It is hard to know where to start telling the story of the Amara Zee, the ever-moving, floating theatre of the Caravan Stage Company, a replica of a River Thames barge that has sailed the world with its multimedia spectacles for more than two decades and is finally returning to its owners’ hometown of Vancouver.
Do you go all the way back to 1970, when Paul Kirby and Nans Kelder founded their horse-drawn puppet theatre that toured Vancouver Island? Do you jump to two years later, when their Caravan Stage Company pulled seven wagons by Clydesdale around the province? Or do you begin in 1978, when the troupe bought a piece of land in Armstrong that would become the renowned Caravan Farm Theatre?
That history alone could fill books. Instead, let’s rewind to 1984, when Kirby and Kelder were getting itchy feet at the farm. As she puts it: “We could see the path where our nomadic dreams were becoming a static dream.”
“The nice thing about being nomadic is we have complete freedom,” explains Kirby, sitting with his partner over tea at an East Side arts studio on a quick visit before their ship and communal-theatre home arrives in False Creek for the aptly named Nomadic Tempest shows. Then he adds with a laugh: “That way we don’t have audience expectations.”
So, 33 years ago, they broke off from the farm they helped found to rove the U.S. and Canada with the Caravan Stage Company, a horse-and-wagon theatre troupe that covered 32,000 kilometres, from California to Florida to Michigan, finally returning here in 1986 for a certain exposition going on that year. But first, while eating a picnic on a California beach one day in 1985, Kirby saw a ship in the harbour and started thinking about its potential for a different kind of nomadic stage show.
It wasn’t until 1993, after a long World Stage run in Toronto, that the couple took the plunge. They had been looking at old tall ships, but a sailmaker in Kingston advised them otherwise: “He said, ‘You need to build a version of a Thames sailing barge,’ ” Kirby says. It took four years and $2 million to realize the dream. “We both knew that if it ever stopped, it would be over,” Kirby says with a laugh. “When we made the decision, we said, ‘What are our assets?’ ” Kelder adds, saying they amounted to a 1950 Cadillac, the wagons, and their horses. “I think we raised $40,000 and that paid for the first delivery of steel.” From there, Kirby started fundraising, finding sponsors for as many pieces of the Caravan StageBarge, as it was then known, as possible.
The rest is history. The duo and their gifted community of actors and theatre makers have travelled from sea to sea, performing from the Louisiana bayous to the banks of the Danube. Another book could be written about their seafaring adventures, including the time when 1,500 people showed up for a performance in Serbia, or when volunteers came out to help set up a show in Sicily because the town that had sponsored it went bankrupt, or when they were run out of Boston due to red tape over the site. And then there’s their sometimes activist themes, including the environmental- and immigration-related ones of Nomadic Tempest: “We have a long history of having adverse attitudes toward us,” Kirby says with another good-natured laugh. “We’re outlaws.”
Heading to Europe, Kirby says, had a big effect on the troupe’s aesthetic. Though the shows, which feature giant projections on the sails and acrobats twirling down from the masts, have sometimes been compared to Cirque du Soleil here, “In Europe, we found the best phrase to describe it is ‘experimental opera’,” Kirby explains. “There is a plot and there are characters, but it is all sung through and we just throw all the spectacle out there. When we did Caravan and it was horse-drawn, you had a tent and you could contain the audience. With the ship there’s nothing to contain the audience, so we just needed more and more spectacle.…And there’s a cinematic quality that we embrace in the show; we have filmed 10 narrative sequences that we project.”
The unique hybrid of forms, brought to life by the Amara Zee’s crew of 20, will be on full view during performances on the seawall between the Cambie Bridge and Olympic Village. There, architect Bing Thom helped the crew design an amphitheatre where audiences can enjoy the free show. (The troupe, in old-school shoestring tradition, still passes a hat.) In the piece set in 2040, four monarch butterflies (played by acrobats) stand in for the migrating masses that are forced to move around the planet due to climate change. “Right now there are upwards of 70 to 80 million refugees on the planet,” Kirby remarks. The show also features a singer, Kanandra, who can foresee the future, but she’s cursed by the SwallowWarts (the evil oil industry) so that no one believes her.
No matter how you choose to finally categorize the massive show that’s coming here as part of the Canada 150+ celebrations, it should be hard to miss its spectacle on the waterfront.
“It goes back to Caravan originally creating a kind of theatrical Pied Piper,” Kirby says, tying in the horse and wagons to the new, giant ship, “by using the mode of travel to bring people into the theatre.” The productions carry on Caravan’s original love of artistic collaboration, communal theatre, and political subject matter, as well.
If you needed to sum up a lifetime’s worth of artistic adventure, you could just say the troupe left on horseback, then returned by sea. “For us it’s so nice to be back in Vancouver, where we originated, and get that support,” says Kelder. Just don’t expect them to stay put too long.
Nomadic Tempest runs at False Creek from Tuesday (August 15) to September 3 as part of Vancouver’s Canada 150+ celebrations.