Tall ship replica in St. Pete is the stage of a 'spectacle opera'

The performers' stage is their ship, and they are its adventurous crew.
Published March 28 2017
Updated March 29 2017


If you're driving along Third Street S, or just happen to be taking in the view of Bayboro Harbor behind the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's library, you might have noticed a mysterious black ship tied off on the seawall. Glance inland, across tiny Poynter Park, and you'll see a towering scaffold. The ship looks like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, or our long-lost Bounty.

Clearly, something's afoot. But there is no sign. No buckskin-clad actor passing out handbills or selling glow-in-the-dark swords. Think a little harder and the conclusion becomes obvious: This must be some kind of traveling theater company, probably about to put on a rock opera.

But seriously. Nomadic Tempest, an almost entirely sung, original show that debuts Tuesday, is not the easiest thing to get a grip on, even after talking to the playwright. But it could definitely be fun to watch.

The Amara Zee, the 90-foot home and floating theater of Caravan Stage Company, is a replica of a 19th century Thames River sailing barge. Paul Kirby, a Vancouver native, co-founded the company in Canada in 1970 with horses pulling a stagecoach.

"It was our feeling that theater built indoors created inhibitions," said Kirby, 73, pausing below decks. Around him, performers from several countries sat on the floor, chowing down on soup and potatoes and biscuits and vegetables. Performers live aboard the boat and rotate the two daily shifts to prepare meals.

Kirby is a serious man with a white mustache who speaks softly yet clearly about climate change, the nearness of calamity, and the need to live in community.

In the mid-1990s, the nonprofit company graduated to the ship, which took four years to build. The flat-bottomed boat has no keel. It makes its way through the Gulf of Mexico and along rivers rather than oceans, by motor rather than sail power.

But its raison d'etre is very much environmentalist. Kirby created the concept and wrote the lyrics for Nomadic Tempest (score by James Coomber), which follows the journey of monarch butterflies after an environmental catastrophe.

"It's more like a spectacle opera," Kirby said. "The four monarch butterflies are climate migrants who are looking for refuge in this somewhat brown planet."

The play is set "around 2030," a signal of just how motivated Kirby is to head off what he believes is an actual climate-change crisis about to peak.

"If you go down the Intracoastal Waterway between here and Fort Myers, it's astonishing what you'll see," he said. "We originally did that journey 15 years ago, and there was a lot of open land in between here and there. But now every inch of the land has a house on it. In 10 years' time, all those houses are going to be basically uninhabitable. It's already happening."

The butterflies, which migrate between North and Central America, tie various metaphors together, one of which is humanity as a migratory species. As a further affirmation, the play is sung in English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and an old Coastal Salish tongue once spoken by Indians along the Pacific Northwest.

Performers must be versatile enough to sing and act and perform stunts. That physical dimension is part of what attracted aerialist Emily Hughes, 33, of Toronto.

"Because I'm a circus artist and a theater artist, there's not a lot of opportunities to do those things," she said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.w