School of Theater students partner with equity actors for ‘Men on Boats’

Published: December 10, 2021 Author: Emma Skidmore BSJ ‘23

Tantrum Theater, the professional theater company in Ohio University’s School of Theater, continues to provide students with experiential learning opportunities by way of working with professional actors in numerous productions. Most recently, theater students were able to get back on stage and work with professional actors in Tantrum’s production of “Men on Boats.”

Written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Shannon R. Davis, “Men on Boats” was staged in the Forum Theater in early October where students partnered with career actors and technical artists to produce Tantrum’s first in-person production since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ten explorers. Four boats. One Grand Canyon. “Men on Boats” is the true(ish) history of an 1869 expedition, when a one-armed captain and a crew of insane, yet loyal volunteers set out to chart the course of the Colorado River.

Throughout the production, students worked alongside actors from the Actors’ Equity Association, the U.S. labor union representing actors and stage managers, including Jessica Ranville, an equity actor who played the character Powell, the one-armed captain who led the expedition. She said this production of “Men on Boats” was the first time she had worked in collaboration with students.

“I love acting students, especially at the BFA and MFA levels,” Ranville said. “I just find it a really, really exciting time in an actor's process and development. I feel very honored to be in the rooms with those actors while they're there doing that work.”

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Ranville spoke to the benefits of learning by example and said there are many ways to train as an actor, such as academic programs and private coaching.

“I think this is one of the wonderful things about this kind of work … you're always learning, up until the very last show you do,” she added. “You're always learning from other people. I learned from the students too. It's just such a collaborative process. We share resources with each other.”

For Colette Alfonso, a third-year student studying musical theater, “Men on Boats” was her first show after COVID-19, and her first show at OHIO.

“I technically hadn't performed since my junior year of high school,” Alfonso said. “When COVID hit, everything moved to Zoom … This was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to be in-person and try and do this.’ It was a beast of a show to get on its feet, but it was the greatest experience and the greatest people ever.”

Alfonso, who played Old Shady, described the in-person aspect of the show as “the greatest thing I could have asked for.” A unique aspect of Alfonso’s character was her singing parts, which were sea shanty songs Alfonso’s understudy Rowan Behrens, Sound Director Abigail Coppock, Davis and Alfonso came up with.

“(We) sat down and had voice memos going, and we just started reading the lyrics and trying to figure out a beat,” she said. “My character was a little complicated in that sense.”

Not only was “Men on Boats” Ranville’s first show coming out of the pandemic, but it was also her last before in-person theater paused due to COVID-19. Previously, Ranville played William Dunn, the character opposite Powell, with the Baltimore Center Stage.

To prepare for the role, Ranville said she read the journals of John Wesley Powell, who inspired the character, and an extensive biography of his background, hobbies and role in the Civil War.

“I was familiar with the character of Powell from the outside,” she said. “It was interesting to go from playing a character who really disagreed with Powell and had opposing ideas, to then switch and get into the head of Powell.”

Throughout the process, Ranville said she worked to find similarities between her character and her role as a guest at OHIO.

“I just really allowed that to be in the character,” she said. “Caring for the cast in the same way that Powell would care for his crew as they went down the river, and just constantly looking for those parallels.”

Alfonso said she also slowly discovered her character through both research and on-stage rehearsals. She explained that she had to navigate the gender aspects brought on by the show, as the cast was comprised of non-binary and female actors playing men. Through solutions like adjusting her costume, her character was brought to life.

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“He turned into this character that just knew what he had to do. But he also still had the heart of who he was historically,” Alfonso said about her choices in the direction she took her character. 

The equity actors helped Alfonso navigate her character development, especially owing to her character’s PTSD symptoms from serving in the Civil War. She said she had to think about how to portray that without letting it affect her own mental health.

“A lot of the things that at least I know that I did, and some of my other classmates did, were based purely on impulses, and trying to keep the story of the show alive,” she said.

Ranville said she had the chance to answer students’ questions about post-graduation or script-marking techniques and that working alongside students allowed her to model rehearsal etiquette and interaction with the director and stage manager.

“I was very happy to jump in and do that work with the actors,” she said. “It was really exciting to be side-by-side with them, as opposed to being on the outsides instructing them. I was part of the team.”

Ranville said the energy in rehearsals was strong as actors began to navigate the space in-person. It’s a very physical show, she said, and noticed how supportive the cast was of each other.

“Once we were in the space [in-person] … I remember that day, that really made a change for me. Suddenly, things felt very real,” Ranville said. “People were just ready to go, and at the same time, there was this navigating of, ‘This is my body again, I'm standing in space. I'm not sitting in front of a screen.’”