A scene from Caravan Farm Theatre’s presentation of Animal Farm. (Jim Cooperman photo)

A scene from Caravan Farm Theatre’s presentation of Animal Farm. (Jim Cooperman photo)

Column: The early days of the Caravan Farm Theatre

Shuswap Passion by Jim Cooperman

By Jim Cooperman

Contributor

Theatre and music were part of Nick Hutchinson’s genetic make-up.

His mother was the award-winning actor, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and his father, Jeremy Hutchinson, was a famous, well-respected barrister. In 1970, when Nick arrived in Montreal after receiving his theatrical training in France and England, he joined an anarchist street theatre troupe. On his first day he paid a visit to the anarchist newspaper Logos that had just published a fake front page of the Montreal Gazette with the headline “Mayor Drapeau shot by a drug-crazed hippie.” He just missed the editor and his wife who had to leave the city in a hurry to avoid prosecution. They were Paul and Nans Kirby, who years later invited him to join the Caravan.

Nick’s first paying gig in Montreal was teaching at the National Theatre School, which began a 37-year association. Following the Quebec October Crisis, Nick and his girlfriend Sandy Nichols stuck their thumbs out, ending up at a ‘back-to-the-land’ commune in the Darcy Valley between Pemberton and Lillooet. As this was horse country, he soon purchased a wild bronc from Harry Kenyon, whose young son Lindsay would one day join the Caravan.

There were few opportunities to create theatre in the country, so Nick left his horse Snake in the valley and moved to Vancouver, where together with Sandy he assembled a cast to produce a rock opera called Net City that caused quite a stir. Many of those in the show were destined to become Caravaners. A few years later, Nick received a long letter from Paul Kirby inviting him to become the artistic director of the Little People’s Caravan, which provided Nick with a solution for his problem of what to do with Snake, who would now have a career as an out-rider horse.

Back at the Darcy Valley he saddled Snake and rode over the Mission Pass to meet Paul and Nans near Lillooet, who trucked them to tight quarters In Tappen, where the Caravan Company and Clydesdales were assembling for the 1976 tour. Over the next three years, the company developed a unique style of popular theatre that drew enthusiastic responses from their audiences and helped establish Canada Council funding. The Little People’s Caravan had now become the Caravan Stage Company.

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By 1978 it became obvious that Caravan needed a permanent space, and a farm was found near Armstrong. Paul and Nans, Nick and designer Catherine Hahn agreed to raise the money for a down payment. The previous year Nick’s grandmother had died and bequeathed him her correspondence with the famed playwright, Samuel Beckett, which he sold to Texas University, thus taking care of his share.

Over the next four years, there were many successes for the Caravan, including popular tours of shows, bountiful harvests at the farm, and a growing theatre company with actors joining them from across the country. Nick had also begun a life-long relationship with Molly March, artist and designer extraordinaire, and they slowly built their home on the farm.

Despite all the new energies, there were persistent fiscal deficits burdened by mortgage payments and the ongoing recession. When Paul and Nans set their sights on a three-year tour as far away as California, Nick and Molly decided to stay behind with their two-year old daughter March and a few others to maintain the farm.

Paul and Nans announced at their departure that they were not coming back, because they felt the farm was taking too many resources and was unsustainable. Left to their own resources, the remaining farm crew sold horse breeding stock to pay bills. They soon realised their only hope for survival was to produce shows and thus the Caravan Farm Theatre was born. That summer they produced an outdoor spectacle developed by Catherine Hahn called “The Last Wild Horse.”

In 1985, Nick created a show based on George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm, which was a huge hit. They had set up for an audience of 200 that soon grew to 600 a night, which helped put the farm’s finances in order and helped attract additional grants and funding. One winter, actor Peter Hall had a brainstorm and suggested that instead of just offering sleigh rides, they produce a winter show, which became a well-loved tradition, as well as another source of income.

Over the next decade, the Caravan Farm’s motto, “Art and Potatoes” became a reality, as the horse breeding program continued, grain and hay were grown and harvested with horsepower and the vegetable garden flourished. Although Paul and Nans had left to produce travelling shows, their dream of Equipolis had finally become a reality.

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A scene from The Last Wild West with Nick Hutchinson playing guitar (Photo courtesy of Nick Hutchinson)

A scene from The Last Wild West with Nick Hutchinson playing guitar (Photo courtesy of Nick Hutchinson)