The Greatest Show: Site-specific The search for a location

The team consisted of Murray, Diana and myself and Thom Sokoloski - we were setting out to create a workshop production of Patria 3 – The Greatest Show on Earth. At that time we were all living in Toronto and felt that a smaller city would provide a more appropriate setting for a work that was based on a small-town fair. Several Ontario cities were suggested including Guelph, London, Peterborough and others.

Peterborough was the initial choice as some of us had some contact with the artistic community there. A meeting was set up and we met with representatives of the Peterborough Symphony, Arbour Theatre, The Peterborough Theatre Guild, The Peterborough Festival of the Arts, Artspace, Trent University and a number of interested individuals.

As many seemed to be in favour of having the workshop of The Greatest Show on Earth performed in Peterborough, we set about with the initial preparations. We had been successful in securing about $60M from the Arts Councils and the Laidlaw Foundation for the workshop and required some financial assistance from the Peterborough Community. The Peterborough Festival of the Arts – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the presentation of chamber music – agreed to use their organization as the structure for administering the funds for the production.

A production manager (Bea Quarrie) and an administrator (Vicki Telford) were recruited and a budget prepared. With the assistance of some of the Peterborough team, we began looking for a suitable location. Some of the parameters we required were: –access from the downtown core –overall size –nearby buildings and facilities –access to electricity –some isolation from major autoroutes and neon lights –a location for the main stage that would provide sight-lines for a large audience more?? The premise was that we were doing a workshop production.

The only difference between a workshop and a full scale production of course is that a workshop has less money and a built in excuse when critics imply that its not as elaborate as a full-scale production should be. Otherwise, the scale, expectations etc. are the same and the difference in financing are made up by long hours and lots of slave labour.

Finally, we decided on Crary Park as fulfilling most of the criteria and began the process of designing the work.

The Setting

(from "The Theatre of Confluence" - by R. Murray Schafer)

The setting is outdoors at night. A network of booths, towers, tents and kiosks is grouped about like those at small-town fairs of days gone by. There is one large stage, the Odditorium, on which the show opens and closes, and three large appropriately coloured tents to house the Rose Theatre, the Blue Theatre, and the Purple Theatre - the 'restricted shows,' so-called because one cannot obtain entry with normal coupons but has to win entry by playing the game shows or participating in other activities offering tickets as prizes.

But there are many other nodal points in the setting as well, such as the tents of the Gallery of Heroes and Heroines and the Palace of Mythical Beings, the Minotauromachy Maze or the continuous cabaret performances on the converted stage of the Odditorium. There is even a University Theatre where various professors pontificate and wrangle about the significance of the Patria works before a single bench seating, at most, four people.

I myself give a lecture in this tiny theatre, dressed as Wagner. The loops of the work are the small sideshows, the open booths and alleys between them, where solo performers and small groups play close to the public and interact with one another in competitive synergy.

The Greatest Show is simultaneously a setting of traditional theatre spaces where the audience and performers confront one another at a distance (the audience seated passively in the darkness, the performers active and lit), and of elastic spaces in which the performers can move right in on the audience often jostling them or engaging them in conversation. These are lively and intimate environments but they can easily be dissolved when the spectator strolls off to another attraction. This conjunction of contained and open spaces allows for a great variety of performance techniques in The Greatest Show; in fact I can think of no other work for the theatre which approaches it in this respect. Having twice participated in productions of the work, I can attest to the invigorating environment of this spatial variety which is never geometrical or finished off but is broken unpredictably by wing flats, soffits and coulisses, suggestive of the labyrinth which is the subtext of the entire work.

Standing at any point on the grounds you might see groups of people lined up waiting to enter a tent, others exiting from somewhere else, knots of spectators around roving performers, a distant group being led off into the darkness, only to be taken unawares by an actor as close as your nose, through whose gesticulating arms and raspy voice you catch the shrieks of an opera singer or of an Indian war dance behind your back. One feels at the epicentre of a great and uneven disturbance of colours, noise and music erupting everywhere throughout the grounds. Yes, all this is similar to walking down a busy street in one of the more cockeyed towns of the modern world. Both are colourful, simultaneous and haptic.

But the fair is not contoured for quick passage. It leads you out in all directions and holds you back at the same time. It demands participation; the hooks, yanks, lunges, and thrusts of the hawkers and hucksters make you the centre of attention.


Black Theatre...Part one