Peterborough’s Greatest Show Ever

A spectacular tale of ambition and artistry on the shores of Little Lake

The story of The Greatest Show’s unlikely 1988 production at Peterborough’s Del Crary Park is worthy of a small book. In composer/author R. Murray Schafer’s notes to the performers describing his monumental undertaking he called The Greatest Show “an immense outdoor theatrical and musical extravaganza in the form of a town fair or carnival.” It was certainly that.

Employing over a hundred actors, singers, dancers, musicians, designers, choreographers, technicians and production personnel drawn from the local arts community and from across the country, The Greatest Show was a spectacle that galvanized the Peterborough arts community into taking a run at standing beside the biggest players in the world of Canadian operatic theatre. For 10 hot summer nights that’s exactly what happened, and hopes were high that it would be performed on an annual basis, creating a kind of mini-Stratford in the Kawarthas. Today we know that never happened and so the question remains: what is the legacy of The Greatest Show? 34 years on it has not really been established: did it inspire others in the Peterborough arts scene to up their game? Or did it serve as a warning to those attempting to fly too close to the sun? You be the judge of this tale of ambition and artistry.

Evidence of its ambition was easy to come by, firstly in its original title, The Greatest Show On Earth, as it was known during its three-night workshop run the previous summer, 1987, 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 (others included RA, an all-night spectacle that took audiences through the bowels of the Ontario Science Centre beginning at dusk and ending at dawn, and Princess of the Stars, which took place entirely in and around a lake and began just before sunrise): “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 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 after The Greatest Show packed up its tents.

One of the biggest carrots dangled by Schafer to the local community was the prospect of the show being filmed by a company with a national reputation, Rhombus Media, whose works were seen in festivals around the world. The entire enterprise promised to put Peterborough and its small but plucky arts scene on the national – heck, international – arts map!

None of this would have been possible if Schafer 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. Dozens of local artists signed up for what promised to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, including yours truly. I was handed the role of Kelsey Winkler, the barker outside the Kissing Booth.

Truly talented performers from Peterborough also took part, including Robert Winslow (who played multiple roles, including the ringmaster), Susan Spicer, Kelly Nadal, Washboard Hank, Jim Gleason, David Bateman, Serge Bertrand, Tim Gallop, Robin Hood, Terry Novak, David and Ken Ramsden, Royce Williamson, John Crown and Allan Orenstein, whose Magic Circus Theatre was one of the local arts groups offering its assistance.

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 (in that year the show was reportedly only 70 percent of Schafer’s full intentions – where was the ferris wheel and merry-go-round?) was an immense organizational challenge.

When the project was first floated in the Peterborough arts community invitations went out to amateur and professional artists and organizations alike, spanning the gamut of artistic interests and genres, from art galleries to classical music ensembles, from modern dancers to folk dancers, from experimental theatre to summer stock. When representatives from these groups gathered to hear Schafer’s proposal, it did not go unnoticed that it was the first time in memory that all these branches of the arts community had met each other at one time.

Together they found strength in numbers, strength that would be needed to convince a skeptical public, media, and politicians to support an extravagant and frankly baffling artistic event. That spirit of collaboration across many artistic disciplines in the service of a common goal – to maintain a high profile for the arts community so that its interests and needs are not ignored by the powers that be – would inspire a succession of arts service organizations in the years to come. Many of the artists involved in The Greatest Show would become founders of the Peterborough Arts Umbrella (PAU) which carried the torch of arts advocacy well into the 2000’s. The PAU ultimately met its demise but served as inspiration to build a more permanent organization, today’s Electric City Culture Council.

Gauging what the long term impact of The Greatest Show was on the Peterborough arts scene is challenging. Short term, in the immediate years that followed, there was more work for local artists on a variety of smaller scale Schafer projects. Rhombus Media did indeed make a film of the event, releasing it under the name Carnival of Shadows, but not garnering much attention as far as one can tell.

What lessons were learned from the massive and exhausting undertaking? Four years later, one of the show’s star performers, Robert Winslow, established the 4th Line Theatre, an ambitious outdoor theatre on his family farm that has become the most successful theatre operation ever to take place in the Peterborough area. Was he at least partly inspired by the Greatest Show’s can-do vision?

At the same time, one can view the results of The Greatest Show as cautionary: Schafer’s full vision for the work was never achieved due to an inability to raise the funds needed and it must be said that pay for the artists and crew did not match the demands of the enterprise, where working conditions – such as the pressure to mount as many of the acts as Schafer had written – resulted in injuries to cast and crew both physical and mental. Interestingly, in the following year, Winslow and a collective of other theatre artists went in the opposite direction, creating the Union Theatre, a small black box venue operated on a shoestring where they could experiment wildly, far under the radar of the public and media.

In the final analysis, The Greatest Show 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 and stood as a cautionary tale, while standing as something of a high water mark for artistic achievement in the city. For myself it served as an example of shooting for the stars and at least reaching the moon. The results can almost always be called spectacular no matter how they are viewed.

Bill Kimball is the executive director of Public Energy.

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