Man on a Boat

Self-Portrait as “Men on Boats” character “Andrew Hall” by Bonnie Obremski

Self-Portrait as “Men on Boats” character “Andrew Hall” by Bonnie Obremski

For most of April, I will pretend to be a man. I am one of 10 women portraying “Men on Boats,” which opens Thursday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. at Key City Public Theatre in Port Townsend, Washington.

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus of New York City wrote the anachronistic comedy about five years ago to be played by an all-female cast. The plot and characters are inspired by U.S. Major John Wesley Powell and his crew who completed the first government-sanctioned expedition to row the Grand Canyon in 1869.

At our first rehearsal, I asked the question, “Are we making fun of men?”

The short answer from our director, Genevieve Barlow, was “no.” I wish I had recorded her complete answer—she is wise beyond her 24 years. In lieu of that, I’ll answer the question myself, after weeks of practicing techniques such as “manspreading” and lowering the pitch of my screams (we do go over waterfalls).

First, some backstory. I heard about this play a year ago when I was propelling myself down the runway at the Port Townsend Wearable Art Show, dressed as an eight-foot shrimp that sprang from the depths of artist Margie McDonald’s imagination. (Margie happens to be the set designer for “Men on Boats”). The wearable art show’s emcee, Denise Winter, saw promise in the gyrations of my six, orange legs. Denise, who is the executive artistic director of Key City Theatre, encouraged me to audition for the play.

“Men on Boats” does involve a lot of rhythmic movement, but I will admit that was not the initial appeal for me to audition for the comedy. Some dark part of me wanted to make fun of men on boats. I’ve worked on modern and historic sailing vessels as everything from a business owner to a volunteer crew member. If tumors of sexism persist anywhere, it’s in the boating industry. But, now that I’m writing this, I realize that dark part of me wasn’t craving retaliation. It really wished for a second chance, an opportunity to replay scenes in which I wished I behaved differently and spoken different words.

Looking back, I’ve played many parts as a girl and woman trying to claim power in a male-centric world.

“I’m a tomboy and I HATE pink!” was a line from one of my early roles.

“I’ll scrub the deck in my bikini, that’ll sell some tickets!” came later.

Some female characters I experimented with didn’t really have speaking parts, other than “OK” and “I’m sorry.”

What would I say and what would I do if I could go back to those moments and speak boldly from my own human heart rather than reacting from a place of fear where I believed I would fail unless I was “doing as well as the boys” or “being one of the guys.”

When I finally got the “Men on Boats” script, the fantasy of reclaiming sexist scenarios melted away. One reason was, the men on boats are focused on survival, not the opposite sex. The only noticeable male-to-female interaction happens once when crew members crack jokes about how a repaired boat, which bears a woman’s name, looks good, “all caulked up.”

So, what am I saying? Segregating genders makes sexism disappear? There is a comfort that comes with being among people who all share the same defining life experience, such as being labeled “female” or “male.” But, we know segregation is not the long-term solution to a problem like sexism. So, what is?

The first day of rehearsal, director Genevieve showed us that optical illusion of a drawing that appears to be both a duck and a rabbit. She encouraged us to think about our “Men on Boats” journey into masculinity in that way. Sometimes we would appear masculine, and sometimes feminine, and a lot would depend on the perspective of the person looking at us.

With that, I was set free. I wasn’t trying to be a man. I didn’t have to call a man to mind and try to emulate him. I simply had to summon the masculine that already lived inside me, to take up space and be comfortable in my own skin. At the same time, I would allow my femininity to illuminate the dimensions of human emotion in my character that traditional masculinity can hide. In this play, you won’t have to guess if a character feels the more vulnerable emotions of fear, sadness or happiness. We will show you. Nor will you have to guess when we feel threatened or angry. We will show you that, too.

Are we making fun of men? I agree with Genevieve. The answer is “no.” For me, this show, set in the past, is a glimpse into our future, to a time when we are comfortable fully expressing ourselves as both ducks and rabbits.