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Sugar House Journal

Westminster Theatre explores old territory with all-female cast in ‘Men On Boats’

Oct 31, 2018 14h50 ● By Jana Klopsch

The cast of Westminster Theatre's "Men On Boats." (Courtesy Mina Sadoon)

By Spencer W. Belnap | [email protected] 

Westminster College’s Theatre Department is in the midst of its 2018-2019 season and will perform a mixture of modern and classical works until the end of spring. The first two weekends of October brought the college’s take on Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men On Boats” to the Dumke Black Box Theatre located on campus. 

This play is a somewhat true slice of history brought to life by a contemporary bent on casting. It featured an all-female cast playing real life historical figures. What is typically considered and depicted, as actual cisgender white males in history, the show demanded all the male characters be played by anything but males. 

“Female-identifying, transgender-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender-conforming” actors are the only eligible performers for this ensemble, according to the playwright’s casting note. College-aged women performers, offering a different type of history lesson for the audience, played the likes of explorers William Dunn, John Colton Sumner, and Frank Goodman. These and several other men were the first to traverse many of the West’s mightiest rivers as well as the Grand Canyon. 

“It’s unusual for me to be loud and unapologetic on stage,” Westminster junior Mina Sadoon, who played expedition leader John Wesley Powell, said. “There are not a lot of strong female roles that allow me to do this. I am grateful for the opportunity to tell this story through a different perspective.”

If playing such a commanding and vocal man wasn’t challenging enough, Sadoon had to give up use of her right arm for the role. Powell lost his right arm in the Civil War, and still led guided expeditions across various rivers and valleys. Sadoon had to steer boats, write in a journal, and perform other tasks in the show without her predominant arm.

“That was probably the most challenging obstacle to overcome,” Sadoon said. “I never realized how important my dominant hand was until I had to tie a rope around a boat or even write in my journal without it. Even simple things like putting my hair up or holding anything were difficult.”

The cast of 10 Westminster students was comprised of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. The women are pursuing degrees in theatre performance, English, and secondary education. For some, it was the first show of their college careers. Adjunct instructor and director Mark Fossen pitched the idea of “Men On Boats” to the department for this season.

“Working with the cast was just outstanding,” Fossen said. “There was a wonderful energy in the room. We worked on ideas of taking up space, being aggressive and confrontational, closing off a bit emotionally—more than just walk and talk. We looked at the gender performance of masculinity and it was a joy to see them inhabit it.” 

There was a palpable energy amongst the group of performers, and it was evident they had all grown comfortable with each other and their historical personas. Each actor had at least one moment to stand out on stage, and show an interesting or humorous detail about her character. Two of them had an elaborate and choreographed handshake that had the audience laughing. 

Westminster’s theatre season will continue in November with a production of “The School For Scandal.” This show runs the weekends of Nov. 8-10, and Nov. 15-17 at the Jay W. Lees Courage Theatre. Tickets can be purchased by calling 801-484-7651 or visiting Westminster’s event portal online.