Featured Artist: Billie Wilson-Coffey
Fellow Byron Shire native Billie Wilson-Coffey is a circus performer, photographer and visual artist, based out of Brisbane, Australia. She is currently touring the world as a member of Australia’s most prolific circus company, C!RCA.
[Scroll through the gallery of photos above, they are beautiful. They are all pics taken by Billie! Apart from the one of her on the silks, which was taken by the excellent Darcy Grant, whose Black n Whites feature in this Article].
Billie grew up just outside of Mullumbimby, (Northern NSW, Australia) and I first met her when she was a young teen in Spaghetti Circus (renowned Youth Circus based in Mullum). She is a good friend but I have only recently found out about her visual art prowess. So when she happened to be in town recently we were able to catch up and have an interview/chat about her background, touring life, art and when do you feel comfortable about calling yourself an ‘artist’.
Here it is:
Hamish: When did you get into circus?
BWC: My mum took me as an 11 year old to Spaghetti Circus and at first I mainly did hula hooping and climbing trees haha. At that age I was a bit scrawny and little so Leonie Mills (Spaghetti Circus Founder) just picked me up and went – “we’re going to do double trapeze over here”. I joined the performance troupe when I was 12 and my debut was standing onstage waving 2 glass balls around being the inside of a flower! I was in the performance troupe til I left school. I loved it.
H: When did decide that Circus was want you wanted to do as a career?
BWC: In year 10 at school, Bridie Hooper (fellow C!RCA performer & Spaghetti Circus Alumni) left to go to the Fruities -Australia’s premier Youth Circus, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus – and I had that realisation that ‘you could go and do further training’. So when I left school I applied and got into NICA (The National Institute of Circus Arts), I wanted to be based in Australia and I wasn’t ready to go overseas, it felt like a natural step for me. Also these days I feel people are more aware of all the different options at a worldwide level and I wasn’t as aware of that at the time. Also I loved Melbourne, I had just left home and it was exciting.
H: And what do you think you got out of NICA?
BWC: Incredible training, in particular from the amazing Helene Embling (Master Aerial Trainer). Also the people in my year were doing all sorts of things – There was the Circus Firemen – Idris & Josh, Hannah Cryle & Caz Walsh (those 4 went on to form Pants Down Circus) and Sebastien Rideaux doing Magic- so lots of people were doing their own thing. I feel like I gained a great community in my year. A lot of them are still performing, having joined companies ( currently Julian Aldag and Jessica Ward are in Cirque Du Soleil ) or are doing their own solo or group work.
*NB: Billie graduated NICA in 2009, In her graduating year she made her international debut at the 4th World Circus Festival in Moscow. After graduation Billie traveled, did solo gigs and was part of some smaller group shows, before joining Circa as a guest artist in 2011 for the world premiere of of their show Nocturne in South Korea.
BWC: After that I moved to Brisbane, to the ‘hub’ there – Company 2, Casus, Ice Cream Factory, Vulcana – all of that was bubbling along, I lived there with B & Liv (fellow circus artists Bianca Mackail – 3 is a Crowd & Olivia Porter – Circus Oz, La Soiree) it was awesome, such a golden time for me. I was over Melbourne, over having to push myself in the commercial scene. So I just trained with all that crew and performed around the place at festivals and doing solo gigs. Then in 2013 I became part of the C!RCA ensemble and went on an 11 month tour which included an 8 month residency at the Chamaleon Theatre in Berlin performing the production Beyond.
H: How was that? Suddenly being thrown into an 11 month tour.
BWC: It was full on. I joined that cast with Bridie (From youth circus days), It was the first time we had reconnected since we were teenagers (9 years). So that was pretty magical and our experience in Berlin was awesome, exploring a new city together. Also finding out what performance life was really like, the demanding ‘full-time’ work when you have to go and do a show everyday. It cracks you I think.
That was a huge chunk of me learning and growing into a performer – how to be in an ensemble, command the stage, and how to be ‘You’ onstage, rather than a put on thing. Also the people in that show were amazing, I learn’t so much from them and created amazing bonds that I hold dearly with that crew.
*Performers & creatives on that show were – Paul & Katherine O’Keefe, Rudi Mineur, Darcy Grant, Emma McGovern, Skip Walker-Milne, Gerramy Marsden.
H: Since then, how much time do you spend touring in a year?
BWC: Around 10 months of the year is touring and about 8 of those is overseas.
H: How many different shows are you bouncing between when your on tour?
BWC: Theres a huge repertoire in C!RCA but theres 5 or 6 in my groups repertoire. Theres 3 bubbling currently. The Company has 3 troupes going full-time, which all tour as much as each other! We see the other troupes a little bit, then with productions like OPUS (which has 14 people), it brings us together and its amazing, then we break off again onto our different tours. Sometimes I’ll fill in if someone in another troupe is injured but usually the troupes stay pretty much the same group of people. Then it ‘resets’, usually in January each year.
H: How is that lifestyle for you, being away most of the year?
BWC: I love it, its awesome but when I am away I seek an anchor point I think and I relate straight back to this area (Byron Shire, Northern NSW), Spaghetti Circus etc and thats what I miss the most. Family & community. Its nice to come home and decompress. One side is that its hard to be away sometimes, you don’t have your community of friends but the other side is that I get to explore the world, performing in incredible venues and exposing people to Australian circus, its exhilarating – and being paid to do it!
H: How many people do you tour with?
BWC: We tour with 7 acrobats and a tour manager and a technical manager.
H: And what are your tips on keeping a healthy working relationship with a small crew of people when you tour that much?
- Socialise outside the work place, people are different and have a whole other life outside of the work place.
- Knowing and listening to yourself – know when you want to be sociable and when you just need your time, so you can save up a little bit and ‘want’ to be there. Thats kinda how I started drawing, it was like ‘arghh I just need me time’.
- Of course you have to talk about things that are going on in your life but try not to bring that negatively into the workplace, cause it leaks….and infects and it doesn’t make it enjoyable, it makes it harder and its isolating.
H: Do you have different people that your on tour with which are like; ‘this is the person you go check out stuff with’ or ‘this is the person if I want a late night kick on with’?
BWC: hahaha yeah. Fortunately we have a group that all get along and I definitely have the – ‘thats the person that I have coffee with and talk about ‘life things’ with or that person loves to take photo’s so if I’m going to go exploring and I don’t want to rush, I’ll go with them. Or thats the ‘cups of tea’ person.
H: On that, what hobbies do you have to keep sane?
BWC: I love to take my camera and just meander, I take my time and explore then find my way back to the accom. Post show its either you can go out for a drink and relax, get that adrenaline to chill out or I go home and draw. Depends too on where we are in the world and when it is – the winter months is more indoors activities.
H: Moving on to your visual art – what mediums do you use?
BWC: At the moment its fine line pen and water colours…they’re tour-able things.
H: where do you create your art?
BWC: If the weather permits its usually in a park and at the moment my subject is botanicals so that really helps, it gets me in the fresh air, the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. But when I first started this collection I’m working on now it was winter in Paris, it was hibernation time, so I had photos of Mum’s garden or Australian flora as inspiration.It felt like I was connecting with home and the process is meditative and sometimes mindless (repeating tiny strokes) and it is another creative outlet.
H: You’re about to do an exhibition – how do you feel about that? Is it the first time you’ve exhibited the work?
BWC: ahaha… its the first time the work has been seen outside of my lounge room and its nerve wracking…hahaha. I feel I have the adrenaline of opening a new show which is exactly what it is but its funny because circus has been a part of my world for so long, so performing it is like – oooh this is exciting but I trust in what I’m doing – where this is like… well I don’t know…… I’ve never been a visual artist, I never went to art school so I don’t know… maybe my technique’s wrong or whatever. Its different, trusting your voice in a different creative way.
H: do you feel vulnerable?
BWC: Yep. Definitely. Which is good. I can feel it now just talking to you about it.
H: So do you now call yourself a visual artist?
BWC: ………ummm I would call myself an artist.
H: is that because your wrapping the work you do as a performer up into that?
BWC: I think maybe because I am a performing artist, I feel comfortable with that, the nerves come from the ‘visual’ part. And because I do live performance it feels more fleeting and so if people like it or not its gone again as opposed to hanging on a wall.
*That was as far as we got to, before we were interrupted by my kids, ‘crash-cuddling’ Billie as they got home from school – she’s a bit of a favourite!
I hope you enjoyed our little chat.
NB: if you’re reading this and are in Brisbane before July the 6th, Billie’s exhibition BLOOM will be on in a little cafe Reverends fine coffee and bar, between June 24th – July the 6th – details here.
Links to more of Billie’s work:
More of Billies Photo’s on View Bug
Check the C!RCA website to keep up to date on where they are performing around the world.
Thank you to Darcy Grant (performer, director, photographer) for the use of the black n white stills featured in this article.
Heres a little video I made of Billie performing at the National Circus Festival, Golconda TAS in 2011:
And this is a little video I made about some C!RCA ensemble members giving the Spaghetti Circus performance troupe a master class. Its a little ‘meditation’, if you want, to the dedication and training that it takes to be a professional performer as well as a celebration of the passing on of knowledge to the next generation of performers. It wraps up this little article nicely because it features both Billie & Bridie teaching kids at their old circus! Featuring music by the inimitable Ben Walsh :
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