“Men on Boats” challenges traditional roles

Spring break has ended for students at Minnesota State and the theater department is ready to continue its 2023-2024 “Journey to the Past” season with the opening of “Men on Boats,” an adventure dramedy written by Jaclyn Backhus. 

This main stage production, led by guest director Jay Dolo, tells the true-ish story of the 1869 all-male exploration of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, but is told with an ensemble cast of all non-male performers. 

Filled with humor, adventure and heart, “Men on Boats” challenges the traditional beliefs of gender and history and also celebrates the power of the human spirit to explore the unknown.

Senior and theatre arts acting major Natalie Suarez is part of the cast and shared how all the cast members prepared for their roles and performances and what type of characters are involved in the production. 

“We did a lot of cast bonding and character work before we started the actual rehearsal process, so we got to know each other really well with a lot of improv games and just had fun. And then we sat and we read through the whole script, and then we read through it again, and we like blocked it out. We did a lot of character analysis, script analysis and a lot of research on our own individual characters to help us understand what each of them are going through, but also what they’re going through as a whole and as a collective, as a brotherhood,” Suarez said. 

“The characters, they all didn’t know each other. They all come from different places. A lot of them served in the Civil War together, and then some of them they knew from other things. There’s a lot of different kinds of characters. My character’s kind of not quite right in the head and some of them are way more serious and are taking the expedition way more seriously. Some of them are there just for fun. Some of them are there because they feel like this journey means a lot to them. Some maybe saw that the journey is not what they expected it to be when they went to just have fun. It turned into something completely different.”

Suarez portrays John Wesley Powell, leader of the expedition. She shared the characteristics of Powell and how it’s like to play him as a determined leader.

“He was a major in the Civil War. He is the leader of the expedition. He’s the one that knew President Grant personally, and got all of the men together. He only has one arm so I’m doing the whole show with one arm, which is a challenge. He is very dedicated to the journey. He has a lot of loyalty for it and it’s also kind of a way for him to prove himself after the war, being like ‘I have a physical disability, but I can still do all of these things just as well and I can still lead all of these men just as well,’” she said. “He’s kind of all over the place opposed to being comedic and serious but he’s super fun. There are things that happen on the expedition that really test him and some of the crew question his ability to be able to lead and he is able to stand up for himself and prove himself as a leader. That’s the thing about the show is that there are lots of characters and they all have a really strong arc.” 

March marks Women’s History Month, where all women’s contributions to history, culture and society are celebrated. Suarez said that putting on “Men on Boats” during this notable month is important as it can help break gender barriers that many women have faced in the past and are currently facing today. 

“I think it’s a good show just to highlight men and women’s differences, because even though we’re women telling men stories, we’re not trying to hide our womanhood, or femininity or anything. We’re just trying to show like ‘Hey, women can tell these stories and do these adventures,’ but we’re also honoring the real people and the men that went on the journey,” she said. “And we’re not trying to say that we can do it better or they can do it better. It’s just kind of a celebration of people and we can all do these things and it should also be something that we can share.”

Men on Boats will be showing in the Andreas Theatre at the Performing Arts Center from March 13-17 at 7:30 pm to 10:00 pm. For more information on upcoming theatre productions, performances and tickets, visit https://hss.mnsu.edu/academic-programs/theatre-arts/performances-tickets/ 

Write to Anahi Zuniga at anahi.zuniga@mnsu.edu

Header Photo: Minnesota State’s theater department is putting on, “Men on Boats,” in the Andreas Theatre at the Performing Arts Center from March 13-17 at 7:30-10 p.m. The play tells a story of men with an ensemble cast of non-male performers. (Courtesy Corrie Eggimann)

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