The Greatest Show was a performance art production that took over Peterborough’s collective imagination in the summer of 1988. Local musicians, performing artists, theatre technicians and more were brought together by renowned Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. They put their creative efforts together to create a “circus of the damned” in Del Crary Park. This haunted and twisted circus was an experimental production that challenged the audience by forcing them to participate and experience a show that was taking place all around them.
Artist and academic LA Alfonso reached out to some of the artists involved in The Greatest Show and has collected an oral history for Peterborough Currents. Many of these artists recalled that the show was influential in shaping their artistic practices. They found the blend of site-specific outdoor shows and unexpected locations highly inspiring for future projects.
The man who brought the project together, R. Murray Schafer, passed away last year at age 88 in his home near Peterborough. The memorials prompted Peterborough Currents to start exploring Schafer’s local legacy, and how this momentous production in the late 1980s has had ripple effects through to today.
Take a listen through the recollections and sounds of the show in this oral history podcast, produced by LA Alfonso.
Produced by LA Alfonso
Hosted by Ayesha Barmania
Special thank you to interview guests Bill Kimball, Hank Fisher, Jerrard Smith, Diana Smith, Robert Winslow and Bea Quarrie.
The sounds from The Greatest Show are sourced from the Carnival of Shadows film by Rhombus Media.
Ayesha Barmania 0:11
Hi, this is the Peterborough Currents podcast. My name is Ayesha Barmania. Last August the noted Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He is a prolific composer and artist known internationally for his compositions, books and projects involving sound in the environment. He passed away at age 88 at his home near Peterborough. Shafer’s work has inspired and influenced many in the Canadian arts. It’s hard to overstate his impact on the fields of sound ecology and experimental composition broadly. But he’s also had a deep and long lasting impact on the local Peterborough arts community. And we can trace that impact back to a 1988 production called The Greatest Show. It was the site specific production that took over Del CraryPark in downtown Peterborough and many subsequent local performances have drawn inspiration from this piece. Shafer’s recent passing prompted us at Peterborough Currents to revisit The Greatest Show and to start asking some questions about why it’s resonated with so many artists for so long. LA Alfonso is here with me today, and he’s put together this report by talking to a few artists from the production who still live in the area. He spoke to set designers Jerrard and Diana Smith, theatre director Bea Quarrie, Public Energy Performing Arts executive director Bill Kimball, 4th Line Theatre founder Rob Winslow, and local music legend Hank Fisher, aka Washboard Hank. Thanks for putting this all together, LA. I’m excited to hear it.
LA Alfonso 1:35
Thank you for having me. I think this is a really important story. I think Peterborough still feels the impact that R. Murray Schaffer left behind in the city because we have this penchant for site specific performances events like Alley Waltz, 4th Line Theatre, Erring at King George. And Bill Kimball has been a big part of that and part of the art scene here in Peterborough. Bill Kimball at the time was working for Artspace.
Bill Kimball 2:00
I was involved in the local scene as an organizer. And when Murray Schafer came to Peterborough, he was looking for a place to produce his his work. And he came to town and did find a receptive crowd. So I got involved in helping figure out how to pull this thing together. And this thing was The Greatest Show On Earth. And that’s how he put it to us.
LA Alfonso 2:39
I just want to interrupt here for a second and note that they did have to drop “On Earth” in the title because they got a letter from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to stop using that title.
Bill Kimball 2:50
Yeah, I ended up acting in that in the piece. I mean, they needed a lot of actors, you know, the whole range of amateur to professional. I was the barker outside of kissing booth. “For if you step behind the screen and kiss the little lady it’s in there, she’ll put something in your pocket or in your hand or wherever you collect your collectibles. Now if that a change yes sir you step in there and that firecracker of a woman will give you a treat you ain’t expect.” Peterborough’s art scene has developed a kind of an almost underground reputation in the world out there. It’s not a household name or anything, but it’s known in the sort of the corridors of art power you know, the Canada Council for the Arts and places like that Peterborough has this offbeat kind of just by the seat of their pants DIY art scene. And that was one of the reasons was playing host to the show like that, you know.
Sound effect 4:03
[singing] Oh the eyes of Ariadne. [laughing]
Bill Kimball 4:11
Washboard Hank was one of the the stars from the Peterborough community.
Hank Fisher 4:25
My role was Rabindranath LeMeul. I was a defrocked Presbyterian minister. And I had this one man band that I put together for the show. When I tried out for the part, I went in with my washboard and my kitchen sink tuba. And I played and Murray was there sort of squinting at me and he totally got it totally got it. And I tell you, having somebody look at my washboard and consider it a marvelous piece of musical instrument by somebody of his stature was really really just blew me away. And so I got the part.
Hank Fisher 5:09
At one part farting noises and so I had two whoopee cushions and one on either pocket of my of my suit jacket with the tails coming out holes in the pocket. And I would fart, fart farts. And a whole page of script that had to do.
LA Alfonso 5:32
So did Mr. Schafer direct you to do the farts?
Hank Fisher 5:37
Oh, yes. Oh, yes, must have farts– must have farts.
LA Alfonso 5:43
So Jerrard and Diana Smith, husband and wife set designers describe the events in their own words.
Jerrard Smith 5:49
And the overarching theme of the piece is chaos, in that you have to destroy something in order to rebuild it. So The Greatest Show is the process of destroying everything. It makes fun of everything, it sends up everything, the audience would arrive as they would for any kind of show. As the audience arrives, all the performers are putting on their makeup chatting with the audience. And it’s very Brechtian that the background is always there and visible. And when the audience has arrived, everyone is called to the main stage for an introduction. The hero is put in a cage and made to disappear and the heroine is chopped up into pieces by magicians. The audience is free to just wander around and engage with any of the up to 100 acts that exist in the fairground.
Diana Smith 6:50
So we had a mainstage show and booths – things like toss the rings on the bottle and, you know, games of chance. And we had several tents that had different acts in them and you had to win at one of the games in order to get a ticket to the tent– a tent.
Robert Winslow 7:10
Depending on what ticket you got, you got to see certain parts of the show and not other parts.
Diana Smith 7:15
Oh and there were wandering performers to engage the audience from time to time.
LA Alfonso 7:20
Washboard Hank and Diana Smith remember a very memorable part of the show: Ariadne’s singing head.
Hank Fisher 7:26
Ariadne’s head had been chopped off, but she could still sing. And so she’s there. And I guess her tongue had been cut out. And somebody was running running around with a tongue in a box. And the box had a hole in it. And they would stick their finger up and said, “You want to see Ariadne’s tongue?” And they’d open the box and they’d wiggle the tongue.
Diana Smith 7:51
Joe Macerollo, the accordionist, had commissioned Murray a few years before to write this piece. And so he had had the magic table it’s you know, it’s a pretty standard music or magic trick where a table with a hole in it that catches the performer here. And then there are mirrors set so that you can’t see the rest of her body. So she’s her head and we got her a long wig to flow out around her and made her look dead. And Joe had his little costume already with a little top hat and black tux and all that. And she wasn’t singing per se as she was vocalizing in a fairly abstract way and then he’d play the accordion.
Diana Smith 8:40
There was a button accordion so it was going ta-ta-ta-ta-ta she’s doing strange sounds with their tongue in her mouth and so on.
Sound effect 8:49
Robert Winslow 8:54
That’s that’s that’s creativity. That’s not garbage.
LA Alfonso 9:04
4th Line Theatre founder Robert Winslow also took part in The Greatest Show.
Robert Winslow 9:09
And The Greatest Show was this large, large performance piece outdoors with a lot of people that were part of the Peterborough scene as well as a lot of people coming in from other places. So it was a great it was a great experience in terms of, of mixing with your peers, I guess you’d say. I was Sam Galuppi who was like a master of ceremonies. So I kind of I had a big megaphone, I kind of gathered the people together.
Sound effect 9:46
LA Alfonso 9:51
Art directors Jerrard Smith, Diana Smith and Robert Winslow describe what the Peterborough art scene was like back in 1988.
Jerrard Smith 9:58
It was kind of very much like the circus comes to town. Now, we, when we were putting it together – Murray and Thom Sokoloski, the director, and Diana and myself – we started looking for suitable small towns because it was modeled on a small town fair, so we didn’t want to do it in downtown Toronto. And Peterborough was one of the several locations that we chose. And we came and started talking to all kinds of people. We had a big, big meeting in Peterborough and Artspace and the university, the theatre guild, all of the performing arts people, a lot of musicians, a lot of actors came out. And it was such a rich community to begin with that we decided that’s where we should do it. Absolutely. There was there was so much art, so much theatre, so much music going on in Peterborough at that time. We arrived in town and one of the first things we did was, “Oh, you have to go to Artspace and catch the Friday night soaps that Robert Winslow had organized.”
Robert Winslow 11:12
It was a time personally where there was an awful lot going on creatively in that year in Peterborough in terms of theatre.
Jerrard Smith 11:20
And this was an improv kind of situation–
Diana Smith 11:26
late night. Midnight, whatever.
Jerrard Smith 11:28
That was hilarious. Every Friday night we were in stitches.
Diana Smith 11:35
And it involves great many of the performers when The Greatest Show as well as some others, but basically, yeah, they’d all take their costumes and makeup off and head to Artspace on Friday night. Yeah, yeah, there was there was a lot going on. It’s an amazing community. We really we lived there for what, 14 years. Yeah, we loved it there.
Jerrard Smith 11:55
I think the first year, we started off with a parade from Market Hall, where we were doing costuming.
Bea Quarrie 12:04
Actors would get dressed and with full makeup on would march down Main Street Peterborough, down Water Street all the way to Crary Park, and then do the performances and then go back the same way. Of course first time we had police escort and everything. And then as we got to know the downtown core of Peterborough, which can be kind of sketchy, we had some groups coming together and threatening the actors with some mischief. So I had to hire five people to be bodyguards to walk the actors down.
LA Alfonso 12:41
That was local artist and theatre director Bea Quarrie. She produced the workshop performance of The Greatest Show in 1987, but did not join the crew. the next year. The production had so many obstacles that she admits to being scared away to Toronto afterwards. Here’s a fun segment I put together with her stories.
Bea Quarrie 12:59
There’s a character called Dr. Daedalus in the show, and he was in a white lab coat walking around and he falls over as if he had died at one point at the end of his act. And there was some young people that Alan Orenstein on our dress rehearsal night had invited to come and see the show. And they came from an adult retraining facility. They should not have been there without, you know, someone supervising because they got terrified. They were terrified. And they ran home and told their parents that there was this dead guy in the park in a lab coat. And he had died and nobody cared. So this was a dress rehearsal night. And that night, I had to get up in front of all of the press and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we will not allow children and 12 into the show without proper adult accompaniment. These are our parameters.”
Sound effect 14:01
Bea Quarrie 14:01
The night before we opened one of the characters called me at six o’clock in the morning and said, “Bea, I can’t hold on to these terrible spirits that we’ve conjured up during the show. I just can’t hold on to them anymore. I just I’ve tried. I’ve tried to really try it but it comes out in the cards and I can’t hold on.” I said, “Okay, it’s six in the morning. You let him just go just just let him go.” I went back to bed. Well, we had a mini tornado in downtown Peterborough that grabbed her tent which was really three oriental carpets, toss it up in the air and trashed it into the middle of the park. So I think we did some conjuring. We learned our lesson.
Jerrard Smith 14:45
Out of – I can’t remember how many – it ran for maybe a week and probably half the shows were rained out. I can remember spending one night just going around with a broom and you know moving the roofs of all the tents so that the water wouldn’t pool too badly.
Diana Smith 15:04
Oh didn’t– it really flooded the park flooded one night. And we couldn’t. I mean, half of the electric stuff was underwater, it was really do not go near the park tonight, kind of thing.
Jerrard Smith 15:15
So as with any kind of outdoor performance, it’s problematic. But we persevered. And by we I mean all 150 people.
Hank Fisher 15:25
And everything was going great until the Minotaur showed up and scared us all away.
LA Alfonso 15:30
Check out what they have to say about the giant puppet in the cast.
Bea Quarrie 15:34
Because this was downtown, what is now Del Crary park with a big stage, there was no stage back then it was just a greens. And it was the perfect location for this piece because it required at the end of the show, for a rather huge articulated jaw, 23 foot tall puppet to come out of the water and scare the audience away saying, “Run for your lives. Run for your lives.” And that’s exactly what had to happen.
Hank Fisher 16:05
And the Minotaur was this oh 20 foot high huge horned puppet with lights and bombs exploding and that would be the end of the show.
Jerrard Smith 16:19
Basically, because of the smoke. You’re not seeing the puppeteer is very much in there in black anyway. And so you’d see the head and shoulders of this this puppet shape and is more or less a silhouette. Backlit.
Diana Smith 16:33
Oh, I’d made horrifying sounds to remember, oh David Ramsden made the horrible sounds That’s right.
Sound effect 16:51
[circus sounds] “Run for your lives, the show is over!”
Diana Smith 16:54
The lights start flashing off and on. And people look really confused. And then they’re basically all the performers come out and chase them out.
Diana Smith 17:09
They would mill around outside the perimeter fenced surrounding the fair, wondering what the hell just happened eventually would go home.
Jerrard Smith 17:20
And the audience’s standing out on the road scratching their heads. What was that?
LA Alfonso 17:26
So I asked everyone who really did come to the show?
Bea Quarrie 17:31
Well, I think until that time, there was very little opportunity for the general public to access, say, a huge outdoor opera like this. You know, just the availability of it. And it brought a lot of international attention to to it as well. So they were people, people came for opening night from as far away as Denmark and Holland. People knew about Peterborough as a consequence of this show.
Hank Fisher 18:04
I think most of the people came from far away. I don’t think– like the Peterborough intelligencia came. But I didn’t see too many normal bar folk. I didn’t see anybody from the Red Dog there. I’ll tell you that.
Bea Quarrie 18:21
A ticket office was made up of two eyeballs, the left eye and the right. My husband was one of the eyes. And you know, they were giving out tickets. So people were, I think quite puzzled and surprised and delighted. You know, and I know that Rob Winslow was an essential part of the play. Maybe I don’t, I can’t speak for him. But I know that his love of the outdoors and working on a farm eventually manifested itself in his founding of 4th Line Theatre. And a lot of the people who were involved in the show landed up working at 4th Line as well.
Robert Winslow 19:03
For me, like I said, it kind of inspired me to think I could do something you could do something large scale outdoors, based on on people from the community being involved. And I’m sure it had an impact on me as an artist. I would imagine people that performed in it who were from Peterborough and the area would have been inspired to carry on or maybe they make connections carry them on as far as that kind of a play being done in Peterborough. I don’t think there’s been anything like it since it was full of circus. But it was a dark circus. It was a circus of the irrational but it was still a circus. It was imagistic and you had this experience. You know, you really had to go with it. You had to just kind of let your rational mind go and just experience it. But um, but the people were in your face, okay, so the actors were in your face. They weren’t like, oh, you’re a nice audience member, they were challenging the audience, they were yelling at the audience, they were screaming at the audience, they were eventually driving the audience out. So it’s almost like an anti-audience experience.
Sound effect 20:19
[circus sounds] Bring back the hero, make the body whole. Bring back the hero, make the body whole. Bring back the hero, make the body whole. Bring back the hero, make the body whole. Bring back the hero, make the body whole. Bring back the hero, make the body whole. [cacophony]
Hank Fisher 20:37
Here in Peterborough, we’ve been experimenting with shows under the Hunter Street Bridge, because it’s acoustically wonderful there and you can play acoustically and people can hear you. And I would say that would be one of the things Murray has passed down to us to be careful about where you put your show on, or try to put your show on in a place where it has the maximum sonic effect.
LA Alfonso 21:36
It’s sort of like where the Alley Waltz came from that and all those sort of things that happen here in Peterborough? Like, outdoor stuff, do you think that was inspired by Murray?
Hank Fisher 21:46
Yeah, yes, yes, you could say so. I mean, it’s unexpected. And it’s in an unusual place. That would be what Murray gave to us. The sense that we could do this stuff.
Bea Quarrie 22:00
It showed us possibilities that we didn’t know existed, that we could go beyond certain things and the idea of performing or bringing music into it, into an outdoor setting and having it work on us, you know, the itinerant audiences, it wandered around, and if people still talk about it in town, you know, and–
LA Alfonso 22:28
What did they say usually about it?
Bea Quarrie 22:30
“You remember that weird show?” Yeah. That’s what they usually talk about is the “weird show”.
Diana Smith 22:35
Just one quick note about the ephemerality that was really important to him. He felt that that was crucial to his work, that it was something surrounding people who came to see/hear it, and then it was a memory.
Robert Winslow 22:55
I don’t really mind that it’s ephemeral. Because it lives then in people’s memories, and then people’s stories, which is really what theatre and film and everything is about. It’s about stories, storytelling, whether it’s Asian cultures or Greek cultures or Western, like it really comes down to the story as it’s passed on. And so we’re part of this long, long tradition of arts and memory and it’s okay. It is, but it is kind of frustrating if you can’t, like you said, you can’t go back and experience it. Like, you can’t go back in your own life and experience it again. You can you can think you can. But when you get close with stories, I guess with memory and reminiscence, we get sort of close.
LA Alfonso 23:47
I guess the local story is that once upon a time, there was that show, that crazy show that was called The Greatest Show–
Sound effect 23:58
Ladies and gentlemen. Peterborough Festival of the Arts is proud to present Patria 3: The Greatest Show.
LA Alfonso 24:10
–and you were part of it.
Robert Winslow 24:12
Yeah, I was. I was part of it. And I’m happy that I was.
Sound effect 24:15
Bea Quarrie 24:32
Murray Schafer could open up our eyes and our ears in ways that I don’t know anyone else has been able to. You know, he’s really quite astonishing. And I think of him in the present tense because he’s with me. You know, I hear music differently. I hear natural sounds differently. I think of my identity differently.
LA Alfonso 25:03
Did you bond like musicians that way like you understood each other?
Hank Fisher 25:08
Oh, I adored him.
Diana Smith 25:11
It’s, it’s still hard to talk about Murray right now. I think you’ll appreciate that.
Robert Winslow 25:17
I remember them celebrating his 60th birthday out here when they did the Enchanted Forest and I remember, the cast members all dancing around him in a circle on one of our hills in the farm. So he was the he was a tough character in some ways and, and could put people off but he he was beloved as well by artists, he really was. Because if someone creates something that daring, people are going to going to love that kind of stuff.
LA Alfonso 25:45
Where do you think that comes from? That daring, or the imagination and those characters in those situations?
Robert Winslow 25:55
Where it comes from in him? In Murray Schafer? I mean, he was obviously very accomplished and knew tons about music. And enough to know that then he could change what was accepted and push at the edges of that. And yeah, that divine spark. He was one of those. One of those. I couldn’t explain it. He seemed very humble to me in a way. He seemed very much in person serving this thing. He wanted his stuff to happen. But we all want our stuff to happen. Does that mean we’re egomaniacs that we want our stuff to happen and we push others to make it happen with this and for us? I don’t think it necessarily means we’re egomaniacs. I think we might or there might be an argument that there’s something being served that if a person believes strongly enough in some some artistic venture that that it should happen that it’s not complete delusion and tyranny. It’s actually serving something that’s worthy and beautiful. But no, I think is it was he was a mensch. I think it was in The Globe and Mail which I cut out the obituary, just the expression on his face and that photograph. I don’t know what production is from but that’s him. That’s him. Like let’s do it. We can do this, you know?
Ayesha Barmania 27:26
So yeah, thanks for listening to today’s episode. It was hosted by me, Ayesha Barmania, and produced by LA Alfonso. And thanks so much to the folks who talked to LA for this show: Bill Kimball, Jerrard and Diana Smith, Bea Quarrie, Robert Winslow, and Hank Fisher.
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That’s all for today. Thank you so much for listening. Bye for now.