In my last post, I told you a bit about what my dear husband has been up to over the past month, namely working as a teamster at the Caravan Farm Theatre near Armstrong. But it’s impossible to get the real flavour of the winter show unless you have an idea of how it all looks at night.
The real magic of the winter production is that most of the shows take place in the dark, starting as they do at 4, 6, and 8 p.m. Out there in the snowy field, with snow falling gently (or horizontally, if there’s a wind) or stars shining overhead if it’s clear, the whole thing takes on an air of magic. The first show begins in twilight, but once it’s over, the sleighs and wagons are driving back to the farm buildings in the dark.
In the photo below, you see the audience entrance to the courtyard of the farm. The photos and bios of the actors and designers and scriptwriter and so on are posted here for audience members to see, along with photos and names of all the crew. Also posted, to my satisfaction, are the names and photos of the teamsters and their shotguns.
Here are some shots of audience members warming up, internally and externally, between shows. The building on the right is the cook shack, the beating heart of the life of the Company. The portrait above the porch roof? That’s Bill Miner, the legendary “gentleman train robber” from nineteenth-century BC. A very early configuration of the company adopted Bill Miner as its patron saint, but I don’t know enough about the history of Caravan to tell you any more than that. Hey! Someone should write a book! Given all the talent amongst Company members past and present, surely someone, or a group of someones working collaboratively, could produce a wonderful history of the Company in book form. There are archives, I know, of material chronicling the Company’s long tenure.
As I told you last time, early in the show’s run, dh’s wagon was designated the mobility wagon, meaning he started the show at the first set. Anyone unable to walk from the first set, close to the fire pit, to the second, in the timber frame structure known as the rain venue, got into his wagon here and watched the first scene sitting on the straw-strewn benches in the wagon. You can just see the wagon in the left foreground of the photo above.
Before and after the shows, the audience enjoys walking around and looking at the horses waiting patiently for the next show to begin. These three teams are harnessed at the tack shack, and that’s where they’re tethered between shows too.
Four more teams, including Mahina’s sweet little trio of Fjords on the left, are harnessed in the wagon bays. The Fjords make Joyce’s big Belgians, in the centre of the photo, seem even bigger than they are.
Fjords have a dark stripe down the centre of their manes, flanked by blond hair on either side. For this show, Mahina trimmed away some of the white hair on both sides of each horse’s mane to expose the black, creating a checkerboard effect. The theme of this year’s show is time travel, and there were clock motifs everywhere: the curved manes on the Fjords now look like the notched intervals on a clock. Cool, no?
The other two other teams are tied to dh’s horse trailer between shows. I didn’t slog out through the snow to the trailer to photograph them, because the only light source there are the flashlights and hat brim lights and headlamps the teamsters wear, not enough for photography.
It’s hard to photograph the horses in motion in the dark because I need such slow shutter speeds. (I wouldn’t use a flash to photograph a horse in the dark: that’s a good way to cause a wreck, startling a horse with a flash of light.) My first couple of attempts were discouraging (or, more positively, interesting, but I got a couple of good ones. The ambient light in these photos is mostly the result of the lamp mounted on a pole at the front of each wagon.
Marina’s horses stepped through the pool of light from the lamp standards just at the right moment to produce clear image. Clever things.
This shot of the rain venue gives you an idea of how the horses lined up before the show. You can just see Mahina’s wagon in the bottom left (her wagon became the time machine for the show), and you can see that the other teamsters have begun to line up their wagons behind the rain venue, ready to take on passengers once the second scene is over.
After the second scene, it takes a little while for the audience members to sort themselves out and board the right sleighs or wagons: everyone is assigned a seat in a specific vehicle as they pass through the box office.
But eventually everyone has a seat and off we go to through the woods (if in wagons, where there isn’t enough snow this year for sleighs) or over the field (if in sleighs) to the next set.
One of the amazing things to me, something dh tried to describe to me on the phone before I saw for myself, is that the wagons and sleighs move between sets in carefully-timed and -orchestrated choreography. Wagons cross one another’s paths on the diagonal at a good clip, close enough to one another that some passengers worry about potential collisions. The wagons and sleighs appear to braid themselves into place in a semi-circle around each set, and because of the lantern mounted high on each vehicle, the lights move and weave too. Once every team is parked, the horses’ heads face outward, and the audience looks out over the backs of the wagons and sleighs to watch the play.
To avoid any risk of copyright infringement, I’m not going to show you any images of the play in progress. But you can perhaps get a sense of what this experience is like from these shots.
Is it cold? Yup. The seats and decks of the wagons are liberally strewn with straw for insulation, and repeat audience members, the ones who know the drill, show up with quilts and blankets and sleeping bags and are dressed as if for arctic exploration. I saw the show four times, standing beside dh at the front of the wagon, and only on the fourth time around was I anything close to warm. The teamsters and their shotguns rig themselves out in amazing combinations of clothes (someone even had a buffalo jacket; I bet he was warm enough), but they know what they’re doing and they’re rarely cold. One of the teamsters (thanks, Joyce) loaned me her warmest duds: mohair socks, an incredibly thick and warm hand knit pullover with a high collar, knit with two strands of mohair and two of wool, an alpaca scarf, and gauntlets that came up to my elbow. With all of that and a set of Hot Shot hand warmers in the gauntlets and another set in my boots, I was set. The horses aren’t cold at all: they end the show steaming mightily after their last run in from the field to the farm entrance at the end of the show.
Dh asked me to be sure to take photos of this last moment of the show, the moment when the teams and wagons and sleighs all line up in a semicircle in the courtyard to allow the audience to disembark. Three of the teams, including dh’s are off to the left in this photo, but what dh really wanted were photos of the other six teams in a long line, so I did my best.
The last one is my favourite. I love the way the steam from the horse’s backs and noses capture the lamplight and transform them into strangely-shaped halos above the horses. It was magic. As dh said, it’s not very often anymore that one sees this many draft horses altogether at once. To have this occur in the cold and the dark, shot through with lights and reflections off the snow, is extra special.
Once all the audience members are clear of the wagons and sleighs, the teamsters drive off in sequence, starting with Joyce’s Belgians on the right. The teamsters still have anything up to an hour’s work to do, parking their vehicles, unhitching their teams, driving their teams to their harnessing stations, unharnessing and rubbing down the horses, feeding and watering for the last time, and noting any repairs that need to be made the next day to rigging, harness, or vehicles. It’s 9:30 at the earliest before their work day is done and many of them don’t make it back into the warm until much later than that.
So yes, while it’s fun for the teamsters and for the actors and everyone else involved, it’s also a lot of work. And working outside in the cold can be hard on everyone. I really felt for the actors, all five of them, whose voices and energy were taxed by the need to project their voices far more powerfully than they would have had to in an indoor venue, and to do so in the cold, dry air of winter. And in the cold, harness and rigging get brittle and want to break, the wagons and sleighs take a beating, and it’s a lot harder to work outside in the dark than in daylight. But there’s so much experience and wisdom amongst the members of the company, teamsters and otherwise, that everything gets done in the most efficient way possible, and helping hands are always on offer.
Much of the nuts and bolts of the winter show routine have been in place for years, of course, so that necessities like feeding everyone between shows run like clockwork. Between the first and second shows, the cooks produce soup, and between the second and third shows, a full dinner. It’s not much time, the half hour between when the teamsters and their shotguns are able to get into the cook shack and when they need to be on deck again to prepare for the next show, but Kate and Jason, the cooks, always had all the food ready and hot at the stroke of the hour. I don’t know how they did it. And everyone’s dietary needs were catered to, even mine, though I had nothing at all to do with the show. Whatever anyone needed, everyone worked together to provide. For instance, Oscar came up a little sore after the first few days of the show, and thanks to the other teamsters, dh was loaned some extra-cushy back pads and given liniment and equine painkillers, all of which, along with some harness adjustment, made that good horse a lot more comfortable. No sooner was a need voiced than someone was offering a solution. It was amazing.
I think that it’s a testament to Estelle Shook, the interim artistic and managing director, that this production was a happy, cooperative, congenial place to work. I don’t know that every member of the Company is naturally good-natured and helpful, but somehow the atmosphere at Caravan made it so. And I think Estelle is a lot of the reason for that atmosphere. It was lovely, at 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, to hear the post-show party make its way to Estelle’s house just below the music shack and break into a rousing chorus of “For she’s a jolly good fellow.” She is indeed.
I could go on and on about the kindness that greeted us at Caravan, or the wonderfully diverse crew of talented people we met (it seemed that practically everyone had multiple talents), or the fun and laughter and all the music made during down times in the cook shack, or the thrill, for me, of hearing my dear husband reading his poem about the show (written from Oscar’s point of view) to the assembled Company and all the extra friends and family who came to the cabaret after the last show on New Year’s Eve and then receiving a standing ovation from the crowd. Magic. MAGIC!!!! This is our new household word, because it plays a big role in the play and I can here it in Jenny’s voice in my mind’s ear every time I think of it. And really, that one word, sums up how this whole Caravan experience was for me and for dh. We are grateful. Thank you, Caravan Farm Theatre.