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‘Men on Boats’ theater performance empowers women

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Rian Hughes

On the stage of Valborg Theatre, the cast of “Men on Boats” talked cheerfully with one another as they prepared for the 7 p.m. show. As curtain time drew near, the actors’ camaraderie turned into intense focus as the actors took their positions to portray the lives of men on the 1869 expedition based on a true-ish story who traveled by river through the Grand Canyon. The catch is, none of the actors were cisgender white men.

The production ran Feb. 28 through Mar. 3 and was directed by Gina Grandi, an assistant professor of theatre arts, and created by Jaclyn Backhaus. It aims to put into question what it means to be a “man” by intentionally casting actors that are underrepresented in historical narratives.

“Backhaus gives us the opportunity to illuminate the identities that history tends to erase, and remind us that ‘our’ history is rarely the full story,” the program reads.

Kiersten Caliguire, a senior theatre arts major who played “William Dunn,” said what it means to her to be a woman playing a male character.

“This show is about representation, adventure and all the creative possibilities theatre brings,” Caliguire said. “As a woman, you don’t see yourself on stage playing strong, rough and unapologetic characters all the time.”

Along with the conversation of gender, the production also puts a twist on the common story of U.S. exploration.

“The audience can scrutinize our nation’s fraught history with a certain detachment, visualizing how U.S. westward expansion and the mythos of ‘manifest destiny’ have intertwined with cultural considerations of gender,” the program reads.

The program continues illustrating the show’s view on westward expansion by considering the presence of Indigenous peoples already living in these lands while continuing to represent “the still greater absence here of Indigenous people” in colonial narratives.

The messages in the show were made possible by the work the cast put into the rehearsals. Brooklynn Waller, a freshman psychology and theatre arts major who played Johnson, a mountain man who interacted with the expedition crew, explained the collaborative process of crafting certain scenes.

“I really liked the beginning stages of the rehearsals when all the actors came up with different ideas of how we thought some of the water scenes would go,” Waller said. “It was really nice being able to be a part of constructing some of the scenes that would happen during the show.”

Caliguire talked about how the actors turned these ideas into a reality.

“A lot of research went into how we created our movement and physicality and it really shows in our work,” Caliguire said. “From the beginning of the process to the final product, the work we created was just astonishing.”

They not only used movements to add to the characters, but they also employed other aspects of the theatre to enhance the performance. Kalea Fraser, a senior theatre arts major who played Old Shady, spoke on the emotions evoked by the story.

“It’s a fun way to tell and reflect on history with moments of humor and moments of heartbreak,” Fraser said. “It’s also just plain beautiful to watch with technical aspects like the lighting and sound bringing the world of the play to life and intricate movement aspects that help tell the story.”

The behind the scenes work such as the lights and sound Fraser talks about is all due to the crew. Delta McCalister, a sophomore theatre arts major who played Seneca Howland, talked about the ways the crew contributed to the show.

“It’s been awesome, the crew is very considerate and has lots of ideas on how to better strengthen the tactics of their characters,” McCalister said.

The work the cast put in allowed them the chance to have impactful experiences. Fraser shared how participating in “Men on Boats” has affected her.

“This is my last main stage show before I graduate and it has been my favorite for so many reasons,” Fraser said. “I have loved every show and role I’ve played here at Appalachian State but this show has not only connected me to so many wonderful new people, but it’s pushed me in ways that I would have never imagined and it’s allowed me to grow as an actor and a person.”

While this is the end of a college theater career for Fraser, it is just the beginning for Waller.

 “This is my first main stage play, and I only started theatre last year, so the fact that I got to be in this play and work with so many amazing people means a lot,” Waller said.

McCalister also shared how much they enjoyed the sea shanty music despite the difficulty of singing it while constantly moving around the stage.

Ultimately, through the hard work the cast and crew put in over several months, the goal was to do the full story justice by highlighting what is often missed.

“We hope to have honored the men we’re telling the story of here today, but also hope that you leave thinking about those others who were there, and the stories of who came before and came after, and the stories that took place alongside,” the program said. “This is our history.”

The next performance in Valborg Theatre is the Spring Appalachian Dance Ensemble  April 3-7.

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About the Contributor
Rian Hughes
Rian Hughes, Associate Graphics Editor
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