Riding the Waves

Alice Mary Cooper at the Civic Theatre, Ōtaki
Alice Mary Cooper at the Civic Theatre, Ōtaki

The one woman show Waves opened its New Zealand Festival tour in Ōtaki’s Civic Theatre to two very different audiences; 180 plus year nine and 10 students and the evening show 60 adults.

“I’m aware I’m constantly reading the audience to keep them with you,” Alice Mary Cooper said at an interview with the Ōtaki Mail, following the afternoon performance.

The students were from very different schools — Ōtaki College and Te Ra Waldorf School in Raumati. She had shown an incredible ability to draw the odd “wriggler” back into the onstage action seamlessly, during the 50 minute performance.

The play itself, tells the fictional story of Elizabeth Moncello, who lived on Gabo Island 600 metres off the north-west coast off Victoria Australia. The family, 1930’s English immigrants, where neither she nor her young brother could swim. They were brought up to fear the sea, but some years after he drowned she discovered freedom and pleasure in the water and taught herself to swim, by emulating the aquatic animals — penguins, fish, seals and dolphin and the Brothers Grimm story, The Little Mermaid, until she came up with her dolphin/butterfly stroke and was eventually selected for the Australian swim team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics where she won gold in the 200 metre breaststroke final, using her own stroke!

On opening, Alice Mary plays a carer telling the story of Elizabeth’s amazing life as told to her by Elizabeth in her later years. She acts out Elizabeth and her brother living on the island, trying to rescue him from drowning when he tried to get his precious cricket ball from the sea, she performs her attempts to be fish, penguin and so on until she could dive like a penguin and shoot upwards like a dolphin. At times she sits quietly reciting the story. Sometimes it’s a little bit sad, but it’s a lot of fun, as she carried both audiences with her until the finale, 95 year Elizabeth’s final swim.

“It’s a montage of the early woman swimmers,” she said.

Butterfly stroke was her favourite stroke when she was growing up in Sydney, as a child she didn’t like school much, but did enjoy the afterschool drama classes, which led her into semi-professional theatre for five years performing in Fringe Festivals and solo shows before professional theatre over the last three years.

Following the schools performance, there was a session of question and answers with the students, with some very insightful questions asked.

“How did you learn all those lines?”

“I realised I couldn’t remember every word so made them into a series of comic strips and over the years I’ve learned them all.”

She told them she has trained in different places, she still swims three times a week, does yoga and has a 45 minute warm-up routine before every show. The reporter watched part of her warmup routine amazing what she put herself through and 15 minutes later she took to the stage to perform!

“Is that her brother’s cricket ball she got out of the sea?” one young lad asked of the ball used as a prop during the telling of the story! To the technical ones – how do you make the lights dark and light and change colour and how many power cables do you use! A wave from upstairs and the lighting operator takes the “limelight’ and explains the operation of the lights and use of coloured cellophane over lights for the blue and green effects of the underwater and each light has two cables – 20 lights for this show with one light/sound operator working over two tables.

And the favourite part for several — when 95 year old Elizabeth swam out to sea and swam and swam and swam, until silence and darkness. Adults also found this ending very emotive and moving.

Although the evening performance had a much smaller and very different audience, the people travelled through Elizabeth’s story with the performer, laughing, for some a few tears, but all leaving amazed at the ability and agility of the actor with barely a pause throughout the performance.

For Mary Alice Cooper there would be 20 performances of Waves during three weeks performing at NZ Festival in Ōtaki, Carterton and Wellington, then Auckland and other northern towns. Waves is part of the festival’s On The Road shows, taking shows around the region.