Five years ago, the Fringe Festival– traditionally a summer event- expanded its theatrical offerings with Frost Bites. They haven’t looked back.

A site-specific, winter performance festival, Frost Bites takes place over several days each January or February and encourages local artists to create unique “bite-sized” theatrical works that last no more than 20-minutes each. As a site-specific festival, Frost Bites requires a new venue every year which, Fringe Festival Executive Director Claire Calnan acknowledges is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Calnan recalled one year where Frost Bites took place in a building undergoing a transformation. Construction delays meant that audiences were required to have staggered entry times and one performance space was left without any windows, leaving both audience members and actors in the cold.  Although this meant the festival didn’t go as initially planned, Calnan is insistent she has no regrets.

“Every year is different,” Calnan reflects. “When we choose a venue, we want it to be interesting to the community. That means that it could be historically interesting, or currently interesting, but there needs to be significant.”

This year’s Frost Bites Festival, at the Hamilton Waterfront Trust, fit these criteria well. Despite its only 20-year history, the Waterfront Trust has become a local legend. Founded in 2000, the Trust’s purpose was to connect the public to the waterfront. This was done through the building of trails, a year-round rink and restaurants such as Williams Café and Sarcoa (which was shut down in 2017 and subsequently sued the city). Hamilton’s waterfront became the center of a scandal in late 2019 after it was announced that the city had covered-up a long-time sewage spill into Chedoke Creek and Cootes Paradise.  

While not all of this information was publicly known when Winterfest initially approached Calnan to host Frost Bites at the Waterfront Trust, being part of a larger event and community also fit into the goals of the Festival. Frost Bites will share the space not just with Winterfest, but also the Hamilton Aerial Group (who performs following Frost Bites on February 12-15). However, Calnan is quick to point out that Frost Bites will likely utilize spaces within and around the Waterfront Trust that the other groups may not.

While some may see site-specific theatre as a creative challenge, performer and participant in this year’s Frost Bites Festival, Grace Smith, saw it as an opportunity. Smith spent the summer touring her Fringe show, Slow Dancing with Mediocre Boys. Due to the nature of Fringe Festivals, that show was required to be able to work in any type of room; whereas Smith sees the Frost Bites Festival as the opposite- the opportunity to fully explore the potential of one particular space. However, Smith came upon challenges after selecting her performance area- a confined room with traditional chairs that is a combination of a screening room and lecture hall.

“There were a few weeks of writer’s block where I felt trapped by the venue. I was worried that whatever idea I decided on wouldn’t make enough use of the space. In a Festival like this, you want to use the space, but you don’t want to do something you could do in any theatre.”

Smith’s end result, a production entitled The Smartest Person in the Room explores academia and imposter syndrome. The idea came to her while in the space as she experienced flashbacks about her own experiences both as a university student and as a lecturer.

Over the course of the Festival, Smith and her fellow creators will perform their works multiple times. Shows in the Frost Bites Festival are a maximum of twenty minutes each, allowing audience members to engage with multiple performances over the course of a single evening.

For Calnan, these shorter performance times are critical to maintaining the Festival’s accessibility and value to the communities served by Frost Bites.

“Site-specific theatre challenges our ideas of theatre, which can sometimes feel like a closed institution that is open to a privileged few. Frost Bites aims to challenge that. We appear where people are, instead of asking people to come to us. And for watchers of site-specific theatre, it brings memories and creates memories, which can change the geography of a space by making it personal. And because everything is under twenty minutes, it’s as much a party and event as it is a theatre-going experience.”

Who: Various Artists
What: Frost Bites Festival
Where: Hamilton Waterfront Trust Centre (57 Discovery Drive)
When: January 30 – February 2, 2020, beginning at 7pm each evening
Tickets: $25 for adults; $15 for children per evening. A Frequent pass (access on multiple days) is $40 through the Hamilton Fringe Festival

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