Missy Moore, embracing the upcoming production of “Men On Boats” at Thunder River Theatre Company (TRTC), joyfully announced, “This is my first shot at directing for TRTC, under the new artistic director role, so I’m coming out swinging.”
Moore’s debut is a comedy written by playwright Jaclyn Backhaus. As Moore explained, “the fun thing is we’re doing a play called ‘Men On Boats,’ which is a true-ish retelling of the John Wesley Powell expedition, but we’re doing it with no men and no boats.”
“Men On Boats” features a cast of 10 women, ranging in ages from their mid-20s to early-70s, and is a mix of TRTC-acting veterans and first-time TRTC actors who have worked in the Valley. Moore relishes this moment – TRTC’s first in-person production since March 2020. “It is so exciting to be opening that theater after being dark for a long time and bringing some new talent in,” she said.
Backhaus’ play is set in 1869, when Major John Wesley Powell led nine men in four boats on a three-month, government-sanctioned geological expedition to navigate the Green and Colorado rivers and survey the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon. Always a dedicated geologist and avid adventurer, the play is based on Powell’s expedition journals.
Drawing on the expertise of TRTC technical director, facilities manager and production designer Sean Jeffries, Moore gave him a hefty set design challenge. She recalled, “I just looked at Sean and asked ‘Do you want to build me the Grand Canyon?’ and he’s like, ‘Sure, okay.'”
In part, Jeffries’s challenge is the theater’s black box configuration, but he ended up “creating a fun, diagonal, Grand Canyon-esque world.”
Libby Rife plays Powell aboard the Emma Dean, named after Powell’s wife. She moved to the Valley in August 2018, previously having lived in Denver for 25 years.
Rife was cast in TRTC’s 2019 production of “Bluenose.” She auditioned for “Men On Boats” after reading a Sopris Sun article that Moore was hired as TRTC’s interim artistic director.
Rife knew of Moore’s acting work from when she lived in Denver and “when I saw she was coming to Thunder River; that was my primary motivation, and when I saw that Missy was going to be directing the first show – that was quite an inspiration.”
In 1862, while fighting with the Union Army during the Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee, Powell lost his right arm. Before auditioning for the role of Powell, Rife read the script, and “I was like, ‘Hello, Major!’ I came to the audition with one arm [tucked under my shirt].”
Kristin Carlson plays Andrew Hall, the expedition’s mapmaker aboard the Maid of the Canyon, also known as “the party boat.”
Carlson said, the Grand Canyon walls represented by a 13-foot vertical rise and bridge, is “another reason to be in a show that Sean Jeffries does, let alone a show where you get to be in a Grand Canyon that he designs.”
Backhaus’ retelling of Powell’s 1869 expedition is, in many ways, “tongue-in-cheek,” Moore said. The Mormons had already settled in the area, as had the Ute tribes, years before them. “And that’s one of the things that’s lovely about the play is they do mention, ‘Technically, we weren’t the first ones here,” Moore explained.
Aspen native Sophia Higbie, who plays George Young Bradley, has served as a stage manager in TRTC productions, including as assistant stage manager for “The Gin Game” with Bob Moore.
Higbie said, “Bradley’s journals contain some of the most honest and thorough notes about the trip. Powell wrote about what happened on the trip, in terms of geological formations, but Bradley took detailed notes on what happened in camp and hunting activities.”
Bostyn Elswick, in her first production with TRTC, grew up in New Castle, acting in theater productions at Coal Ridge High School and has acted with Defiance in Glenwood Springs. She plays editor and hunter O.G. Howland aboard the No-Name.
Elswick said Moore emphasizes movement-based acting and “challenges us and the way we can use our body to tell stories.”
Typically, women do not get the opportunity to play historical figures on the stage because much of history has focused on men’s accomplishments, not women’s. Elswick said exploring power dynamics “is something that women don’t get to do a whole lot of and it makes you feel powerful and it’s fun to feel like a badass character in history and in this play.”
Start times will be at 7:30 p.m. for Thursday through Saturday performances and 6 p.m. on Sundays. TRTC is offering patrons two seating options: one with regular seating configuration of the theater’s 99 seats and no social-distancing. The second with socially-distanced seating with “clusters” of four seats each. Proof of vaccination will be required for all performances. To reserve tickets, visit: https://thunderrivertheatre.com/