Jaclyn Backhaus Speaks on Process, Intent, and Authenticity in Theater

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus spoke at Farkas Hall on Sept. 27.
Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus spoke at Farkas Hall on Sept. 27.
Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus settled into a chair at the front of the spacious room, leaning forward towards her audience in a manner that she later described as “fireside chat-style.” To her left were three Harvard College actors (Lindsay McAuliffe ’20, Meghan Onserio ’19, and Peryn Reeves-Darby ’18) who were later joined by Robin JaVonne Smith, a leading actor in Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of Backhaus’ play “Men On Boats.” Together they held scripts, waiting to act and read excerpts for the first time—despite the title, none of the actors were male, which was Backhaus’s intention.

On Sept. 27, SpeakEasy, Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, Harvard College Women's Center, Office for BGLTQ Student Life, and The Department of Theater, Dance & Media brought Backhaus to Farkas Hall to discuss her play and the process of writing it. In the fall of 2013, she began writing an adventure-comedy based on the historical voyage of John Wesley Powell and his crew upon the Colorado River. After hearing stories of Powell’s expedition (the first government-sanctioned exploration of the area), during her childhood in Arizona, as an adult she had stumbled upon his journals from the period and decided they were the perfect source material for a play.

Initially, she was most excited to experiment with adventure as a theatrical genre, and to meet the difficult task of replicating the desperation and adrenaline of survival tactics and action scenes onstage. At the same time, the nature of the voyage enabled her to indulge in her poetic side, writing beautiful, lyrical scenes that often incorporated direct quotes from Powell’s journals. Above all, she drew from her love for theater. “For me, what I do is I write from a place of delight, and of joy,” she said.

As the play progressed, however, she added another dimension. She realized that neither she nor anyone like her would ever be able to perform conventionally in the roles that she was writing—given the time period, every explorer was a white, cisgender male. However, any viewer of “Men On Boats” will not see one actor onstage matching this description: Backhaus included a casting note for the final production instructing the director to challenge this narrative by relying on a cast entirely of racially diverse, non-cisgender male-identifying individuals.

Backhaus described how she took into account the importance of conflicting narratives, of ideological clashes, and of authentic representation. “What better medium to find inclusivity than the medium of theater, when you’re working on a live experience that will be shared by a community?” she said

The casting note allows for different actors to bring unique perspectives to an otherwise homogenous character list. The actors are intended to represent a wide array of human experiences that enable them to reenact events centuries past with new relevance. “It’s just playing the truth of myself and for me, and I think for many of my castmates, that really freed things up,” said Smith, who plays John Wesley Powell in SpeakEasy’s production of the play.

At the end of the workshop, an audience member asked how true the play was to Powell’s original journals and what was added to cater to a modern audience. Laughing, Backhaus recalled how Powell had described in his journals a spat over his crew members’ poor hygiene. First and foremost, these explorers were human, and Backhaus’s task was to take those relatable parts and extend them through the full play. “For me, with this play, it was all about getting people in the room to hear it out loud, hear their thoughts on it, and hear where they find themselves in the play,” she said. “Because that’s what helped inform a lot of the context with which I was able to craft it and my ability to bring it into the world.”

“Men On Boats” runs through Oct. 7 at SpeakEasy.