Many odd vessels have been spotted transiting the ICW and the coastal waters of the South, but a truly unique sight will be plying the coastlines throughout the summer. Shipped from Europe a year ago, a 100’ Thames Barge and her theatrical troupe and crew of Europeans and North Americans are transiting the Gulf Coast and then Florida, to arrive in Jacksonville for the start of their North American tour. They may be best described as a nautical Cirque du Soleil, although they prefer to be considered as descendants of the theatrical troupes traveling Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, who set up their productions in the plazas of Florence and Venice and brought their satirical expressionism straight to the people.
The custom built, flat-keeled vessel is modeled after the sailing barges that transported cargo on the waterways of England over a century ago. The Amara Zee today houses the entire production and actors of the Caravan Stage Company, who make scheduled stops at marinas and waterfronts where they put on fantastical multimedia spectacles. The entire vessel becomes a stage as actors and acrobats, bathed in the glow of kaleidoscopic lighting and designs flashed onto sails, fly through the rigging of the 90’ and 58’ masts to original scores and lyrics.
The Caravan Stage Company was birthed in the early 1970s as a theatrical troupe touring Canada on Clydesdale powered covered wagons before making the jump to the water in 1992, in order to broaden their audience reach. For the last two years the troupe has toured 19 nations in Europe presenting their production to crowds of 1,500 people settled in with wine and cheese along the parks and waterfronts of medieval harbors and ports. The productions are entirely free for their audience, with the troupe contracting and scheduling directly with marinas and municipalities. The shows always start exactly 30 minutes after sunset in order maximize the full effect of the theatrical lighting.
Last summer, the troupe settled in the surprised fishing village of Lafitte, La. to work on their North American production. They quickly won over the town by putting on their show while docked on the bayou. In June this year, their tour begins in Jacksonville, Fla. where the full European and North American cast will meet and rehearse for a month before touring up the Eastern Seaboard. Other stops in the Southeast include Wilmington, N.C. and Portsmouth, Va., before the boat sails to towns and cities all along the Hudson River, the Erie Barge Canal, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain. A return to tour the Gulf Coast is expected in 2015, with a transit of the Mississippi River and then the Ten-Tom and the “Great Loop.” Hauling the Amara Zee out, trucking her across Texas and the deserts of the west in order to tour the West Coast in 2016, is already under consideration.
Jacksonville, Fla.: June 4, 5, 6, & 7
Wilmington, N.C.: June 28 & 29
Portsmouth, Va.: July 5, 6, 7