Director Dawn M. Simmons talks Men on Boats at SpeakEasy Stage
It’s hard enough to imagine a 100-minute play about the 1869 expedition of John Wesley Powell. But how about a play about Powell’s expedition starring zero men, using modern-tinged dialogue, and without a boat in sight?
The result, Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats, was a surprise hit in New York and now makes its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage, where it will run through Oct 7.
Here, director Dawn M. Simmons (whose Saturday Night/Sunday Morning was one of our DigBoston top picks of 2015) reflects on both the challenges and importance of Men on Boats.
I can’t wait to see Men on Boats—it was an unlikely hit when it first opened in New York, and now regional productions are popping up all over the place.
All over the place; it’s really interesting. I wish I could see every production—I would love to know how everybody realizes it because it’s so open that there’s a lot you can do.
I’m happy to see a company like SpeakEasy doing this. This is something that, in years past, might have shown up at Company One or one of the other fringe companies, but to see one of the larger companies take it on is very exciting.
I think it’s exciting for the writer, it’s exciting for me as a director, and it’s exciting for the actors. We’re getting a new story out; we’re getting a different type of storytelling out. [SpeakEasy has] a visibility that will really lift this show, and that’s a wonderful thing because more people need to see it. The more people that see this show, the more we start to cultivate a taste for this kind of storytelling and for the stories of other people.
You said in an interview a long time ago that when you were trying your hand at playwriting, some of your professors said that what you were writing wasn’t necessarily the kind of play that they were expecting from you; they were judging a book by her cover. And here you are directing Men on Boats, which distorts all of those questions of expectation and ownership. Is there a kind of symmetry here?
It’s the other side of that where we have come—not quite full circle—but we’re entering that new place where people are being allowed to tell more stories. We are giving ourselves, and we are claiming access to, more things. That interview was a little while ago, and things are changing. Last year I was asked to direct The Real Inspector Hound; that’s a show that I would not have expected somebody to ask me to direct, and it’s not one that I necessarily would have thought of doing. And now this, where the author is very purposefully claiming the story of other people, other bodies, and inserting new people into that story—we’re making space for ourselves, and I think that’s where we are right now. Instead of asking permission or waiting for somebody to say it’s okay, we’re just doing it.
You can’t get much more macho white male than Powell’s exploration tale, and now the story is being told by everyone who is not a white man. In your estimation, what is the play saying through its casting?
There’s the idea, for me, that adventure and history is open to all and that we all have a part in it. Putting these different bodies in this particular story—this very male story—is hopefully a gateway to get people interested in other stories. Whether it’s more of this sort of adventure, male-dominated sense of history or whether it’s “now that I’ve seen this tale told by other people, what’s their history?” Does it open the door for us to be curious about other people and where they actually were at this time and what was going on with them?
What is the biggest challenge with Men on Boats?
We have a mixed cast of cis-identifying, gender-nonconforming, and trans individuals in this show—so the further we go into it, we really have to start to dig into that and what it means for us to be telling those stories. The more you mine a seed, the deeper into it you get. We keep exploring and everybody keeps being open; there’s something deeper every time we turn around. Every time we open a page we find something new to explore, whether that’s physicality or whether that’s, “Am I playing this as a man, am I playing this as a woman, am I playing this as somebody who refuses to identify?” What does that look like and what is that story, then, for an audience member? We get there every time we open a new page. Maybe the most difficult thing is that there’s something around every corner. We’re never done working; we’ve never stopped thinking in this process. There’s not a place where you can sort of veg out. You’ve got to be on 24/7.
Do you anticipate there being some people who just don’t get it?
On many different levels, absolutely. I think there are some people who will be like, “I don’t understand the boats; I don’t understand why they were doing this movement for a boat when a boat moves like this; I don’t know why those are women.” There will be someone who say[s], “Is that a guy?” “Why are there black people in this?” There will be those people who are just like, “Nope, don’t understand it.” And there will be some people who will push through that and maybe not understand it but try. There will be some people who are immediately rooting for it. I think no matter what, you’re going to leave feeling something. You’re going to leave with a strong opinion, whether you loved it or didn’t love it. It’s not one of those neutral shows where you’re going to come out like, “Eh.”
MEN ON BOATS. 9.8–10.7 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM