As the new artistic director of American Theater Company, trans artist Will Davis opted to run with and emphasize the organization's revised 2002 mission statement. It begins with the question: "What does it mean to be an American?"
But in regards to Davis' first official production for ATC, that mission statement question could be altered to "What does it mean to be a man?" That's because playwright Jaclyn Backhaus has specifically demanded that all the male characters in her 2016 historical drama Men on Boats are to largely be played by female-identified or gender-nonconforming performers.
"The term we've been using is 'gender-fluid' rather than 'gender-blind,'" said Davis about the casting of Men on Boats, now receiving its Chicago premiere. Davis previously directed Men on Boats in its previous off-Broadway incarnations for Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb in New York.
Men on Boats is inspired by the 1869 U.S. expedition of 10 men led by John Wesley Powell to chart the course of the Colorado River, which leads them through the Grand Canyon. It's an expedition that usually gets minimal mention in most American history classes.
But Backhaus was well-versed on the expedition, thanks in part to having a scientist dad who was fascinated by explorers. There's also the geographical detail of Backhaus growing up in 'The Grand Canyon' state of Arizona, where Powell's expedition is heavily emphasized in schools.
"When I was looking to write a play a couple of years ago, something historically based, I remembered Powell and how it was a very harrowing adventure," Backhaus said. "We had a copy of John Wesley Powell's journal and I remember it having all these beautiful lithograph prints of people in danger."
As Backhaus was writing her play, she became wistful at the fact that women and people of color would normally never get the chance to play these hyper-masculine white explorers. Yet in the play workshop process, Davis and Backhaus realized that they needn't be so rigid with the casting.
"We just started talking about how rarely it is you see non-male-identified people onstage who are not there because of their relationship to men," Davis said. "They're not just the wife or the girlfriend or the nurse or the seductress or whatever it may be."
"Without deciding that this was the theme we were running with, we were really more asking the question of 'What does this mean to populate this Manifest Destiny play with different kinds of people," Backhaus said. "It really started to crack open a lot of the scenes as a sort of undercurrent running beneath the play. Just watching them work was immediately informative about how exactly the play lives on the stage and what moments can be drummed up for comedy and satire's sake, and what moments ring as true if they were played by the kind of people who went on the expedition."
"One of the most joyful and also exiting ways to get after that was to talk about these questions of legacy and history and the performance of an early American masculinity as 'performance,'" Davis said. "Let's give this cast of 10 people the space to play with those personas of bombastic, swashbuckling, land-grabbing kind of behavior that in many ways is the bedrock of who we are as Americans."
Davis is quick to point out that Men on Boats in Chicago is not a replica of its off-Broadway incarnation. Davis cast locally and chose an entirely new Chicago-based design team that was tasked with theatrically suggesting the Colorado River onstage.
"One thing I always feel is important to say is that it's not a play about women playing men," Davis said. "And I don't have a cast that is completely comprised of female actors."
In terms of casting future ATC productions, Davis intends to draw upon this experience of directing Men on Boats by not pigeonholing potential performers into rigidly defined roles. Davis wants actors to make efforts to self-select roles for themselves in auditions so he and his collaborators can be surprised or inspired by their choices.
"[Men on Boats] is a play where a huge group are fighting about maps and whiskey and rowing over rapids and singing together," Davis said. "There's some mutiny and it's pretty incredible to see a group of folks like that being able to perform a work that is actually not about their gender at all, but about inhabiting these huge explorer personalities."
Men on Boats runs from Friday, Jan. 6, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. Previews run through Sunday, Jan. 8, with an official press opening 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9. The regular run is 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $20-$38. Call 773-409-4125 or visit ATCweb.org for more information.