WFU theatre returns to the main stage

All-female production of “Men On Boats” premieres in Scales Fine Arts Center


Elena Marsh, Eliza Drake and Mary Grace Gower (from left to right) pose for a promotional photo for “Men On Boats”.

Cooper Sullivan, Assistant News Editor

For 18 long months, the Tedford Stage had been empty, not properly utilized and patiently awaiting a live theatrical performance. On the night of Sept. 17, that cold streak was finally broken with the premiere of Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Men On Boats” performed by the Wake Forest Theatre Department.

Based on the true story of John Wesley Powell and the first government-sanctioned exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, “Men On Boats” follows a group of 10 explorers on their trip west through rushing and almost-fatal rapids. However, despite the name of the play and the characters in it, the audience sees no men on boats during the production.

“Manifest Destiny and its racist, imperialist push to own and conquer is all tied up with hyper masculinity and white supremacy,” Director Dr. Cindy Gendrich said. “So Backhaus’s call for the cast to be a diverse group of female-identifying, trans and/or non-binary people was crucial. And to give people who never would have gotten a chance to do this in real life the chance to be the adventurers seemed right to me.”

For Gendrich, it was a no-brainer to have this story be the first play following such a long hiatus.

“We have an amazing group of young female-identifying actors in the department right now who had not gotten to do very much on stage during their time here,” she said. “I wanted to give them something that felt powerful and fun. Cis men tend to get nearly all the adventurer roles in theatre, and this was a play that let us change that dynamic.”

One of the main themes of the show is female empowerment and shedding light on the ignored voices of the late 19th century. Backhaus makes this apparent with the use of the gender-reversed roles.

“I found it easiest to compare Dunn [Powell’s most adversarial partner] to people in TV and movies in order to get an idea of how his character would behave,” sophomore Mary Grace Gower said. “Cindy gave us this suggestion, and I do love channeling my inner Flynn Ryder or Indiana Jones. In terms of gender bending, I watched my guy friends a lot to see how they sit, talk and act, so now I could bring some of that into my character.”

Senior Adarian Sneed’s role necessitated she be very careful about how she embodied her characters so as not to perpetuate certain stereotypes.

“While the play is about men from 1869, I am a woman from 2021,” she said. “It was important for me, when approaching my characters Seneca Howell and the Bishop, to make sure I didn’t lose myself trying to fit into whatever box society has constructed for what it means to be a man. This can take shape in so many different ways, and I wanted to make sure that it was clear in the way I moved and existed within the space.”

Gower also spoke to the production’s focus on maintaining that balance.

“As a cast, we talked a lot about finding the line between playing to the hilarity of toxic masculinity while still showing the complexity and emotions that these characters truly have,” Gower added.

The crew had about a week less of rehearsal time compared to past productions and said that it was difficult to stay focused during the long rehearsal sessions at the beginning of the semester Gendrich said.

Nonetheless, Gendrich and the actors were very relieved to be back performing for others.

“‘Men on Boats’” is also a wonderfully athletic and theatrical play — something that begged to be in person where the virtuosity of the physical work really gets to shine,” Gendrich said. “And it’s so funny in certain parts. I love laughing with other people in the theatre. There’s nothing like sharing that kind of energy with a roomful of people, and we have been denied that all throughout COVID-19.”

Sneed expressed similar sentiments.

“Being back on stage after such a long time was such a wonderful experience for me,” she said. “I felt like, during the lockdown, I had a lot of time to think about why I love theater and why I love what I do. The pandemic really made me contemplate my long-term involvement in theater.”

“And not having been on stage in such a long time, I felt kind of nervous coming back into rehearsals and auditions,” Sneed continued. “But I’m so glad that I jumped back in and picked up where I left off, because it reminded me that I love what I do and really enjoy it.”

“Men On Boats” will continue to run this weekend, Sept. 23-25 at 7:30 p.m., and will have its final show on Sunday, Sept. 26 at 2 p.m.