iN PHOTOS: Rustic digs, epic performances at Armstrong's Caravan Farm Theatre - InfoNews

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iN PHOTOS: Rustic digs, epic performances at Armstrong's Caravan Farm Theatre

Theatre director Estelle Shook sits on one of many stages at the Caravan Farm Theatre.
July 31, 2019 - 6:00 AM

ARMSTRONG - Located on the upper floor of a barn that looks about a century older than its 40 years, the faces of sheep, deer and coyotes stare down from log beams.

Masks sit beside dozens of weird and wonderful hats, while piles of fabric, together with sewing machines, and odd iron and spools of multicoloured thread litter the room.

Walking into the shape where the Caravan Farm Theatre store props and costumes you instantly know many great pieces have been brought to life in here.

Located outside of Armstrong, the Caravan Farm Theatre is celebrating 41 years of running theatre productions from their 88-acre site. As one of only a couple of rural theatre companies in the entire country, the Farm Theatre is a unique North Okanagan gem.

"I like to describe what we do as family entertainment with teeth," Caravan Farm Theatre artistic and managing director Estelle Shook says. "It's for everybody."

One of the stages at the 88-acre theatre.
One of the stages at the 88-acre theatre.

"A lot of theatre in the city is classist and really a hangover from colonial ideas about what high art is supposed to be," she said. "People who might not normally enjoy going to the theatre can relax here."

Shook says this is part of the reason the theatre is still going strong after more than four decades.

It also has a lot to do with the quality of the performances.

The outdoor theatre maybe nestled down a dirt road in the middle of a rural farming community but Shook stresses their performances are equal if not superior to the best theatre in the city.

With production values at anywhere between $200,000 and $300,000 a show, the theatre attracts some of the best stage actors, prop makers and stage managers in the country. Performing two shows per year (one in summer, one in winter), plus a Haloween show and the occasional special event, Shook said the theatre also has a reputation for putting on big performances.

The winter show will often see audiences move from set to set, often taking in dozen or more sets around the farm.

Backstage gives a glimpse into the theatre's long history.
Backstage gives a glimpse into the theatre's long history.

Shook said the shows are unique, using original scripts and live music with anywhere from between six to 10 performers on stage. A very popular version of Macbeth featured seven Clydesdale horses pulling set pieces on and off the stage.

"People loved it because it was hardcore and they'd never seen anything like it," she said.

While the productions themselves may be high end, behind the scenes is definitely rustic.

Actors rehearse for three weeks before the performance that runs for three to five weeks. Due to the location, the actors all live on the farm throughout that period. They get one-room cabins in the woods with no en-suite, making it a long walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Luckily Shook said it's a myth actors are difficult to work with.

Lunch and dinner are served communally in a large summer camp-style kitchen, which Shook describes as "the heart of the place."

The theatre is set in the lush countryside of the North Okanagan.
The theatre is set in the lush countryside of the North Okanagan.

"A lot of long-standing relationships started here," she said.

Walking through the costume room and into the dressing room the theme stays very rustic - it's a far cry from Hollywood.

A bottle of single-malt whisky sits on the dressing room counter along with a box of panty liners.

"It's the best technology for being in a sweaty mask," Shook says.

You can almost feel the anticipation that takes place in the dressing room as actors get ready before a show.

The artistic director spent over a decade with the company before taking a hiatus in 2010, only to return in 2017.

"I love that the work we do here, it is really responding and feels responsible to our community and our audience," she said.

Masks hang from the rafters.
Masks hang from the rafters.

The hardest part is running a not-for-profit.

"Theatre, in general, is vulnerable... (and) outdoor theatre is even more vulnerable than any other theatre."

While the winter show sells out prior to its opening night, the summer is more volatile. The new addition of a roof to one of the theatres means audiences can now stay dry on wet summer evenings. This summer's performance, The Coyotes, was scheduled to be a week shorter following last year's wildfires and will end Aug. 11.

So how has the Caravan Farm Theatre managed to survive over the last 41 years?

"The good idea of a theatre that is for everybody, that is in nature, that believes in people... that tends to add longevity."

This summer's performance, The Coyotes, runs until Aug. 11. For more information and to buy tickets go here.

A recent upgrade means audiences can stay dry.
A recent upgrade means audiences can stay dry.

The kitchen. Where relationships start.
The kitchen. Where relationships start.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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