This week, Hamilton’s site-specific winter performance festival, Frost Bites, makes its way to audience members through digital manifestations and self-guided means. The responsibility for producing the Festival every year is given to the Fringe Festival’s ALERT team as a culminating project of the leadership training program.
One of this year’s ALERT team members is Hamilton artist Carly Billings. My first interaction with Carly was in Light Echo Theatre’s 2019 production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In the show’s programme Carly described herself as “a queer fat femme Italian Indigenous artist” and I wanted to know more about this dynamic and skilled performer. Since then, Carly has continued to step boldly into new performance opportunities including her work on the ALERT team and the many contingencies that her and her colleagues have faced in producing a Festival amongst changing government regulations. It was a delight speaking with Carly in time for Frost Bites’ premiere this week, to share about her artistry, being part of The ALERT program (and the team’s offering for Frost Bites under the name the Blue Light Collective), and preparing for a festival in these unpredictable times.
Carly highlights herself as being both a multidisciplinary artist and a storyteller. “Storytelling is in my blood,” she shares. “I’m Italian, and so that has always really influenced my work and my life…an identity that I’m also discovering and working to reclaim for myself recently is that I am an Anishinaabek performer as well…my great-grandmother was an Ojibwe woman and her status was taken from her when she married a white man”. Carly goes on to share how her identities shape her work. “I am interested in intersectionality and queer identity and how my personal identities navigate through the world and how I navigate through the world with them.” Alongside these identities and inquiries, comes the importance of joy and delight in her work; a focus which Carly shares is increasingly important in today’s pandemic world, and qualities she has utilized in preparation for this year’s Frost Bites. “We all do face different hardships for ourselves but I think that finding the joy in it, is in and of itself an act of rebellion and an act of…power. And that for me is really what drives most of my work is I just want to make people laugh.” In addition to manifesting itself through the ALERT program, Carly notes that this joyfulness has also spread into new artistic pursuits such as podcasting and stand-up comedy. “Being an artist, and doing what we do, it just, it’s hard to not have it seep into every day and be finding new and exciting projects and means of sharing and storytelling”.
The subject of new projects shifts attention to Carly’s latest work with the ALERT program in anticipation of Frost Bites. Carly was aware of the numerous uncertainties from the onset. “Going into the ALERT program when I applied and got accepted, I didn’t know what it was going to look like. Especially…because of this year, it felt like nobody knew what it was going to look like, in a pandemic world”. Team members began with a socially distanced backyard meeting, then meeting exclusively online via Zoom bi-weekly, weekly, and then a few days a week.
The name of the collective itself was inspired by those virtual meetings. “We’ve given ourselves the name of The Blue Light Collective because that’s like, our lives and how we see each other every few days,” Carly states. While Carly anticipated adapting throughout the program, what she didn’t expect was the stable and positive connection between her fellow Blue Light members; a foundation which has been formative to her ALERT experience. “Things I was expecting going into ALERT were, okay I’m going to form great professional relationships, I’m going to learn some new skills, I’m going to hone some skills I already have, I’m going to take on roles I haven’t taken on before…but I didn’t expect to come out of this with five new and renewed good friendships”. These connections between artists gives Carly additional optimism for how the festival will unfold. “It might be cliche,” she shares, “but I know we can do anything”.
Not only is The Blue Light Collective responsible for producing the festival but also for devising an original piece as part of the festival. Carly shares that this opportunity to be part of the festival was “such a gift” as it was something she had wanted to do for a long time. As an artist who usually works in live theatre, excitement also came with apprehensions toward creating a specifically digital performance. “It hasn’t been without its curveballs,” Carly admits. “Our venues changed multiple times, our format’s changed day-to-day, week-to-week, and what is possible, what was possible, especially with changing public health guidelines… it’s been really interesting”. While other Frost Bites performers headed into the festival with show proposals and venues in mind, Blue Light Collective had a vast landscape of options. “We were able to take our show and devise it for anywhere in Hamilton and it was almost too much,” Carly recalls of the process.
In addition to drawing upon the numerous workshops and tools provided to them in the ALERT program, Carly shares how the Collective asked itself the question of, “What does interest us?” and devising from that place of curiosity that she knows so well. The resulting ideas formed the title of The Blue Light Collective’s piece missed CONNECTIONS. This online and “audience-centered experience” explores, as Carly explains, “communication through the ages; different forms of communication and how they inform our relationships today or our communication today, or don’t.” While the project itself was created during a time when communicating changes was constant, Carly remarks on the benefits of this unpredictability. “It’s nice to have parameters that you don’t expect because I think you as an artist, you realize how resilient you are and how resilient what you’re making is especially with a team that is just as ready as you [are] to ‘yes and’ it into existence.”
When asked what she is most excited about for the Frost Bites festival, it is having missed CONNECTIONS make its way out into the world. “In our very online-Zoom-connected world we think that we’re more connected now than ever but a lot of people are still feeling a really big loneliness and a big disconnect and I think that maybe or maybe not, some of that can be recovered with looking at different ways of communication through history and how people have adapted and changed”. In the way that Carly and the Blue Light Collective have connected together during this pandemic, they hope missed CONNECTIONS bring audiences on a similar journey to experience their neighborhood, their surroundings, and their own ways of being, and that the show brings an opportunity to investigate things that may have often “gone unnoticed.” Carly remarks, “The past has so much to teach us presently…we’re not so far removed from our ancestors, people from the past who we think are so different than us…humans have always been humans.”
Carly recognizes the struggles that many artists are facing due to the constant demands of adapting in an already challenging time. She has found meaning in change and in stillness. “If this year’s taught me anything, it’s taught me resilience and…adapt. And that doesn’t mean that in adapting you’re giving up or you’re losing something it just means you’re changing, and we’re always changing…another thing I’ve learned this year is that we’re always in motion. Always in motion. Stillness is just the in-between of the next motion. It’s just…the hum between notes…there is no stillness, there’s just a waiting. And there’s power in waiting”.
To learn more about Carly you can check-out her website, follow her on Instagram @mscarlybillings, her theatre company Afterlife Theatre Co and The Blue Light Collective.
The Blue Light Collective’s performance of missed CONNECTIONS can be experienced as part of Frost Bites this Thursday February 11th to Sunday February 14th. Tickets are available through the Hamilton Fringe Festival.
Editor’s note: As part of our values, it is noted that the writer of this article is also performing in the 2021 Frost Bites Festival.