Despite Blair’s move to distance learning this spring, the show went on for the Blair Academy Players, who virtually shared a few scenes from Men on Boats with the Blair community. To watch the virtual production, click “play” below.”
The recording of the production, which director Sonia Hanson called “an extended trailer” for the live, staged reading that the actors plan to perform in the Robert J. Evans Open Air Theatre next fall, took the audience on a whitewater rapids adventure through the Grand Canyon.
The “true(ish)” plot delves into the history of an 1869 expedition of one-armed captain John Wesley Powell (played by Lucy Clayton ’21) and a crew of nine loyal volunteers who set out to chart the course of the Colorado River following the Civil War (see below for a full list of cast and crew members). The expedition, sanctioned by the U.S. government, later divvys up the land and displaces Native Americans who had been living there for hundreds of years. Written by Jaclyn Backhouse, the show pushes the boundaries of storytelling with a gender-fluid cast that allows audience members to intently focus on the nuances of the characters’ experiences and more closely examine how stories of our history are told.
“I originally wanted to open some of the storytelling process by having live on-stage sound and lighting that was exposed to the audience,” said Ms. Hanson. “Having the show turn into this multipart experience for the Blair community actually still opens and shares the rehearsal process. Our final performance won't be a fully produced show, but it will still have the power of story behind it with the characters that have resonated through time.”
Even though plans for the live production had to be shelved in mid-March due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the 12 cast members have enjoyed growing the bonds they formed in their few rehearsals before spring break. “My favorite part, despite the unfortunate circumstances, has been getting to know the many great people in our cast,” said Hanna Wilke ’23 (who plays Old Shady, Major Powell’s war veteran brother). “From the start, it was quite evident that a great show was beginning to bloom, and it was because of my great fellow castmates!”
The lighthearted-yet-serious nature of the show has also made the experience of virtually producing it interesting for all involved. In many ways, the play pokes fun at American history and how it is written, taking a long look at erasure from history, especially in the case of Native Americans and women.
“In the same way that Hamilton takes a new look at America’s founding, this show relooks at history in a way that includes us,” said Ms. Hanson, who has acted since high school, studied theatre arts as an undergraduate at Stephen F. Austin State University and earned her MFA in costume design and technology at San Diego State University. She later taught theatre at Missouri Western State University, and her work as a freelancer for television, film and theatre led her to become a props artisan on Whose Line Is it Anyway? and create costumes for arts organizations across the U.S.
Calling the play’s director “one of the most kind-hearted people I have ever met,” Hanna has been impressed with how well Ms. Hanson knows the show (she first saw it off-Broadway in Kansas City with Mr. Hanson and they had no idea at first it was cross-casted). “While it is sad Men on Boats could not be performed live this spring, Ms. Hanson still came up with a really fun and creative way for us to share the show with everyone, for ‘the show must go on!’ I am honestly so grateful for all Ms. Hanson has done, and I can’t wait to see what she does next,” Hanna said.
Although she has been directing plays since senior year in college, this is Ms. Hanson’s first time directing high school students. She and assistant director Dr. Wendy Bedenko Moore have been incredibly impressed with Blair actors’ ability to adapt and their openness to the artistic process.
As for why Blair students, teachers and staff should tune in for the virtual scenes to be shared this week, Ms. Hanson says she is certain they have never seen a show like this. “It is so difficult to explain how unique this show is because the actors are literally on boats riding down a river,” she said. “It is hard to do that creatively and artistically when you are actually standing still.”
The production also leaves audiences wondering about the definition of success: The expedition is considered a success, but there are devastating consequences, and not just for Native Americans. The Colorado River was dammed, which changed the landscape. Most of the men were not recognized in the history books, except for Major Powell, who went on to work for the State Department. “Yes, the government got what it wanted, and yes, the men survived, but even Powell proposed setting up the entire West around the river system so it would be ecologically sustainable,” Ms. Hanson concluded. “But the government dammed the river and ignored him, and I wonder if he would have gone on the mission if he had known its outcome.”
In addition to taking a look at the unintended consequences of success, the show also imagines what women could have accomplished if they were able to take part in the expedition. “The original historical event had a male lead, but Men on Boats is the female-empowering, gender bender version that’s bound to not only give you a laugh but also a glimpse into how strong our all female cast is,” Hanna said.
Cast & Crew
Lucy Clayton ’21: John Wesley Powell
Kelsey Jackman ’20: William Dunn
Annie Mulholland ’20: John Colton Sumner
Alex Schamberger ’22: Hawkins
Sophia Davis ’22: Hall
Aavya de Silva ’20: Seneca Howland
Hanna Wilke ’23: Old Shady
Emily Wang ’23: Bradley
Kayleah Strunk ’23: Frank Goodman
Ari Albino ’23: O.G. Howland
Duc Dinh ’22: The Bishop
Lindsay Juge ’21: Tsauwait & Mr. Asa
Arjun Chopra ’21: Stage manager/student director
Kendra Payne ’20 & Audrey Sacks ’20: Sound design & composition