To young actor Courtenay Dobbie, Caravan Farm Theatre seemed a mirage: Clydesdale cast-mates and stages sprung from fields for sold-out crowds. But eight years after her first show, she's holding the reins.
For two months during the summer of 2003, Courtenay Dobbie woke in her nylon yellow tent, her eyes swimming in the blue sky above the screen. Her ears replayed the echo of applause coasting through trees—the 24-year-old was playing the lead in Caravan Farm Theatre’s Joan Henry—and she smiled as she yawned. Courtenay rose in her pyjamas, unzipped her front door and gazed at the pines blanketing Hullcar Mountain. Inside, she felt a tug that, by August, was too strong to ignore.
Courtenay thought she understood the source of those pangs.
“It was the land and the natural environment. Performing and creating art in that context was really appealing to me as an actor,” she says, almost a decade later, sitting inside the theatre company’s wooden office.
At Caravan, audiences are entertained under a starlit Armstrong sky in the fields and forests of a farm. The actors eat, sleep and sing here. Though she remembers her canvas-sheltered summers fondly—“It was very romantic”—Courtenay no longer lives in a tent.
Last September, taking over from Estelle Shook who stepped down after 12 years, she became the company’s new artistic director, the most recent in a long line of parts the 32-year-old has played.
Summer after summer, she returned to Caravan. After Joan Henry, she took on the role of Roxanne in Cyrano of the Northwest in 2004, Cordelia in the 2007 production of King Lear and Virtue in 2010’s Everyone.
Courtenay couldn’t get enough of Caravan, its sense of communion with the land and the sense of community it shares with a devoted audience that has been buying tickets for the last 32 years.
“Living in such a way, it was adventurous. And it still is, even now, as the leader of it all,” she says.
To her, the adventure stems from working in the outdoors with other professional actors, but also from wedding art and the wild west—erecting a show from ink and hooves.
“You’re saying, ‘We have these words on a paper and we have these bodies and we have this space and the sky and these trees and the land and a horse, and we’re going to make something.’”
Caravan does just that three times a year, with a fall show, a sleigh ride show in the winter and a full-length play or musical in the summer. The farm is always one of the stars.
To Courtenay and many others, these 80 acres are a sacred space. “It’s a bit of a holy ground.”
Ground that could have been gone.
During that summer of 2003, while Courtenay’s intuition whispered, fires that were swallowing the Okanagan nearly licked the farm. Joan Henry was halted for five days. When the evacuation ended, everyone, especially the audience, returned. “We just picked right up with the show.”
Through the fire’s shadow Courtenay saw Caravan’s magic, its people, in another light. She also saw the whole picture: the horses’ oat buckets, the paint on audience benches, the pie crumbs on actors’ dessert plates, the sun-stained steps to the designer’s loft. Courtenay deciphered her body’s hints: direct. Do it all.
After that summer, she would forever crave not only creating on Caravan land, but also digging into every aspect of staging a show. Simply entering the stage, bowing, going home, “That was never enough for me,” she says.
After Joan Henry and as a recent graduate of Langara College’s Studio 58 theatre program, Courtenay went on to star in dozens of Vancouver shows. She also co-wrote a few plays, started a theatre company and began a masters degree in directing at UBC.
Today, as she wades through grant season, paper surrounds her. In addition to finding funding, Courtenay has to juggle a cast-crew team of 50, a farm filled with animals and buildings, and 15,000 audience members a year. “It’s just trying to keep all of the balls in the air.”
Courtenay says producing on this scale offers rewards that last long after the applause.
“It’s a little bit more satisfying. You’re helping to create art and act as a facilitator for people, which is a really great feeling.”
Glancing at the upcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream brochure, Courtenay says she’ll add touches to this place in time. She’ll bring in new shows, structures and artists, but, she adds, Caravan “is defined by the land that we perform on…that’s never going to change.”
By Natalie Appleton
Photo by Tim Matheson