Peterborough, Ontario. August 25 to September 3, 1988. Film clips taken from the Rhombus Media film Carnival of Shadows, directed by Barbara Willis Sweete, which was shot on location both during and after the run of The Greatest Show. (Viewers in Southern Ontario can visit a wonderful exhibition at the Cambridge Galleries featuring objects, props and costumes from The Greatest Show and other Schafer works until April 7, 2012. More at cambridgegalleries.ca/cambridge.taf?section=2)
The story of The Greatest Show’s unlikely production at Peterborough's Crary Park is worthy of a small book. In R. Murray Schafer’s notes to the performers he described The Greatest Show as “an immense outdoor theatrical and musical extravaganza in the form of a town fair or carnival.” It was certainly that. Evidence of its ambition can be found in its original title, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, as it was known during its 3-night workshop run the previous summer, also at Crary Park. The name change came about when Schafer was contacted by a team of persuasive lawyers from Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus.
These lines, taken from the 24-page program guide, seemed to sum up Schafer’s goals not only for this work, but for the entire Patria cycle of 12 related music dramas (The Greatest Show is also known as Patria 3. Go to patria.org for a complete overview): “Have you ever sat in the whirly-burl blinded by science and philosophy, bored by the mask of the world?...Well, yes there is a cure for the woes of the spirit and the grand malaise we call civilization. And it’s here, now, in your town and it’s called THE GREATEST SHOW. Come one come all!”
Having recently moved to the Peterborough area, Schafer’s reputation in the music world was such that he was able to attract an impressive cast of musicians, actors, dancers and designers to a community that had never - at least not in living memory - hosted so many highly accomplished artists from across the country to perform together. Schafer’s chief collaborators were among the brightest up and coming artists of the time: director Thom Sokoloski, music director Christopher Butterfield, chorus director Peter Tiefenbach, lighting designer Kevin Lamotte and - perhaps most important on such an undertaking - Schafer’s design team of Jerrard and Diana Smith, who moved to the area and continued to make their own important contributions to the local arts scene.
Of course none of this would have been possible if Murray had not found in Peterborough eager organizations with which to collaborate - in particular the Peterborough Festival of the Arts, led by Catherine Gallop - and plenty of professional and amateur performers with their own unique and colorful talents. Of the dozens of local artists that took part, some can be seen here, such as Robert Winslow (who played multiple roles, including the ringmaster), Kelly Nadal, Washboard Hank, Jim Gleason, David Bateman, Serge Bertrand, Tim Gallop, Robin Hood, Terry Novak, and Royce Williamson. Other prominent local artists, not seen in these clips, included the likes of Allan Orenstein (whose Magic Circus Theatre was a sponsor), David and Ken Ramsden, Susan Spicer, and John Crown to name a few. In addition to the artists, more than 125 local businesses and individuals are thanked in the show program, and that’s not counting the dozens who placed ads in it.
The sheer numbers are impressive: The Greatest Show featured about 100 different acts or scenes, and everything seen in it - the immense canvas banners, the tents and booths to accommodate the dozens of side shows, the hundreds of costumes and props - were built from scratch. The costume department had to generate outfits for 120 characters, plus an additional 80 for the technicians, crew and filmmakers who needed to blend into the action. Mounting the workshop production in 1987, and then the nearly complete work in 1988 (the show was reportedly only 70% of Schafer’s full intentions - after all where was the ferris wheel and merry-go-round?) was an immense organizational challenge. It forced the Peterborough arts community to get organized quickly, brought disparate players together for the first time ever, and left a legacy of accomplishment that has both inspired others to take on seemingly impossible tasks, and stood as something of a high water mark for artistic achievement in the city.
One would expect financing such an extravaganza to be a challenge; indeed it was, compounded by two financial hits. Attendance over the show’s 9-evening run came in at about 2,500, short of expectations. Opening night saw only 161 attendees, but by the final night the number was 438 and climbing. Speaking to the Peterborough Examiner on behalf of the Festival of the Arts, Allan Orenstein blamed inadequate publicity and bad weather.
Disappointing as attendance was (particularly in the first week when there were some real downpours), the bigger financial blow had come earlier when the Festival was told it would receive zero support from the country’s lead arts funding agency, the Canada Council for the Arts. Was this what prompted Schafer to include in the show a character called The Minister of Culture, who pontificated from a toilet in an outhouse? Or was this character the product of a long-standing feud? In any case, upon hearing that the Council would nevertheless be sending staff to watch the show (they weren’t getting free tickets!), an entry appeared in the program in which The Show’s owner, Mr. Daedalus, implores visitors to “behave themselves, remain seated at all times and refrain from eating peanuts during the show in order not to impair the ability of the Canada Council scouts from recognizing the difference between a cultural event and mere whoopee.”
Thankfully, it seems the relationship between Schafer and the feds warmed up soon after the success of The Greatest Show became apparent; the Canada Council has recognized Schafer’s work since then, and in 2009 he was awarded a Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Achievement. A high honour indeed, but the speculation here is that Schafer would trade all the recognition he’s received - particularly since turning 75 in 2008 - for the chance to realize his long-standing dream of producing the ultimate, complete version of The Greatest Show. On Earth.