USD Theater’s February production of “Men on Boats” is a comedic romp through history with a twist: the ten male characters in the show are played entirely by female actors.
The play retells John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition of the Grand Canyon. Although the cast is all female, the names of the characters, their pronouns, and the situations they find themselves in remain the same.
Ann-Houston Campbell, a second year graduate student and director of the production made this decision to question both how stories are told and who can tell them.
“Seeing a female body onstage and knowing in your mind it’s a male character causes the two to blend until you know you’re just watching the character,” Campbell said. “It is believable to think these women could have done this, and they can tell the story just as well if not differently or better through their portrayal.”
Campbell proposed the idea of an all-female cast when she pitched the play to the theater department. The play balances the needs of the department and the community with her needs as a student and a director, Campbell said.
“It’s a comedy, and it has great technical opportunities for technical students, but having an empowering experience in creating a piece of theater is important to me and is important to any piece I do,” Campbell said. “It’s also extremely entertaining. We’ve got cartwheels and handstands and whiskey and little boats. It’s a great time.”
Ella Williams, senior musical theater major, leads the cast as John Wesley Powell. In developing characters, challenges arise not because she and her castmates are playing men, but because they are playing historical figures.
“These people are real,” Williams said. “They had personalities, they wrote journals about what happened; making them feel real and not letting them be cartoon characters has been the biggest challenge.”
Williams also said she believes the all-female portrayal of the work shows experience is not unique to gender.
“I don’t think it matters what gender is playing what role,” Williams said. “Anyone can go on an adventure, so it shows that women can face these challenges just as much as any man could.”
“Men on Boats” premiers Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wayne S. Knutson Theatre.