Rollin’ on the river: ‘Men on Boats’ premieres at Theatrikos as part of ARTx

Event Date(s): May 17, 2024 – Jun 2, 2024

The cast of “Men on Boats” is made up of women and gender nonconforming actors. It will premiere at Theatrikos on Friday May 17 and will run through Sunday June 2.
– Motion Olson

Art imitates life in the Theatrikos Theater Company’s production of Jaclyn
Backhaus’ “Men on Boats.” The widely acclaimed play takes inspiration from the
journey of John Wesley Powell during the mid-19th century. As part of the
inaugural ARTx festival, Theatrikos is set to take its audience on a voyage down a river of comedy and comradery.

Backhaus’ play takes creative liberties with history while simultaneously adhering
as closely as possible to Powell’s published record “The Exploration of the
Colorado River and Its Canyons.” In both the play and real life, the one-armed
Powell and nine other men took four boats to traverse the Green and Colorado
Rivers with the expedition ending at Lake Mead. Along the way, the men face trials
and tribulations that create a compelling blend of comedy and drama.

The most noticeable departure from the real expedition isn’t the lack of boats or
rivers; it’s the lack of men. Backhaus purposely chose to have the cast be women
and gender nonconforming individuals as a way to promote inclusion and,
perhaps, poke a bit of fun at current and historical societal expectations of
masculinity. But mostly, she did it because she wanted to.

“I felt kind of wistful about the fact that a person like me would never get to
portray a role like this on stage,” Backhaus said in an interview with The Arizona
Republic. “And then that idea led me to ask the question, ‘Why is that true, and
what if I could?’”

The subversion of casting women and gender nonconforming individuals in a play
called “Men on Boats” really resonates with the actors, allowing them to play parts
outside their norms. Between the setting, props and casting there is a fun
juxtaposition for the actors to play with, creating a fun yet dynamic experience.

“I’m excited to play a boy,” laughed Jacquelyn Hire. Hire plays Andrew Hall, the
mapmaker of the expedition. “I’m excited to let loose and drive a boat without
water and to watch my castmates swim. It’s really cool that this play allows me to
play a male part. I never thought that I would do that.”

The focus on inclusion and the highlighting of underrepresented voices and
experiences intersects well with the vision of ARTx, foregrounding collaboration and community. As part of this production, several Flagstaff locals were tapped for
their expertise to create the community engagement that ARTx prides itself on.

Some of the talented individuals that are working on the play with Theatrikos are
Alex Resnick who will be providing music, Brad Dimock who helped build the boat
props, and Chris Johnson, a professor at NAU who is collaborating on this
production by compiling GoPro footage for part of the scenery.

New to the scene is Ivan Villalpando, a recent transplant to Flagstaff. Villalpando
has been in theater for years, but this will be his first time as the stage manager for
a production.

“It’s exciting to challenge myself and take a leadership position,” Villalpando said.
“For me this isn’t a hobby, it’s a passion. I’m really looking forward to working
with this wonderful cast of lovely people and seeing the end product of this show.”

Another local collaborating on this production of “Men on Boats” is Sara Bendel
Ryan. Ryan, a seasoned director and playwright who recently produced her play
“Hardy Girls,” which debuted at the Museum of Northern Arizona, will be directing
the play.

“I’m really excited to bring this story to Flagstaff,” Ryan said. “Powell is really well
known in the area, and I really like storytelling that relates to the local community
and the region. I think it’s really exciting to give people a glimpse into Powell’s
experience and maybe create interest in learning more about him and his

Ryan’s enthusiasm for the play is shared by the rest of the cast and crew for a
variety of reasons. One of them being that this is the first time “Men on Boats” will
be performed in Northern Arizona. Given Flagstaff’s proximity to the Colorado
River and the Grand Canyon, it makes the play feel that much more relevant to
local history and culture.

“Men on Boats” will premiere at Theatrikos on Friday May 17 and will run through
Sunday June 2. A special preview will be available on Thursday May 16 at 7:30 p.m.
as part of ARTx. There will also be a performance in Cottonwood on Sunday June 9.

Tickets and the full schedule for “Men on Boats” is available on the Theatrikos