Where The Green, Colorado and Hudson Rivers Meet
By Peter Stamelman
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
The most exuberant, clever, frisky, ingenious, inventive and audacious play of the season, Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men on Boats,” is currently being presented by Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on the far west side of 42nd Street. “Men on Boats” is set in Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. In 1869, soldier, geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell led a ten-man, four-boat expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers to the “Big Canyon,” or as we know it today, the Grand Canyon.
The play, which opened Aug. 1, is a riotous romp, and I strongly recommend all who wish to see it man their canoes immediately and paddle over to the Peter Jay Sharp posthaste. “Men on Boats” is destined to be a huge hit.
As the audience enters the Sharp Theater, the first element one notices is the backdrop of a rugged, majestic and towering canyon. Barely discernable inside the backdrop are five rectangular panels. Gradually, one becomes aware of the sound of chirping birds. As the house lights dim, there is a military drum roll. The ten members of the expedition, all played by women, enter the stage through these panels, some inside makeshift boats. One-armed John Wesley Powell himself (herself) is in the lead boat, the Emma Dean, named after his wife. “We’re on the river now, crew,” Powell announces. “There will be churning, there will be swells. Keep your bearings.” This command is meant as much for the audience as the boatmen. During the course of this hour-and-a-half-long intermission-less play, we would all be well-advised to keep our bearings.
Backhaus was born and raised in Phoenix. She got her BFA from NYU and now lives in Bushwick with her husband, the theater-director Andrew Scoville, and their son, Ernest Astro. Her playwriting credits include “Set in the Living Room of a Small Town American Play,” “Three Seagulls or MASHAMASHAMASHAMA!,” “F Train,” “You Are on the Moors Now,” and “Shoot the Freak,” which is set in Coney Island. She is co-founder of Fresh Ground Pepper, an incubation system for new artistic work, and a member of Clubbed Thumb’s Falcons, under whose auspices she developed “Men on Boats.”
Recently, the Eagle spoke with Backhaus by telephone.
Eagle: How old were you when you realized you wanted to write plays? Do you come from an artistic family?
Jaclyn Backhaus: I wrote my first play when I was 8 years old. It was about a devious zookeeper. I also got to perform in it at my elementary school. Both of my parents are botanists. When my mom was in her early 40s, she went back to college and got her MFA. The very first novel she wrote was published. She’s a real inspiration to me!
Eagle: What was it about Powell’s 1869 expedition that so resonated for you? Did you do a lot of research before writing the play?
JB: My dad had an extensive library — Darwin, the Journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He had an old copy of Powell’s “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons,” which is one of the classics of 19th century American exploration literature. The book had these wonderful wood engravings and Thomas Moran drawings. I got lost in the words and the imagery, the daring and excitement of the journey. I knew I wanted to write something about it and make it mystical and impressionistic. Coming from Arizona, I already had a healthy sense of the majestic.
Eagle: In addition to reading Powell’s book, did you read any other accounts? For example, Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian?”
JB: I read parts of the Stegner book. I would have liked to have had the time to read the journals of the other members of the crew, who, as you know, are all characters in my play.
Eagle: All ten of your characters are so vividly rendered. You have a remarkably uncanny ear for capturing 1860s American vernacular, then giving it a modern twist. Did this “voice” come naturally, or did you have to work at developing and refining it?
JB: I’ve been playing with American vernacular for a long time. Plus I like the idea of weaving that “preserved” language into a quilt that also includes contemporary vernacular. I first tried this approach at the Theater Reconstruction Ensemble with my play “Set in the Living Room of a Small Town American Play.” I enjoy the process, giving the language a little twist.
Eagle: There are so many instances of this playing around with dialogue and with thematic tropes. One of my favorites is the conversation between Powell, Sumner and Goodman [other members of the expedition] and the chief of the Utes, Tsauwit and his wife The Bishop. The dialogue of the chief and his wife is so deadpan and knowing. To cite an example:
Powell: “And you guys speak English so w-”
The Bishop: “We learned a long time ago. When we started land negotiations with white people.”
Powell: “Oh wow. Cool.”
The Bishop: “Yeah, it was cool. They let us keep our birth lands, so we were pretty stoked.”
JB [laughing]: I wanted to show how basically insane the Utes thought the white explorers were. The Utes couldn’t understand the reason for the expedition. The result of it [the expedition] would not benefit them. I wanted to zoom out from Powell’s self-imposed and self-constructed narrative of Manifest Destiny. In fact, as I’ve continued to fine-tune the play, the cast has been very helpful to me in figuring out the cost of Manifest Destiny. Not in a heavy-handed way; yes, pointedly, but with a light touch. Even in our choice of actors — Will [Davis, the play’s director] and I were looking for a wide swathe of acting styles, from traditional stage actors to performance artists. Casting all across the spectrum: age, racial, gender spectrum. It is so limiting to go for “type;” Will and I didn’t want any pre-conceived notions or barriers.
Eagle: Yes, you have a remarkable ensemble. They’re like jazz musicians, playing a riff on the melody. Even though they stay on script, the dialogue has the freshness and spontaneity of improvisation.
JB: Thanks. You know as I was writing the play I kept wishing I could be in it! Now that I actually see it “up” that wish is even stronger.
Eagle: In addition to your gifted cast, the play has been so well-served by Arnulfo Maldonado’s wondrous scenic design and by Asta Bennie Hostetter’s Frederic Remington-worthy costumes.
JB: Arnulfo and Asta came with us from the Clubbed Thumb production [Note: “Men On Boats” had its premiere at Clubbed Thumb’s 2015 Summerworks Festival.] They are exceptional and invaluable collaborators, as are Will and Maria [Striar, artistic director of Clubbed Thumb.] They’re all curious, thoughtful, adventurous. When I was writing the play, which is on such a large canvas, I didn’t want to impose any limits on myself. I wanted the staging to explode.
Eagle: Finally, inevitably, a Brooklyn question: What are your favorite Brooklyn activities? Restaurants, theater, museums, etc.
JB: I love Brooklyn. I love seeing shows at St. Ann’s, BAM and BRIC. A.R.T./New York gave us rehearsal space on South Oxford Street — a loud shout out to them. And to my local wine store, Henry’s Wines & Spirits in Bushwick. As for restaurants, we love Havana Outpost in Fort Greene and Faro in Bushwick.
Eagle: What about Northeast Kingdom? That’s one of my Bushwick favorites.
JB: It closed! We loved it also.
Eagle: To quote Tsauwit: “Oooh. Wow. That’s unexpected, huh?” Like your explorers I need a contingency!
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“Men On Boats” runs through Aug. 14 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42 St. (between 9th & 10th avenues.) For ticket information, go to www.playwrightshorizons.org.