A Little Business at the Big Top at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

A Little Business at the Big Top. Photo credit: R. Rado.

A Little Business at the Big Top. Photo credit: R. Rado.

A Little Business at the Big Top by David Gaines
August 11, 13 – 15, 17, 18, 21 at Venue #4: The Academy at King Edward
More information: davidgainesperformance.com/

An interview with David Gaines.

Describe your show in five words.

One guy, big circus, breathtaking!

Okay, now that we’re intrigued… what’s the longer description?

It’s like Chaplin meets Popeye, stuffed inside a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The show opens and by the end of one hour I have created, in the audience’s mind, a whole circus, complete with tent, the circus audience (over 400, at last count, but attendance varies), and all the acts, danger, thrills, glamour, and romance of the circus – both in the ring and behind the scenes.

How do I do it? Ah – that’s the secret. I portray each tiny part of the mosaic of the show one piece at a time – using posture, gesture, vocal shenanigans, and not a little physical comedy to make a spectacular, funny, and at times sweet and romantic story come to life in the audience’s willing imagination.

If you are familiar with my last show – 7(x1) Samurai, which was highly acclaimed and held over 6 years ago when I was last here, it is a very similar style. Only in this show, less swords, more heart.

It tells the story of the lowly elephant-poop-scooper at the circus, in love with the ballerina of the high-wire, running the popcorn stand outside the big tent. The fun comes from watching the performer (me) running around like crazy being all the characters (the cruel Ringmaster, the audience, and all the acts and animals at the circus), and from all the physical comedy in the show.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you may even shed a tear, at this sweet and funny romantic comedy that takes place at the circus, in the theatre, in the imagination of your mind.

A Little Business At The Big Top is a visual experience created through mime, clown and gibberish noises. How do all of these elements come together in the show?

Quite well, I think! The story is big, with lots of characters and lots of physical comedy. So I have to use everything I can – my body, gestures, mimed objects, and vocal effects – to make each moment as clear and entertaining to the audience as possible.

There are several locations (inside and outside the tent, in the ring, at the popcorn stand, on the high-wire…); there are many characters (the main leads, the circus performers, the animals, the circus audience…), and even different points of view (long-shot of the tent being raised, tight-shot of the lion tamer’s chest-hairs, detail of each blow in the fight scene…).

There is no set, no props, and no identifiable language, so everything the audience gets is through the visuals and the noises I make with my mouth. Some of those noises are onomatopoeic (“Ping!”, “Oof!”, “tweet-tweet-tweet!”, etc.), and some are gibberish – the sounds of talking, but without any real words. This gibberish allows the style to be less precious than “mime”, and allows for the emotional tone and intent of a character to be conveyed (to another character and to the audience), without limiting it to a specific language. It allows the audience to enjoy that delightful experience of understanding what is going on between people even though you don’t speak the language. You know, like watching people arguing (or dating) through a picture window.

And because of the visual storytelling, the show can be entertaining to a very wide range of audience members. Certainly, the show is designed for adult audiences, but kids can laugh at it just as much – if not more! And the lack of language allows deaf or foreign-language audience members to enjoy it just as much as the person sitting next to them.

The comment that I get most often from audience members is that they are amazed and quite proud of themselves that they could see and follow every detail of the play, even though it was all created out of thin air! Some people have an idea that mime will be hard to understand, but when it is done well, in fact the opposite is true. And you will hardly see it done better than in this show, by the performer of whom the Cincinnati Enquirer said, “Finally, a good excuse for mime!”.

The clown aspect of the show is not only in the events – lots of very funny physical comedy, but also in the characters themselves, which are drawn in exaggeration of their most ridiculous aspects. The lion tamer, for example, is preposterously manly. And the central characters are – like true clowns – stand-ins for our own humanity. They are sensitive, hopeful, dream-filled, incompetent but well-intentioned, and ridiculous. Just like us.

You say the show is reminiscent of a silent movie but in the style of an animated cartoon. Can you talk a bit more about this style and how you create it in A Little Business At The Big Top?

It is reminiscent of a silent movie in that all the situations, action and characters are conveyed visually, without any text – either between characters (as in, “Darling, let’s run away together to where your father will never find us..”) or narration to the audience (“The next thing I knew, I was looking up a fluorescent lights with a bump on my head the size of a large martini…”). In addition to sparing the audience such insufferable lines as those above, it allows the audience to focus in more on the action as their cue to the situation, the relationships, and what might happen next.

This focus on visual storytelling is unusual; most theatre (particularly comedy) relies more on what is said than what is seen. But in this show, it is easy for audiences to follow the visual language, because it is essentially the language of film: establishing shot, characters in action, close-ups of particular details, back to the main action, jump cut to different camera angle or new location, etc.

The advantage to the style is that it allows you to move VERY FAST – which is the pace of classic animated cartoons. You can throw a punch as one character, change, and be the other character receiving the punch in the wink of an eye. Indeed, you can even control time in this style – cutting back in time to view an incident from another perspective. It is that complete liberty – with characters, events, space, and time, that makes it so perfectly suited to the absurd and ridiculous language and imagery of cartoons.

There is a big advantage to creating the show in the audience’s imagination rather than in set, props, and costumes. Because to actually DO some of the things that are presented in this circus would take an AWFUL LOT of practice. Better to do them in the audience’s imagination – that way no one gets hurt!*

* (Incidentally – I should point out that although there are animals in this show (a lion, a monkey, a dog, and even an elephant!), because they exist only in the audience’s imagination, no animals are actually harmed, or even caged, in this performance.)

A Little Business At The Big Top doesn’t include many (if any!) props. How does this give freedom to both the performer and the audience?

Freedom from props allows me to do anything my imagination can dream up (like juggle, or walk a tight-rope), as well as change quickly from one character or point-of-view to another to “follow the story”.

This ability to do quick changes of imagery is particularly useful in a big spectacle like A Little Business at the Big Top, where you need to juggle a number of story lines at the same time (what’s happening in the circus ring, what’s going on with the romantic comedy, what about the Ringmaster, what’s going on up on the high-wire, etc.). And as the pace picks up, hurtling toward the climax, this cutting back and forth with greater and greater speed and dexterity becomes enthralling, and quite breathtaking (and EXHAUSTING!).

Anything else you want audiences to know about the show?


(1)It is a kind of theatre that you have never seen before, and it will take your breath away. (Lord knows it takes mine away).

(2)It is very, very funny. You will laugh, you will cheer, and you may even shed a tear at this sweet and funny extravaganza of theatricality packed into a one hour show at the Fringe.

(3)Like a Pixar film, or The Simpsons, it is very funny for adults, but also very funny for kids.

(4)Don’t delay. The last time I came to Edmonton Fringe was 6 years ago (with the acclaimed and held-over 7(x1) Samurai). I am only doing this show 7 times in Edmonton, and I’d like to share it with as many people as possible. After those 7 shows are done, it’s likely to be another 6 years before I’m back. So, “HURRY! HURRY! STEP RIGHT UP! YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS THIS SHOW!”

The 35th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is August 11 – 21. Get your tickets at tickets.fringetheatre.ca.

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