Among the identical weekend yachts docked at Bayboro Harbor, passersby would have a hard time missing this 85-foot-long replica of a 19th century Thames River sailing barge.
It is the Amara Zee, and it looks like something out of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.” Picture a crew of more than 20 young aerialists, acrobats, opera singers and stagehands calling the nautical theater their home. They sail around the world, performing original waterfront productions onboard the 21-foot-wide deck.
The motley crew that make up The Caravan Stage Company have gathered in the Sunshine City from France, Greece, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Jamaica, Canada and the United States. They are preparing for their debut of “Nomadic Tempest,” a mythical saga about a band of monarch butterflies involuntarily migrating. The show will premiere off the seawall in St. Pete’s Poynter Park April 4-9.
After the premier in April, the Canada-based company will set sail along the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Northwest cities. The Caravan selected the performance locations to represent the areas that are being most affected by rising sea levels and the realities of forced migration due to climate change.
The Caravan hopes to enthrall St. Pete citizens with a 75-minute magical, visual and auditory performance. The show will feature original music, soaring vocals, aerial artistry, large scenic elements and puppets manipulated by the performers.
The opera themes are critical of a variety of social, political and environmental issues. The New York Times called the show “an opera that might be described as Cirque du Soleil meets Occupy Wall Street.”
The members of the Caravan recently returned to North America from an eight year tour of the European and Balkan waterways.
Renee Benson, vocal coach and 12-year-veteran of the vessel, said that her favorite memory of working on the boat was during her first tour with the Caravan in 2005. The Amara Zee was attempting to cross the North Sea into the U.K. and were unable to do so due to unforeseen circumstances. While the boat waited for approval to cross The North Sea, the boat did additional shows around Holland for a few weeks.
“The first place we went to was a very small town that hated us when we arrived,” she said. “They just couldn’t imagine that this really could be a boat full of young, loud kids. But a few days later, they got to know us and what life was like on the boat.”
Within a week, the same people who complained invited the crew into their homes. “They went through their best wine with us and bought us these larger than life wooden shoes.”
Paul Kirby, Amara Zee’s captain, playwright and artistic director of the troupe, said The Caravan Stage Company is a nonprofit business and operates on a shoestring budget, relying on donations and various sponsors.
The Caravan was founded by Kirby and Adriana Kelder in the 1970s and the company originally toured with a Clydesdale horse-drawn caravan presenting alternative theatrical performances across Canada and the U.S. Eventually, they decided to shed their horse-drawn wagons to undertake the task of building their boat, the Amara Zee, which took four years and over $2 million in donations and sponsorships to build.
21 years after her maiden voyage, the barge requires an extra 25 volunteers to help prepare for the debut, and is full of new and familiar faces from all over the world. Each member has a different skill.
Charley Hamou arrived in Tampa five weeks ago from France and does wood work on the boat. Last week he finished sanding down the wood on the poop deck.
“When I got here, it was rotten,” he said.
Since Amara Zee’s hull is wooden, weather and salt tend to damage the barge over time. Wintering in St. Pete since mid-January as they prepare the boat’s stage and cast for the performance, Zee’s crew will solidify docking permits and collect scrap material for the sets. They often search through scrap yards to find spare parts for the vessel when they cannot be found onboard.
“One part of my job so far is opening up old lights and rewiring some of them,” said Oona Kilcommons, 23, who joined the crew a month ago from Vermont.
“You never know when someone on another tour had to cut something off of one light and cannibalize it to fit something else.”
Many crew members like Hamou are only here for a short while. Others, like Kilcommons, have signed on with the crew to sail until September.
“This is easily one of my favorite life choices,” she said.
While on board, Kilcommons and her other crewmates will learn new trades and skills like basic navigation and knot tying.
When Amara Zee leaves port in April to begin its tour, Kilcommons looks forward to speaking with the vessel engineer.
“I want to basically learn how the boat engines work and get involved as much as possible so that if I come again next time, or work on another boat like this, I will have some experience. It’s so exciting to be exposed to this much knowledge all at once.”
The crew members help where they can, and they learn new tasks during idle time. The members staying on the tour will not only learn their lines and stage cues, but will also learn how to check the boat’s engine, use instruments, tie knots and read charts.
While the Amara Zee is at full sail, the Caravan switches from thespian troupe to sailing crew assigned to a watch schedule. This system allows the boat’s crew to operate for the duration of voyages.
J.D. Frost, 25, a veteran of the Caravan and actor in the upcoming performance, said that sailing in between cities is his favorite part.
“It always feels like a cleansing to move on,” he said. “It rejuvenates the crew after such an intense set-up, performance and breakdown routine.”
To see the performance and help keep the Amara Zee afloat, the crew suggests a donation of $25. But students shouldn’t shy away because of the price. Any donation is appreciated, but people won’t be turned away.