ASU’s latest mainstage plays with gender roles and history

Meet the women behind “Men on Boats,” running until April 2

The title of ASU’s latest MainStage show “Men on Boats,” may be misleading as it stars an entirely female cast.

The show, which runs until April 2, is based on John Wesley Powell’s journals, chronicling the 1869 Powell Expedition, when 10 men set out to map the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

ASU’s theater department is only the third group to perform the show and the first college or university.

The show is directed by Tracy Liz Miller, who teaches at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and helped found The Bridge Initiative, a theater company that focuses on gender disparity in theatre.

Miller was asked by Lance Gharavi, the artistic director of theater in the School of Film, Dance and Theater to direct. Miller had already had her eye on the script after reading about it and learning the cast parameters.

The show, written by Jaclyn Backhaus, calls for a cast consisting of no cisgender male actors as the men on the expedition.

ASU's production is comprised of 10 cisgender female-identifying performers.

“I could tell from (the) 10 women that I cast that they were really super excited about the idea of doing the play and they grasped the weight of the opportunity immediately,” Miller said. “They were just going to play these incredible, epic adventurers which they never get to do. In our historical stories, the women were the nurses of the wives who waited at home.”

Miller said the rehearsal process was very physical as the show requires the respective actresses to lift, manage and tell the story with the boats, which she calls “the biggest props in the world.”

Miller also said ASU’s performance marks the first time show has been performed on such a large scale, having typically been performed in a blackbox setting.

As for how audiences will react, Miller said it might take them a second to wrap their mind around what they’re seeing.

“It could be considered sort of a new paradigm,” she said. “But the script is so accessible. It doesn’t mock these characters, it doesn’t mock the situations, it really honors it.”

Aside from taking a look at gender roles, Miller said the show also brings in Native American history and highlights Manifest Destiny for audience members, who may be apart of it but also express concern or judgement towards it.

Amelia Huot, a senior majoring in theater with a concentration in acting, plays William Dunn. Huot describes the show as something audiences would never imagine seeing.

“It’s such an honor to be a part of something like this, something very one of a kind that doesn’t happen often,” Huot said. “And it should happen often because women need those roles that show we don’t need the men to save us … We can be strong and independent and willing to save ourselves.”

This isn’t the first time Huot has seen “gender bending” in theater, having performed as a player in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“You get to play with (a typically male role) as a woman, and I love when people gender bend,” she said.

Molly Bishop, a freshman double-majoring in Theater and Communications, plays both Seneca Howland and The Bishop.

While the show is based on real men, there is little in history about Seneca so Bishop said she had to create connections with the time period to craft her character.

“It was surprisingly freeing in comparison to a typical female role,” Bishop said. “There’s a lot of fun in exploring a more masculine stance, walk (and) behavior pattern.”

Bishop said she thinks the viewing experience will be deepened by the character’s gender differences.

“I hope it also opens avenues for discussion about masculinity and femininity and how we portray history in our culture today.”

The show runs through April 2 at the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office.


Reach the reporter at cmlnarik@asu.edu or follow @carsonmlnarik on Twitter.

Like The State Press on Facebook and follow @statepress on Twitter.


Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.