Vancouverite Paul Kirby and Nans Kelder, originally from Holland, dreamed of a utopian community of travelling artists living co-operatively and bringing joy and surprise from town to town like an old-time circus.
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The Caravan Stage Company celebrated its final performance last Saturday at Richmond’s Shelter Island Marina, bringing an audacious 52-year adventure to an end.

The stage was its floating theatre, the tall ship Amara Zee. As the ship and Caravan’s founders sail off into the sunset, it’s worth recalling the remarkable saga of this unique B.C. theatre company.
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Vancouverite Paul Kirby and Nans Kelder, originally from Holland, met in Montreal in 1970. They dreamed of a utopian community of travelling artists living co-operatively and bringing joy and surprise from town to town like an old-time circus.

“A theatre of hope and celebration,” Kirby would later call it.

Moving to Vancouver Island, they started Caravan Stage Company with a puppet show in a single horse-drawn wagon. They would eventually take 15 wagons and 30 horses, plus a revolving corps of actors, goats and kids, across B.C., Alberta and the American northwest, with forays into Ontario, Michigan and Florida. The horses’ brass polished to a shine, the company would march into town, led by musicians, unicyclists and jugglers, like Pied Pipers from another age. 

Vancouver actor-playwright Peter Anderson fell in love with the seductions of Caravan life and art. From 1977-81 he performed with the company, wrote their plays (Coyote, Horseplay) and, like all its members, did whatever needed to be done. Wonder-struck, he was “a kid who grew up in Detroit, and there I was driving a team of Clydesdales.” 

In 1978, Kirby and Kelder headquartered the company on a working farm near Armstrong, B.C., where their self-described World’s Only Horse-Drawn Open-Air Theatre rehearsed its original musical shows. An NFB short, Horse Drawn Magic, offers a vivid portrait of those early years. 

By the late-1980s, the couple felt they had plateaued artistically with horses and wagons. Anxious to extend their nomadic theatre-making impulses, they left the Armstrong farm to another company — Caravan Farm Theatre, still going strong today — and built the 90-foot-long Amara Zee in a Kingston, Ontario dry dock.

Launched in 1997, the Amara Zee became a self-contained travelling theatre on which the company staged its multidisciplinary extravaganzas preaching environmentalism, satirizing capitalism and analyzing social change. Actors, singers and musicians, video projections on the sails, and Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats dangling from the masts mesmerized audiences watching from shore. 

Rebranded as The World’s Only Tall Ship Theatre, Caravan sailed six oceans and dropped anchor in twenty-one countries. They performed in Canada’s inland waters and along the U.S. coast, sailed down the Mississippi and the Danube, traversed the Black Sea and the Aegean east to Istanbul.   

The internationally diverse company continued living communally in the ship’s tight quarters. American Doria Bramante met her German husband Markus on board 12 years ago. Both remained with Caravan to the end.

“Nothing can replace Nans and Paul,” Bramante says of her post-Caravan future. “It’s been a ship of dreams.”

Still, she laughs about the Amara Zee’s one toilet for its two dozen crew and performers.

“We pee in buckets. I’m not kidding.” 

What glue kept Caravan Stage Company intact for so long? The novelty of doing horse-drawn and shipboard theatre. Its cooperative nature: an equapolis, Kirby and Kelder call it, equal, equine and aqua. They have lived together with their fellow Caravaners for half a century and raised their three children within the company. Their theatrical, political and environmental vision, put into practice, has been magnetic.

“They’ve walked the walk,” Peter Anderson says of the couple’s unwavering political and artistic integrity over five decades.

And it may not be quite done. Kelder and Kirby claim to be exhausted by the bureaucratic hoops they continually have to sail through. Yet they plan to move to a smaller boat and maybe form a new company performing high-tech shadow puppetry.

The dream lives on.

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