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The Amara Zee

The Theatre Pirates

How an anarchist circus opera changed the fabric of Canadian theatre over the last 50 years

The first time Trevor Campbell laid eyes on the Amara Zee tall ship — a floating theatre — it struck him as majestic. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. This would be where he would live and make theatre, on and off, for the next three years.

“I remember huge cascades of ropes strung from the mast in all directions, tied up to winches, nets and … people,” he said.

The Amara Zee, home of the Caravan Stage Company, in Richmond, B.C., in August 2020, after recently being refurbished. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“Those who saw me waved hello. … I smiled [and] waved, doing my best impression of someone who was not completely freaked out.”

It was Campbell’s first day as part of the Caravan Stage Company, an experimental theatre group with an activist’s edge based out of the Amara Zee, a specially built barge that doubles as the company’s stage and the crew’s living quarters.

Left: Sharon Smiley, former cook for the Caravan Stage Company, stirs a bowl of food inside the salon of the ship. Right: Andrea Clark, board member of Caravan Stage Society, reaches for a jacket inside a cabin. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Members of the Caravan troupe, who often refer to themselves as Caravaners, work for a small weekly allowance, canvas the neighbourhoods they visit for food and supplies, and help to rig and sail the ship along waterways across North America and Europe.

After sunset, they perform colourful works of original theatre from the deck of the ship for people on the shore. Shows are free, but attendees are encouraged to donate to support the company.

Caravan Stage Company performers help prepare the company’s ship for its return to water in August 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

One troupe member called it a group of “nomadic artists actively engaging in the magic of life and creativity.” To another, it’s “a travelling bunch of theatre pirates.”

Campbell, then a Toronto-based actor in his late 20s searching for a shot of creative inspiration, joined the Caravan in 2012, while the troupe was docked in Licata, Sicily, as part of an European tour.

Left: Trevor Campbell attends a pirate-themed party held on the ship, along with fellow performers Renee Benson and Rachele Porto. Right: Campbell at a flea market in Sicily in 2012, during his stint with the Caravan Stage Company. (Submitted by Trevor Campbell)

But the company’s roots are firmly Canadian — and its co-founders, Paul Kirby and Adriana Kelder, can trace their provocative approach to art, theatre and activism back more than 50 years.

“It sort of makes perfect sense to be nomadic … rather than being a real-estate theatre,” said Kirby.

Left: The cast and crew of Caravan Stage Company in the Italian city of Licata in April 2012. Right: A look up the mast of the Amara Zee. (Submitted by Trevor Campbell)

“Theatre can speak to people in a way that is different from any other art source, because it's communal; because the audience is experiencing [it] as a community. And it takes individuals to form a community to resist.”

Caravan’s origins

Kirby and Kelder — known by friends and co-collaborators as “Paul and Nans” — met in Montreal in the 1960s where they worked at the radical alternative newspaper Logos, which Kirby co-founded.

An early photo of Paul Kirby and Adriana Kelder — also known as Paul and Nans — from the horse-drawn Caravan days. (Submitted by Paul Kirby and Adriana Kelder)

Logos made a stir with its November 1968 issue, whose back cover mimicked the look of the Montreal Gazette newspaper with a photo of then-mayor John Drapeau and the headline: Mayor Shot by Dope-Crazed Hippie.

Police raided the Logos’ publishing house. Charges of obscenity and willfully publishing false news were laid against the paper’s representatives, including Kirby.

The back cover of the November 1968 issue of Logos, which led to charges against Kirby and Kelder. (Logos)

Faced with a peace bond enforced by the threat of jail, Paul and Nans fled west. The charges were soon dropped, but the two had already begun work on their next big project.

In 1970, they founded the Little People’s Caravan. As the troupe expanded, it became known as the Caravan Stage Company.

The name was quite literal. It was a small convoy of covered wagons drawn by 11 purebred Clydesdales with a crew of about 20.

“The theatre was ambitious and important, but the life [and] the world they were creating was primary — living on the land, bringing art and expression to small places,” Campbell said.

The company travelled across Canada, and parts of the U.S., at a clip of around 15 kilometres per day, performing for rural communities that rarely engaged with theatre.

We’re trying to enrich our lives as well as [the lives of] people who come in contact with us on the road, or in our shows,” Kirby said in the 1979 NFB documentary Horse Drawn Magic.

Touring during the winter proved difficult, so the team established a semi-permanent headquarters at a farm in the small town of Armstrong in B.C.’s Okanagan.

But only perpetual movement could sustain Paul and Nans’s nomadic spirit. The company split in 1987, and the contingent that stayed behind renamed themselves the Caravan Farm Theatre.


Enter the Amara Zee

Paul and Nans’s next chapter took shape in a Kingston, Ont., shipyard. With the help of over 400 donors from across North America and Europe, they set upon building the Amara Zee, which would serve as their ship, stage and sanctuary.

Flat Bottom

The newly updated Caravan company — its name now metaphorical — debuted in August 1996 with a one-act operetta aptly titled The River Show.

The Zee’s flat-bottomed design was patterned after the Thames River Barge, allowing it to travel in water as shallow as one metre. No river barge before it ever did all the duties Paul and Nans expected of it, however.

“It’s like Mary Poppins’ bag: the proportions seem to shift once you get inside,” Campbell said of the ship.

“It’s a little intoxicating. And that changes your perception of the world when you come back out.”

If travelling with the original horse-drawn Caravan was austere, the Amara Zee compressed that lifestyle into an even smaller venue.

The Salon

The main room, which Caravaners described as the salon, served as a living room, meeting room, kitchen and dining room all in one.

“The whole design concept for the main cabin in the ship was a Bedouin tent,” explained Caravanner Trevor Schwellnus.

Tiny Cabins

Tiny sleeping cabins – each named after the original Caravan’s horses, like Scotty and Rom – stuffed up to three bunk beds stacked on top of each other.

“It smells a little bit like mildew and good, spicy food cooking. It smells like a lot of people — sweaty people living in close quarters,” said former Caravanner Danielle Kaufman.

The company spent several years sailing up and down the North American eastern seaboard. After that, they hitched a ride on a chartered cargo ship in 2005 and began a years-long tour of Europe’s waterways, including the coasts of Greece and Italy.

They perform at port towns during their summer tours, which continue to this day. In the winter and spring the crew ties up in one location while they develop their project for the next summer, and so on.

Not for everyone

In 2009, CBC documented Caravan as it performed in front of a crowd of about 500 people in the open air.

They performed Utopian Floes, which Kirby described as an experimental sci-fi opera. "It's all about the degradation of the planet in a sort of post-apocalyptic mode," he said.

The Amara Zee, while it was still being constructed, in Kingston, Ont. (Submitted by Paul Kirby and Adriana Kelder)

Not everyone got it. As the show went on, a trickle of guests walked out.

“I couldn't understand what I was watching,” one audience member told CBC.

Those who remained gave the company a standing ovation. The mixed reception doesn’t faze Kirby.

“It’s really to provoke, and in one sense to educate, but to use the provocative nature of the shows,” he told The Doc Project.

“And so in order to be part of a troupe that does that, you have to be prepared for a lack of applause, sometimes.”

Kirby says the Caravan has been kicked out of “a number of towns” over the decades because of their avant-garde material. He considers it a badge of honour.

Left: The cast of Caravan Stage Company in Lafitte, La., in 2013. Right: Two masks from the company’s 2012 production of Uprising. (Submitted by Trevor Campbell)

Not everyone who joined Caravan, however, shared his vision.

“If our shared goal was really making change — holding truth to power and calling for a new and more equitable way of living — I wondered if politicized punk circus opera was the clearest and most effective way to connect to local communities,” said Campbell.

Combine that with the extreme close living quarters, and the frustration that comes if your star-making scene gets reduced or cut, and it’s little surprise some Caravaners quit after a single months-long contract.

Left: Campbell with Caravan performer Rachele Porto in 2015, moored in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the small cabins, there would be up to 3 bunk beds stacked on top of each other. Right: Caravan members throw a birthday party. (Submitted by Trevor Campbell)

Kirby confesses to holding a sense of naiveté about being surprised when crew members leave — but he considers that an asset in and of itself.

“We operate on that level where we think we can create a perfect situation everybody will be super excited [about] and committed,” he said.

Cast and crew members during a rehearsal on the Amara Zee in 2012. The character putting on the mask is a cyberhacker loosely based on Louis Riel, recalls Campbell. (Submitted by Trevor Campbell)

“We still live with that naiveté and we still wish for it. But … it isn't transmitted to everybody. It can be a bit depressing.”

Paul and Nans’s self-described “anarchistic,” “laissez-faire” leadership style won’t surprise anyone who saw the authority-flouting spirit in their work at Logos.

Paul and Nans in front of the Amara Zee. (Submitted by Paul Kirby and Adriana Kelder)

In 2014, that spirit led to a standoff with Transport Canada, which revoked the Amara Zee’s status as a pleasure craft and reclassified it as a commercial vessel. It threatened their ability to perform, or even cross into Canadian waters.

That scare was followed by an incident with U.S. border security, which ultimately led to Campbell’s own flight from the Caravan.

Desperate for adventure, I joined a renegade sea circus — until I had to flee

The Caravan crew were back performing in Vancouver by 2017, after negotiating an agreement with the current directors of Transport Canada. It’s now recognized as an American ship hailing from Lafitte, La.

Still not pulling punches

Half a century of activism through art and writing haven’t dulled Paul and Nans’ political sensibilities.

Their newest show, Virtual Rogues, is set to depict a conflict between organic and inorganic beings, as humankind grapples with the effects of technology on our lives.

Left: Paul and Nans, centre, pose with Caravan Stage Company performers during a celebration for the refurbishing of the Amara Zee in Richmond, B.C., on August 29, 2020. Right: A mask from an old show sits in the salon of the company’s ship. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Kirby doesn’t mince his words when sharing his opinions of the people who control that tech.

“Pirate capitalists … are turning our own bodily functions and our own mental desires and our own social pleasures into revenue for themselves, and making sure that they are identified as heroic characters. But actually underneath, they’re evil, deceive-ious capitalist pigs,” he said.

Kirby, centre, works with volunteers and craftspeople to secure the Amara Zee after it lands in the water for the first time since being refurbished. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

To Kelder, the powers-that-be they’ve railed against their entire lives seem to only be getting stronger.

“I think there was a sense of freedom when we were young; we felt we could overcome. But I don't know [now],” she said.

Kelder in front of the Amara Zee. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“It's becoming – [our] sense of individual freedoms? That's what we're losing. And that's scary.”

Retirement (or something like it)

Like nearly all other performing arts, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a temporary halt to Caravan’s latest season.

Virtual Rogues is set to launch a celebration of the company’s sixth decade touring (by horse or sea), in the summer of 2021. Since all of their shows are held outdoors, Paul and Nans remain optimistic that it will go ahead.

Left: Kirby drives a forklift past the Amara Zee as he prepares to have it lowered into B.C.’s Fraser River. Right: Caravan Stage Company performers dance, sing and play instruments around the ship during the celebration. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

For the past two years, the ship underwent a retrofit in a boatyard on the Fraser River near Richmond, B.C., with the aid of B.C.’s Government Job Creation Partnership.

But the crew did manage to hold a physically-distanced event to celebrate the Zee’s relaunch.

Left: Gary Magwood, media coordinator for the Caravan Stage Company, serves champagne. Right: Kelder smiles after the Amaza Zee lands safely in the Fraser River. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Perhaps most crucially, Paul and Nans, who are now in their 70s, have begun to plan their retirement — or something like it.

The couple plan to get a smaller boat and start a puppet film theatre.

“It’s something that we can do by ourselves, with a few friends,” said Kirby.

Paul and Nans aboard the Amara Zee. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Kelder says she’s happy to hand the company over to “to younger people with new energy,” but declined to say when that might happen, or who would take up the company’s reins.

“There will be part of me that’s sad. But it’s fine. It’s time to move on,” she said, pausing and sighing between her words.

Written by: Jonathan Ore | Radio documentary by: Trevor Campbell | Lead digital producer: Althea Manasan | Senior digital producer: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Doc Project producer: Julia Pagel | Doc Project editor: Acey Rowe | Doc Project senior producer: Jennifer Warren | Copy editors: Mary Vallis, Brandie Weikle | Graphics and art: Ben Shannon | Boat graphic: Trevor Campbell | Web design: Geoff Isaac | Web development: Geoff Isaac