A traveling theater company is set to launch its latest production in Victoria’s Rock Bay this month, marking the end of the road for a troupe that has traveled the world 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 dumb and decided to do a traveling theatre, a carnival-type event,” Kelder said. “We got some Clydesdales and started building wagons in Sooke.”
For the next 20 years, these wagons and horses pulled the couple and their theater troupe around British Columbia and across the border into California. In the 1970s they founded the Caravan Farm Theater near Armstrong in the southern interior of British Columbia, an outdoor performing company that continues today although Kelder and Kirby are gone to mid 80’s.
“And then at some point we decided, ‘Let’s do something different and take it further. So we decided to build a ship.”
The Amara Zee was built in Kingston, Ontario and launched in 1997. From there the band cruised the Atlantic coast of North America before taking the ship to Europe for eight years.
Kelder said it was emotional to take the ship back to where the whole idea started, but she’s glad the story ends here.
Virtual Thieves is an original show that explores the end of humanity, through the 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 worked with them on and off ever since. She also met her husband on the trailer.
“Once you join the caravan, you jump into the fray and start doing a million things,” says Bramante. “[Kelder and Kirby] working 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’re holding the vessel for that magic.
The boat itself will serve as a tiered stage for the production which includes aerials, music, large puppets and projections that the audience watches from shore. Assistant director Tracey Wilkinson says it will be set against the backdrop of nearby industrial yards in the Rock Bay neighborhood.
“We’re talking about the end of organic matter and humanity and Rock Bay has a pinch of that,” Wilkinson says.
It’s a farewell that took two years to prepare. Virtual Thieves was supposed to open in 2020, but like many things, it was delayed by the pandemic.
A visiting theater group preparing for a large-scale production in the context of a pandemic might sound familiar.
station eleven, a novel adapted for television, features a theater troupe traveling through a post-pandemic world in 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 the connection between her life’s work and Mandel’s book – especially since the Caravan Stage Company performed a series of the play. A good baby on Denman Island in 1987 when the troupe was still traveling in horse-drawn caravans.
Ketler says she thought it was possible that Mandel had seen the show “and it kind of got baked into it, 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 traveling theater troupe with horse-drawn wagons in station eleven that’s exactly it, a coincidence.”
As for the actual theater troupe, the members still don’t know the fate of their custom ship.
“There’s a lot of talk about what the future of the game will be like. Amara Zee will look like,” Bramante says, “and how the heartbeat will continue, but we’ll see.”
Virtual Thieves opens June 28 at the end of Store Street in Rock Bay.