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Villanova Theatre Sails Into the 2022-2023 Season With the True(ish) Story of MEN ON BOATS by Jacklyn Backhaus

VILLANOVA, PA – Villanova Theatre proudly presents Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Kristy Dodson, on stage from September 22 to October 2 in the Court Theatre at the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts.

Inspired by the true(ish) story of the 1869 Colorado River expedition, Backhaus’s nimble script blends satire and historic records to great comedic and theatrical effect. In an ironic twist on the play's title, the playwright specifies that a diverse cast of non-male actors is employed to reenact the expedition, inviting the audience to question the values underlying Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny. At times uproariously funny and at times deadly serious, Men on Boats asks its cast, creative team, and audience to consider what it means to revisit and retell our cultural history.

Villanova’s cast of ten includes a mix of first and second-year MA in Theatre and Certificate in Practical Theatre students, including Alison Hyde Pascale as idealistic one-armed captain John Wesley Powell and Villanova Track and Field Athlete and Certificate in Practical Theatre student Olivia ‘Liv’ Morgan as William Dunn, Powell’s voice of reason and right-hand man.

Pascale is particularly excited to explore the cross-section of identity that comes with playing a historically real man based largely on his own accounts. “I think we’re at this point that a certain sector of society is really ready to reckon with how we talk about our history. I’m so excited to interrogate, rather than reify this man, and to discover what bringing a queer, female embodiment to the role may reveal about what values all of us still carry unquestioned from the Powells of history,” Pascale says. 

Indian-American playwright Jaclyn Backhaus was the 2016 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at Clubbed Thumb and she is currently in residence at Lincoln Center. She began work on Men on Boats at Clubbed Thumb where after several readings of the piece, “it became clear that we were actually not interested in performing drag. It wasn’t a lampoon of men. We wanted to carry the sincerity of real characters. And that’s when we really cracked open a deeper truth about it, to explore the story within its confines, but also create commentary that wasn’t actually embedded in the text.”

Backhaus continues to write on themes of gender and history, with other notable pieces including Wives (Playwrights Horizons) and India Pale Ale (2018 Horton Foote Prize, Manhattan Theatre Club). Backhaus holds a BFA in Drama from NYU Tisch, where she now teaches.

Guest director Kristy Dodson is a “non-binary director, educator, and disability advocate with a complicated Mexican heritage that goes back seven generations.” They bring a diverse skillset and directing portfolio to this production and will also teach the graduate Directing class this fall at Villanova. Kristy is interested in “new and reimagined storytelling that investigates radical empathy, unique use of the body and stylings,” and brings a background of fifteen years of acrobatic performance, including work with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Midwest Touring Company. They continue to be an active participant in disability rights and visibility in the arts. Dodson is uniquely suited to take on a piece like Men on Boats which relies heavily on physicality like pantomime and also features a character with a limb difference. Dodson’s work has been seen and developed at Lincoln Center Theater, Dansearena Nord, The Public Theater, The McCarter Theatre, Clubbed Thumb, and The Lark Play Development Center, among others. They are the recipient of the Zwick Award in Directing.

Dramaturg Hannah Deprey-Severance has dug deep into the real history of Powell and the other crew members on the actual 1869 expedition. She has chosen to focus her research on “the funnel of truth” surrounding this epic historical event – interrogating both the grandiose and the mundane at play in Backhaus’s script.

“The Grand Canyon is geology on a vast scale, encompassing millions of years of history in layers of rock, with spectacular views from the rim and rushing rapids to be rafted at the base. The individual pales in contrast,” remarked Deprey-Severance. “We hope to bring audiences to this sublime experience - but is the historical record a reliable place to push off from? How much do we really know about those ‘real-life’ men? And in the end, what parts of the history are most important to the story?" This big-picture view examines the layers of what events actually occurred, the ‘objective’ historical record, Powell and crew members’ accounts, and what content ultimately found its way into Backhaus’s playscript.

This multivalent approach has allowed Deprey-Severance to highlight to the cast and creative team that the focus of the work is not on accuracy – though she has provided many resources about accurate fire-making and canoe repair – but on what discoveries come in purposefully interpreting, rather than trying to reenact, the past. Her research can be found on this website, and audience members will have a chance to chat with her at the Men on Boats Drinks with the Dramaturg event at 7 PM proceeding the 8 PM performance on September 30th.

Frequent Villanova Theatre collaborator Stefanie Hansen’s set design plays intentionally with Dodson’s meta and anti-theatrical vision for the production. Taking advantage of the mutable Court Theatre in the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts, which will be arranged in its thrust configuration, Hansen’s design cleverly transforms from a museum-like display into a two-dimensional paper and cardboard representation of the American southwest. Multiple drops create a sense of greater constriction as the group of explorers venture further and further into the canyon. The use of playful pantomime and imaginative ensemble work reinforces the sense of make-pretend, undercutting the gravity with which the historic venturers treated their exploration. The eponymous boats will be constricted entirely from cardboard, meant to be maximally maneuverable by the actors, who will rely largely on pantomime to enact the multiple river runs across the play.

Janus Stefanowicz, Villanova Faculty Member, Costume Shop Manager, and Resident Costume Designer, has utilized Deprey-Severance’s dramaturgical research to create period costumes true(ish) to the clothing 19th-century explorers wore. Roguish and bedraggled, Stefanowicz’s designs are intended to morph as the swashbuckling explorers lose more of their belongings (and themselves) along their journey down the Colorado. Each character will begin outfitted with all they need to survive their downriver excursion, including boots, jackets, ropes, and other accessories specific to the surviving historic records and period photographs.

The costume shop assistants are particularly excited about this unique opportunity to confront the inherent gendering of clothing, “It’s interesting, and a learning experience to build these outfits onto bodies that they aren’t necessarily ‘meant’ to be on,” remarked second-year costume assistant Brendan Cochran. “Pulling pieces from our costume stock for this production has made us all acutely aware of how so much of our clothing is still so gendered.”

The multi-talented female and non-binary cast of Villanova Theatre’s Men on Boats includes Alison Hyde Pascale as John Wesley Powell, Olivia ‘Liv’ Morgan as William Dunn, Reagan Venturi as John Colton Sumner, Crys Clemente as Old Shady, Taylor Molt as Bradley, Noelle Diane Johnson as O.G. Howland, Abigail Little as Seneca Howland, Teya Juarez as Frank Goodman, Sara Buscaglia as Hall, and Genevieve Windbiel as Hawkins.

Men on Boats will run from September 22 to October 2, 2022, in the Court Theatre at the Joan and John Mullen Center for the Performing Arts. Villanova’s Speaker’s Series, immediately following the 2 PM performance on September 25, will feature a Q&A session with director Kristy Dodson, Production Dramaturg Hannah Deprey-Severance, and a special guest speaker (TBA, information forthcoming).

Villanova Theatre is a community of artist-scholars committed to transforming hearts and minds through the visionary production of classical, modern, and contemporary dramatic literature. Our work is fueled by the imaginative striving common to Villanova’s accomplished faculty, versatile staff, and energetic graduate students. Together, we are devoted to creating a vibrant theatre enriched by and overflowing with the ideas explored in our classrooms. In all of our endeavors, we aim to share the dynamic experience of collaborative learning with our audiences in order to engage the intellect and stir the soul. As a facet of Villanova University, Villanova Theatre serves the campus community as well as thousands of theatre-goers from the Main Line and the Greater Philadelphia area.

Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's six colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies and the Charles Widger School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.