On Sept. 30, Carbondale’s beloved Thunder River Theatre Company (TRTC) will kick off a 2021-2022 in-person season, bringing the community back to live theater performances with added safeguards, new leadership and fresh storytelling. 

Leading up to the reopening, TRTC recently announced its new interim artistic director, Missy Moore. The Colorado native and award-winning actress swiftly stepped into her new role as a curator and director for this coveted upcoming season marking the return to live performances. And Moore is ready to spark conversations. 

For the opening show, which will run Sept. 30- Oct. 17 on Thursdays through Sundays, Moore has chosen “Men on Boats,” Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’ comedic retelling of the true(ish) history of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition to chart the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. 

“I wanted to stay in the realm of comedy,” Moore said. “Humans have lost a lot — jobs, loved ones, sense of self — and I didn’t want to come out of the running gates with a heavy drama.” 

When Powell embarked on his rigorous journey in the late 1800s, he was accompanied by nine other courageous men. Yet, through Backhaus’ retelling and Moore’s directing, the story on the stage will be told and acted out by a cast of 10 gallant women. 

“Very rarely do women get to really go on an adventure,” Moore said. “A lot of times in theater, we’re the quiet housewife, the black widow, the lover … but these ladies get to get into the nitty gritty — the rough exploration of navigating the Grand Canyon with four oak boats.” 

During auditions in mid-July, Moore noticed how women made up the majority of local talent trying out for the show, leading her to envision a “heavily female-driven production.”

“There were a ton of females who showed up in auditions, and I thought, ‘Well, this is the universe telling me that this is the direction I need to go,” Moore said. 

Following callbacks, the cast began rehearsing at the end of August, and on top of putting together this vivacious and invigorating performance, Moore and TRTC Technical Director Sean Jeffries have been working endlessly to transform the theatre’s trademark blackbox space into a COVID-safe environment. 

“The preparation process has been the normal craziness that goes into putting on any show, but with the added excitement of returning to an in-person experience and the background work of making sure our patrons stay safe,” Jeffries said. 

In addition to sneeze guards, excess sanitation procedures and requiring all audience members to provide proof of vaccination prior to entry, TRTC is also offering the option to either attend socially distanced or full-capacity performances. According to the company’s website, the socially distanced show capacity is 47 seats, and tickets are available only by a cluster of four seats for $120. Traditional seating show capacity is 99 seats, with tickets available at $30 per person. 

Jeffries discussed how they’re trying out these different seating configuration options for this opening show in order to “see what the market is asking for” when it comes to planning around the season’s future programming. 

“We’ll take that information and go from there,” Jeffries said. “This will be a real bang-up year if we can keep people coming to the theater. We have artistic vision, we have new collaborative programming coming up, we have holiday shows, cabarets, one-woman shows — we’re just going to keep on going.” 

Following the revivifying performance this Thursday night, TRTC will soon announce its official programming for the rest of the 2021-2022 season, as mentioned by Moore. 

Aside from a few one- and two-person shows that were broadcast to online audiences, TRTC has been closed down since March 2020, and both Moore and Jeffries look forward to returning with this captivating and humorous historical retelling with “Men on Boats.” 

“I think it will appeal to locals, with the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers right here in our valley, and there’s also so much history surrounding this expedition and who these people were,” Moore said. “It’s so great to learn about something you do not know much about — to keep the dialogue going — and that’s what storytelling in theater should be: continuing to spark conversations.” 

Jeffries, who attended DanceAspen’s live performance at the Wheeler Opera House a little over a week ago, reflected on the “palpable exchange of energy” between the performers on-stage and the people in the audience, aspiring for a similar experience throughout the course of TRTC’s opening play. 

"All I can hope is that when we have patrons in our audience, we experience that exchange of energy with open hearts in both directions,” Jeffries said. “Thinking of people watching theater in our space again, I find myself choking up — we’re finally getting back to doing what we love.”