“How can you celebrate each other?” An interview with "Men On Boats" playwright Jaclyn Backhaus

Men On BoatsWriter Jaclyn Backhaus discusses the writing and inspiration for her play about an all-male expedition in the 19th century -- with an eye toward the role of diversity in the 21st century. 

By Isa Flores-Jones ‘19

Jaclyn Backhaus, who wrote the popular play Men On Boats, will be the guest artist for a Learning from Performers writing workshop 4-5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27 at Farkas Hall, 10-12 Holyoke Street in Cambridge. Earlier this week, Backhaus exchanged emails with Harvard Arts Blog writer Isa Flores-Jones '19 about writing the play, which is running through Oct. 7 at SpeakEasy Stage Company. The Harvard event, which is free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by SpeakEasy, Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, Harvard College Women's Center, Office for BGLTQ Student Life and Theater, Dance & Media. For more info about the writing workshop, click here. 

Where did the inspiration for Men On Boats come from? How long did the writing, workshopping, and production process take?
I was inspired to write Men On Boats in 2013 after re-encountering the expedition journals of John Wesley Powell, which I had read in my childhood and which I was taught about Jaclyn Backhausin school – I grew up in Arizona. I wrote the first draft of the piece over one year, and I would bring in 30-40 page segments to the writers group I was in at the time, organized by an New York City theater company called Clubbed Thumb. They really responded to the piece, and they helped shepherd it through about four-to-five readings and workshops over the course of another year before it was produced in the summer of 2015. That production had about a four-week rehearsal process for a total of 10 performances.

The play has been compared to Hamilton both for the retelling of an historical figure and for your purposefully inclusive writing and casting. How does casting only non-white and non-binary actors shift the history? How've audiences responded?
I think it empowers actors to be able to shine in roles they are not normally able to inhabit, and it provides a cutting insight into whose stories are normally told – and the glaring omission of stories we have not yet heard. I feel that once audiences are presented with the hypothesis of the piece – it is writ loud and large there when the actors take the stage – they are soon swept up by the story and the characters and they forget the uniqueness of what they're watching. I think that's a good thing. Normalizing these bodies onstage in roles of heroism, of questionable morality, of complexity – that is my aim. To get them more good work!

You work with emerging actors, writers and directors through your theater project Fresh Ground Pepper. What's the question or goal that new artists never think they need to ask or set, but probably should?
Fresh Ground Pepper is an incubator for new artistic talent. We are not a producing company; we simply focus on facilitating the artistic process in several different ways. We run a retreat, several yearlong writing and devising groups, and we do evenings of showcases that are not about delivering finished product, but more like delivering the joy of exploration to the audience. All that to say: I think a lot of young artists think about what they want to make, but they do not think about how they want to make it. Who do you want to make it with? How can you collaborate from a sense of delight and curiosity, rather than criticism or problem solving? What in the world do you want to know more about? A career in the arts is a lifelong pursuit, and for a sustainable life in the arts, you have to work from joy. How can you celebrate each other?