEN ON BOATS by Jaclyn Backhaus. Permission granted to row the boat in your own way!

Tori Grace Nichols is a multidisciplinary performance artist new to the Triangle. They have been training at the Ward Acting Studio since last year. They are a member of the drag family House of Coxx and a cultural organizer for Southerners on New Ground. They are adopted from the Philippines and grew up overseas on military bases. Tori Grace identifies as queer and gender queer and uses they/them pronouns.

Mara Thomas is an actor, writer, musician and teaching artist based in Durham. For Artist Soapbox, she blogs monthly and co-facilitates workshops focused on creative accountability and functional feedback. Mara is currently working on an original script, YEAR OF THE MONKEY, which will be produced at The Tank NYC in June 2019. A local musician for over 15 years, these days Mara makes noise in the punk groups Bandage and Cold Cream.


February 8-24, 2019. MEN ON BOATS by Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed by Jules Odendahl-James. Produced by Justice Theater Project.

Based on the book The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Major, adventurer and explorer and his eclectic crew.  


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Questions for the Men on boats ensemble:

Would you introduce yourselves and tell us your character (and who that person is)?

The tag line for this production is No Men. No Boats. All badassery.

Let’s start with the No Men part —

John Wesley Powell and his crew are non-fictional characters. They actually existed in the 19th century and explored the Colorado river in 1869. I don’t really subscribe to this point of view, but some would say that his historical importance is signified by having had lots of things named after him — a lake, a peak, buildings, an award, a town etc. There’s even a mineral powellite. So historical figures… in this case.cast in a historically inaccurate way…

There are 10 actors in the cast and the casting is historically inaccurate, meaning no cisgender white males. What audience members may not know, is that the casting request is baked into the play — playwright Jaclyn Backhaus created Men on Boats with this in mind. She included a casting note in the script that reads “The characters in MEN ON BOATS were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be make up entirely of people who are not. I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.”

How did you experience that script note when you first read it?

How was it different to approach a play that was written with this casting in mind compared to a production that had a concept ‘put on’ it by the director or the company? (In other words, taking roles that were written for cisgender white men and then — ‘cross-casting’ —  deciding to have  female-identified, non-gender binary actors play them)

How were conversations handled around gender during the rehearsal process? Inclusive practices?

How is this play’s genderqueer casting different or the same from “all women” or “cross-gender” casting projects you’ve experienced in the past?  What are some of the tensions and/or pitfalls that come with those differences/similarities?

What have you learned thru process (either as actor/human/playwright)?

There’s a really nice interview with Jaclyn Backhaus and Summer Banks on Howlround.com. They’re discussing how refreshing it can be to have historical inaccuracy in the casting. Jaclyn says:

“If we were forced to keep to that sort of accuracy in the main stream of history, we would really only be learning the stories of a select few individuals. It would just limit our scope entirely. One thing that I hope that this show is able to do for people is make them wonder about that, just by virtue of who was cast in it. Because this story does still fall into white male history, I hope that it serves as a gateway for people to start wondering what else is there to learn. I want my show to be the gateway drug, or one of the gateway drugs, to get people interested in telling the stories of people that we don’t get to hear from.”

Hamilton is an easy comparison to make, not only with casting but also with questions around who is telling the ‘story’ of history, whose history is this, what stories are being told, etc. This idea of ‘history under construction’ also permeates the design of this production — would someone talk about that? [This is the No Boats part!]

And finally, the badassery — what’s it like to play explorers on the Colorado river? To go down the rapids? What was it like to choreograph all of those river scenes? Other badass moments?

Anything else we didn’t cover?

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