Caloosa Belle

Fantastic entertainment sails with tall ship

It’s not often that a world class theatrical company sails into LaBelle, so when it does, it’s a real event.

In early December, the Caravan Stage Company, a nonprofit theatrical company docked at Port LaBelle Marina to wait out the winter, preparing for its season that begins in April.

Adriana Kelder and Paul Kirby are the founders of the Caravan Stage Company. Paul is captain, art director, writer and lyricist. He is originally from British Columbia. From Quebec, Adriana is the producer and designer of the group’s fantastic costumes. Paul creates the stories and does all the writing for the pieces which, true to operatic form, are all sung. The music is all original, mostly written by several of Paul’s friends across the globe. Paul writes performances in the mythic style, with a quality of fantasy. In his new endeavor, he said his main characters are aerial – monarch butterflies with an environmental and a socially conscious theme. He presents his visions in what he calls “spectacle theater.” He writes all the lyrics, but relies on composer friends from around the world to write the music, which is recorded for the cast to sing to.

The Caravan Stage Company’s Amara Zee is tied up at Port LaBelle Marina for the winter. (Submitted photo)

Their base is in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, but they spend most of their time on the Amara Zee, putting on insanely creative performances.

During the next few months the pair will tend to the boat but also write, design and plan their next performance, which they expect to be in either St. Petersburg or Miami. Their performances have a surreal, imaginative quality – ethereal and often with a message.

The Amara Zee herself was four years in the planning. Built in the style of a late 1800s Thames River Sailing barge – cargo vessels that plied the Thames – it is actually steel so it can hold up against the elements. Although this “tall ship” seems to have appeared out of the mists of time, it has all the modern convenience, GPS, radar, modern navigation systems, computers.

The ship provides the stage for experimental multi-discipline performances that encompass aerial dance, song, poetry, actors and puppets – all telling an original story – usually with a theme. The ship came to LaBelle looking for a quiet place to winter while preparing for the next season. Along with Paul and Adriana, lighting engineer Lutz Gock on board preparing for the season.

Paul and Adriana began their grand adventure traveling in more of a gypsy or circus caravan than a swashbuckling marine vessel. In 1972 they loaded their sets and costumes – everything they needed to put on a show – onto horse drawn wagons and set out on their incredible experiment through western Canada, At that time, they put on their unique performances in a tent.

Paul had been the editor of an underground newspaper in the ‘60s and Adriana’s background is in fine arts/performance, theater and dance. Paul and Adriana have developed a unique skill set from the ground up. They decided they needed a ship, so they learned all they could and got help from a friend who was very familiar with Thames barges. They collaborated with a marine manager, boat engineer and sail maker and the pair oversaw the whole process.

They both took courses in navigation. Adriana said their actors double as crew members, so they are all taught to navigate and follow charts.

It takes a small army of volunteers – all theater professionals in their own right, to bring the entire creation together.

The Caravan Company is known in the industry and advertises for actors in casting ads. Actors are auditioned and interviewed – in addition to being talented, they need to be well rounded and easy going (they do have to spent months in close quarters with about 18 people). Only through teamwork can they do what has to be done, Adriana points out. Their performances are physically demanding – actors often dangle from a 30 foot high truss as they deliver their performances – but also require acting abilities that can overcome outdoor complications like noise and the environment in general.

After two months of rehearsal, it’s show time. Their first show of this season will likely be in either St. Petersburg or Miami. They stage two or three week performances in one spot, then move on to their next show.

Paul and Adriana do their own promotions. Performances may be paid for in various manners – by sponsors, for instance.

The company stays open through sponsorships and sometimes donations – careful to keep their artistic independence. Paul and Adriana spent eight years in Europe performing for very appreciative audiences and enjoying the warm-hearted people in places like Greece, Italy, Sicily and Serbia. The Amara Zee is not capable of actual ocean crossings so it is loaded onto a bigger boat as cargo. Sailing the unpredictable waters of the Danube River was demanding and “suspenseful,” she said. The furthest point from home they have performed was in Istanbul.

The company returned from Europe to North America 1.5 years ago where they were sponsored mostly by communities and passing the hat at large audiences.

Paul Kirby, far left, and Adriana Kelder, far right, graciously share a glimpse of their life on board the Amara Zee, a replica of a late 19th Century Thames River sailing barge, that is fitted out as a unique performance vessel. (Caloosa Belle/Patty Brant)

US theater is different, Paul said, celebrity-driven, sustained by popularity. “We are the antithesis,” Paul said.

Although they began in Canada, the pair found the bureaucracy unfriendly there at the time so eventually registered as a nonprofit in the US. They have been very happy with their relationship with government agencies here and can’t say enough good things about the US Coast Guard, which has been “incredible” to work with, Paul said. The company is registered as a US nonprofit.

For Paul and Adriana, this lifestyle is an adventure as well as a tribute to their art. In fact, they’re planning to take their unique company across the western American desert in 2017 on trucks.

So their story continues. Looking forward to other challenges, Paul and Adriana are still calling on their innate sense of beauty and art, entrepreneurship and courage to meet new challenges. As Adriana said, “You just take the plunge, roll the ball and meet people.”

The result of Paul and Adriana’s vision and hard work is this extraordinary, unique ship and the extravagant surreal art people on both sides of the Atlantic have enjoyed.

Adventures always demand growth and learning and, in their chosen lifestyle, Paul said they learn something new all the time. In fact, that’s likely one of the attractions for them. Improvisation seems to be a huge part of everything they do, from conceiving their ventures, through all the steps to developing and executing their exceptional performances.