A gender-flipping ride on the rapids

Bridgette Hayes plays explorer John Colton Sumner in “Men In Boats,” from SpeakEasy Stage Company, at the Calderwood Pavilion, Sept. 8 - Oct. 7.

Ten men, in four boats, coursing through The Grand Canyon. This is “Men On Boats,” the fearless, comic adventures of an actual 1869 expedition by ten volunteer explorers who set out to chart The Colorado River. 

SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting the Boston-area premiere of “Men On Boats” from Sept. 8 to Oct. 7 at the Calderwood Pavilion.  However, there’s a swashbuckling shift awaiting audiences. 
In the production notes, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus stipulates that while the characters in the play were historically cis-gender white males, the cast should be made up entirely of people who are not.
“I am talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender-conforming,” she states in the script.

,Comedic but never camp, the cast of this rousing historical pageant includes Bridgette Hayes as explorer John Colton Sumner.  The multi-talented Hayes works as an actress, costume designer, props artisan, dramaturge and teaching artist. 

She’s also artistic associate at Bridge Rep and has worked with the Bad Habit, Company One, Hub Theatre and Flat Earth Theater companies, among others. 

Originally from Delaware, she has appeared with the Delaware Children’s Theater and Wilmington Drama League in addition to performing off-Broadway. With a BFA from Boston University, she’s currently pursuing a master’s in dramatic arts at Harvard. 

If that doesn’t fill her schedule enough, her 9-to-5 job is as executive assistant to the president and executive director at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.  She also plays four instruments.

We recently spoke about “Men On Boats” and her colorful Irish heritage.  Here’s a condensed look at our conversation.

Q. This production comes with an unusual bit of casting.
A. I think there are 7 women, two people who identify as non-binary, and we have one trans actor . . . Even though the actual characters in “Men On Boats” were historically white cis-gender males, (the playwright) really wanted the cast to be as diverse as possible in gender and in ethnicity.  And I think SpeakEasy really has done a fantastic job of casting because we are seeing a lot of representation on stage.  

Q. What peaked your interest to audition.
A. I think what really drew me to this play is how physical it’s going to be . . . I love doing comedies and I’m definitely a character actor. And this is going to be a really great character.

Q. Have you taken on a male role before?
A. I played a man a few years ago in this production of (Flat Earth’s) “Radium Girls.”  It was such an interesting experience stepping into a male experience.  Meryl Streep has this great quote where she talks about how all the stories in the past were written for men or from a man’s experience.  She says she didn’t want to play Becky in “Tom Sawyer.”  She wanted to play Tom Sawyer.  Or Huck Finn.  Their stories are more interesting.  Those are the ones you relate to.

Q. I understand you’ve had a few Irish ancestors who had their own misadventures on boats.
A. My family hails from Galway and County Cork.  They came over during the potato famine, through New Orleans.  One of my great, great grandfathers was a riverboat gunrunner who lived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and traveled up and down the Arkansas River, and then the Mississippi to New Orleans.  One day, he kissed his wife goodbye, left with his load of guns, and was never heard from again. 

Q. Anyone else afloat on the family tree?
A. My other ancestor was a riverboat pirate who “fell in love” with a prostitute – my great, great grandmother . . . Apparently, she would ride up and down the Mississippi with the men and was known for her story-telling, among other things . . . They found all of these old documents about her – her name was Bridgette, too . . . Maybe that’s where I get the storytelling from!

Q. You know more about your heritage than most people.
A. We’re definitely a meat and potatoes type of family.  That’s the type of Irish we were raised as.  My sisters and I did Irish step dancing as kids and loved that.  Part of my family history is that we really loved the folklore of Ireland . . . (and) I’ve been cast quite frequently as Irish in various plays.  

Q. It must be interesting to be an artist and work at The Conservatory as it’s merged with Berklee.
A. It’s been challenging, but everyone is so excited about it.  You’ve got all the classically trained musicians now mixing with the musicians that come from a jazz background at Berklee. The technology in the music industry right now, it’s just really exciting to see what people are doing with it.

Q. Any other artists in your family?
A. Literally every other person in my family is in medicine, so I am definitely the black sheep of the family. 

Q. Was there pressure to go the Med School route or were your folks encouraging?
A. My Mom is the one who got me into theater.  She used to take me to the theater, ever since I was four years old. She brought me to my first audition.  And she did props when I was on stage. So no, my parents have always been supportive of my career in the arts.

Q. When did you know you wanted to make this your life’s work?
A. Well, the first play, and the reason I actually first auditioned (came) when I was five.  My Mom took me to see a production of “Charlotte’s Web” at the Delaware Children’s Theatre. I burst out crying when Charlotte dies. And my Mom had to carry me out into the hallway so that I wouldn’t disturb the rest of the audience. The director came out and said, ‘You need to put this kid on stage.  She’s got emotions and we need to see them!”

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.

“Men on Boats,” SpeakEasy Stage, Sept. 8 - Oct. 7, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston.  Info: speakeasystage.com or 617-933-8600.