A Caravan on the High Seas
By Caileigh Broatch
If you find yourself wandering along the northern end of the Harbourfront Walkway in downtown Nanaimo, just past the Yacht Club and before you reach Departure Bay, turn your sights offshore and you might think that Jack Sparrow has sailed into town. Thankfully, there’s a three-foot banner to correct you: The Amara Zee isn’t a pirate ship, but the pride and joy of the Caravan Stage Company.
Wrapped in a thick grey tarp to keep out the rain, the 90-foot Tall Ship is currently enjoying a well-deserved, between-seasons rest. But come summer, she’ll be plying the waters of the Salish Sea to take her special brand of epic, nautical theatre to communities throughout the region.
The Caravan Stage Company has been touring its productions, in one form or another, for over 47 years. Founded by journalists-turned-theatre-makers Paul Kirby and Adriana “Nans” Kelder, Caravan initially toured puppet shows on Vancouver Island in the 1970s using a team of horses and a wagon. Eventually, they acquired an 80-foot tent and began presenting larger productions, before settling on a farm near Armstrong, BC. That property is still home to the Caravan Farm Theatre, but, in 1984, Kirby and Kelder returned to the horse-drawn life, this time with six wagons pulled by a team of Clydesdales.
Kirby, a genial, soft-spoken man now in his 70s, says he and Kelder missed the road. “Primarily, we didn’t want to be a stationary, residential, real estate theater company, so we went back to our nomadic ways.”
Now they tour the world with a company of 20-plus actors, acrobats and technicians, who live on board the Amara Zee during each summer season, travelling down rivers, across lakes, and along seacoasts. Having just returned home from a European tour, including three years in Greece and two in Italy, they’re currently retooling their latest show, Nomadic Tempest, for west coast audiences.
Each production tackles a different political, environmental, or humanitarian theme. The narratives are dream-like and the performances spectacular, on an operatic scale. The ship is typically moored near land and becomes their stage. A huge screen hoisted to the mast and supported by trusses is used for multimedia effects and translations of the text being performed — a kaleidoscopic, polychromatic backdrop. In a typical performance, aerial acrobats pirouette high above the other performers. A labyrinth of rigging allows cast members to travel back and forth between the stage and the on-shore audience.
The Amara Zee is also an ongoing experiment in communal living for the diverse artists who make the magic happen. “As a community, we hope to provide the world with an example of effective, harmonious living,” says co-producer Kelder.
“For people who are interested in this type of theatre, it is sort of a lifestyle,” she adds. “You commit to being part of a company that is together night and day for half the year.” In addition to performing in the show and other creative duties, the company is responsible for maintenance of the ship. Supporting them are another few dozen creatives engaged in design, animation, and promotion. Says Kirby, with fondness: “These people become part of the great, larger Caravan family.”
The story of how Kirby and Kelder came to build the Amara Zee is itself pretty epic and magical. In 1987, after performing in Detroit, they discovered Wolfe Island in Ontario and re-located their home base to a farm there. It had been their original dream that Caravan be a ship-based company, which would allow them to travel farther than horses would take them, but their dream had remained out-of-reach. That changed when, in what can only be considered a fateful coming together, they met their fairy-godparents – a marine engineer, a sailmaker, and a Kingston, Ont. marina manager, whom they affectionately dubbed The Three Musketeers.
“They made it possible for us to build a boat,” says Kelder. “And they donated all their services, marina yard, and time. After four years of labour and the birth of the Amara Zee, we had the spectacular Caravan Stage Company as it is today. But not without the hard work of the company, our family.”
Garnering the funds to bring the Caravan Stage Company to port is a labour in itself. A lot of work goes into getting a theatrical performance of its scale financed and presented. In Nanaimo, they have been assisted by Odai Sirri, director of operations at Nanaimo’s Waterfront Suites and Marina, where the Amara Zee is currently moored. Sirri first saw the company perform in Victoria last year. “I was utterly blown away by their production and by the work they do,” he says. “I just thought it was a tremendous feat, and the fact that they do it all over the world — it was very impressive. I wanted to help them to bring the show to Nanaimo.”
Sirri is also drawn to the company’s choices of topic. Nomadic Tempest, for example, explores both climate change and migration. “The themes that they touch on in their shows, I think those are very critical for our day and age,” he says.
Eager audiences can check-out the Amara Zee at the Nanaimo Boat Show, April 12th to 15th at the Waterfront Suites and Marina. Otherwise, you can catch Caravan in performance at the same location from June 12th to 16th.
They will also perform on Vancouver Island in Courtenay and Sooke, before moving on to Port Townsend, Bellingham, Tacoma, and Seattle in Washington State. They return to the island for a season finale in Victoria in September.
Kirby notes that the company is always breaking new ground, exploring new territory, engaging new people, and inviting a micro-society into what is now its metaphorical caravan. “That becomes not only a modus operandi, but it’s a way of doing things that we really embrace and really like.” Thankfully for Caravan, for 47 years, audiences have embraced it too.