Sailing theatre troupe brings final production back to where it started over 50 years ago

·4 min read
The Caravan Stage Company's ship serves as a multi-tiered stage for productions that include aerialists, music, large puppets and projections. (Submitted by Caravan Stage Company - image credit)
The Caravan Stage Company's ship serves as a multi-tiered stage for productions that include aerialists, music, large puppets and projections. (Submitted by Caravan Stage Company - image credit)

A travelling theatre company is set to debut its final production in Victoria's Rock Bay this month, marking the end of the road for a troupe that has been globetrotting by boat and horse-drawn carriage for 52 years.

The Caravan Stage Company began in 1970 when Adriana Kelder, better known as "Nans," and her partner Paul Kirby were living in Victoria and looking for a new project.

"We were young and foolish and decided to do a travelling theatre, carnival type event," said Kelder. "We got ourselves some Clydesdales and started building wagons in Sooke."

For the next 20 years, those wagons and horses pulled the couple and their theatre troupe around B.C., and across the border all the way down to California. In the 1970s, they founded Caravan Farm Theatre near Armstrong, in B.C.'s southern Interior, an outdoor stage company that continues today although Kelder and Kirby left in the mid-'80s.

"And then at one point we decided, 'Let's do something different and go further afield.' So we decided to build a ship."

Liz McArthur / CBC
Liz McArthur / CBC

The Amara Zee was built in Kingston, Ont., and launched in 1997. From there the group set out down the Atlantic coast of North America before taking the boat to Europe for eight years.

Kelder said it's been emotional to bring the ship back to the place where the whole idea started, but she's happy for the story to end here.

Submitted by Caravan Stage Company
Submitted by Caravan Stage Company

Virtual Rogues is an original show that explores the end of humanity, through a sacrifice of one of the last "organic humans" to a giant artificial intelligence god named Zeus. "And there's a love story," says production manager Doria Bramante.

Bramante met Kelder and Kirby 12 years ago in Montenegro and has been working with them on and off since then. She also met her husband on the caravan.

"Once you join the caravan, you jump in the fray and start doing a million things," says Bramante. "[Kelder and Kirby] work harder than anyone I've ever seen … We're all here offering our skill and our passion for a magic and an idea and they hold the container for that magic."

The boat itself will serve as a multi-tiered stage for the production that includes aerialists, music, large puppets and projections that the audience watches from shore. Assistant director Tracey Wilkinson says it will play out against the backdrop of neighbouring industrial yards of the Rock Bay neighbourhood.

"We're talking about the end of organic matter and humanity and Rock Bay has a pinch of that in it," says Wilkinson.

It's a farewell that has been two years in the making. Virtual Rogues was supposed to open in 2020, but like many things, it was delayed by the pandemic.

Liz McArthur / CBC
Liz McArthur / CBC

A transient theatre troupe preparing a large scale production against the backdrop of a pandemic may sound familiar.

Station Eleven, a novel that was adapted for TV, features a theatre troupe that travels a post-pandemic world by horse drawn caravans. And its author, Emily St. John Mandel grew up on Denman Island, just off Vancouver Island.

Kelter says she also wondered about a connection between her life's work and Mandel's book — especially since the Caravan Stage Company performed a run of the play A Good Baby on Denman Island in 1987 when the troupe still travelled by horse-drawn caravans.

Ketler says she thought it was possible that Mandel saw the show "and it just sort of embedded on her, but I don't know. It's a great novel. We read it, too."

But Mandel, through a publicist, says she never saw their production as a child. "The coincidence of a travelling theatre troupe with horse-drawn wagons in Station Eleven is exactly that, a coincidence."

As for the real-life theatre troupe, the members still don't know the fate of their custom ship.

"There's a lot of discussion around what the future of the Amara Zee will look like," says Bramante, "and how the heartbeat will carry on, but we'll see."

Virtual Rogues opens June 28 at the end of Store Street in Rock Bay.