Nomadic Tempest is set in the near future (2040) and tells the tale of four monarch butterflies from disparate corners of the world who've been displaced by climate change and are seeking a new home.
The story is presented on the Amara Zee, a tall ship that's a replica of a Thames River sailing barge, and told through graphics and animations projected onto a huge screen (90 feet long by 40 feet high), and also by performers on two stages—the deck (eight feet above the water) and trusses (40 feet above the water). Aerialists spin and cavort on various apparatus and rigging amid and between them.
The 20 cast members are also the crew of the ship in between the cities they visit. Caravan Stage Company isn't just a troupe of singers, actors, and aerialists living, working, traveling, and performing together—it's a community. And to give that community a chance of survival and a level of harmony, "everybody has to be involved in almost all the aspects of Caravan," says playwright/artistic director Paul Kirby.
During their time on the water, in between stops, "somebody's doing nav, taking positions, reading the instruments, recording it in the log. Then somebody's steering, other people are on bow watch, with a radio and binoculars, looking for crab pots, which are plentiful all over the place, and also looking for driftwood or vessels and reporting back to the wheel."
Kirby says the other reason it works is because everyone operates on a level playing field when it comes to pay—no one makes more money than anyone else, no matter what they do or how long they've been with Caravan. All revenue and resources are shared equally. Kirby credits this sense of community as the reason that Caravan has been able to survive for more than 48 years—and this is likely what will help keep it sustainable in the coming decades, too.
Caravan Stage Company was founded in 1970 by Kirby and longtime producer/partner Adriana Kelder, who were running an underground newspaper and doing agitprop street theater in Montreal at the time. Their vision was a traveling troupe that staged alternative theater in venues designed to be just as much of a draw as the show itself.
They started by bringing shows from town to town in Clydesdale-drawn wagons, setting up and performing in a big circus tent at each stop. In 1993, they conceived of plans for a vessel, with audiences spread out on the shore in front of it. The Amara Zee launched four years later and has been Caravan's venue, home, and means of transportation ever since. Though it's based on a design from the 1800s, Amara Zee is up to modern operating standards, with a steel frame (to hold up against the elements), GPS, radar, modern navigation systems, computers, and various other conveniences.
Of course, any time you do theater about an environmental or political subject matter, you risk losing your audience's interest or downright alienating them by coming off as preachy or didactic. Kirby says Caravan avoids the pitfalls of agitprop theater by having "powerful, dramatic, and very strong character content," like an opera. In fact, Kirby has dubbed Caravan's unique style of theater—entertaining but also resonant and emotionally strong and delivered via a musical vehicle—"spectacle opera."