The Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts will present eight performances of “Men on Boats,” a comedy about a historic and harrowing Colorado River expedition through the Grand Canyon, beginning April 19 in the Squires Studio Theatre.

Gregory Justice, an associate professor in the School of Performing Arts, will direct the play, which Jaclyn Backhaus wrote about the John Wesley Powell expedition. The play will feature a set design inspired by southwestern paintings as well as projections and lights that portray canyon themes on a grand scale.

Backhaus’ piece examines gender roles throughout history and their influence on today’s society by requiring that the roles of the original white explorers be played by a 10-person cast made up of anyone other than white cisgender males. 

“We’re making it less about a gender binary,” Backhaus said in an interview with StageBuddy. “[The play] challenges the idea of who you’re supposed to look up to. It excites me to think how any kid can dream of being an astronaut, deep sea diver, a paleontologist, or a stay-at-home parent, regardless of their gender.”

Originally produced in 2015, the play has since grown in popularity. The nontraditional casting aspect moves the dialogue and characterizations into a different light.

“In the 21st century there is much discussion about what is gender, and gender expression,” said Cristina Beltran, a junior playing Sumner. “The characters in the play are men, but we’re playing them regardless of gender. We’re not playing men, we’re playing characters who just happen to be men.”

Major John Wesley Powell’s 10-person expedition set forth in 1869 to chart the geology and geography of the Green and Colorado rivers through Utah and Arizona. Along the way the explorers lost boats, instruments, and supplies, and they encountered starvation and near-drowning.

“Having anyone other than white cisgender males playing these roles is one of the ways this play turns the world of historical fact on its side,” he said. “First, the audience views this historical event through a very different lens. Second, it brings a great deal of humor and fun to the production.”

The casting of the piece brings other themes to the forefront for examination. “The characters also personify a pervasive white American male attitude of conquering and claiming things for yourself that’s still prevalent today,” said Justice.

To begin the rehearsal process, the cast began with character research. “We were asked to find the bridge between the real person and our interpretation,” Beltran said, “so the character could be uniquely ours.”

One of the main directorial concepts of this piece is the constant occurrence of collisions.

“Collisions occur on many levels within this play,” said Justice. “The Grand Canyon was created by a collision of natural forces involving water and earth. The cast collides with the type of characters that they portray. The highly choreographed and abstract boat scenes, sometimes colliding with rapids, also collide with the audience’s notions of space and time. And stylistically, for example, the cook’s costume incorporates an apron that is contemporary.”

Megan Greene, a senior playing Powell, agrees with the importance of the piece. “I’ve had difficulty finding female monologues that aren’t about men or about women being victimized by men,” she said. “However, every monologue in this piece is a female monologue that’s not talking about men. We are starting to see more diversity in material being written.”

Greene found the relationships among the characters to be significant in rehearsing the production. “As my relationship to my character strengthens,” she said, “so do my friendships with fellow cast members.”

This is Justice’s 55th production at Virginia Tech as a director.

“I hope the audience comes in for a fun evening at the theatre at Virginia Tech,” he said. “It’s an honor to be asked to direct again. I’m having fun directing, and the cast is having fun being involved in this interesting piece.”

To learn more about the 1869 Powell expedition, consider this Scientific American article and this piece on Utah geology. These National Park Service videos provide additional information on the Grand Canyon.

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Performance Dates and Times

Performances of “Men On Boats” will take place April 19-22 at 7:30 p.m.; April 23 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and April 25-26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Squires Studio Theatre at 290 College Avenue on the Blacksburg campus.

Tickets and Parking

Tickets, which are $12 for general admission and $10 for seniors and students, may be purchased online, over the phone by calling 540-231-5300, or in person at the Moss Arts Center ticket office.  Tickets as available will also be sold at the door beginning one hour prior to the performance.

All university community members and visitors will need to display a parking permit, use the ParkMobile app, pay a fee, or pay using an hourly meter to park on the Blacksburg campus unless otherwise noted by signage. Find additional parking information here. Additionally, visitors can drop off and pick up guests directly at the Squires Student Center entrance.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, email Susan Sanders or call 540-231-5200 during regular business hours at least eight business days prior to the event.

Written by Ian Gammarino, a master’s student in the Department of Geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment