Alice Mary Cooper mixes fact and fiction in a play about the swimmer who invented the butterfly stoke
5:00am Friday 9th May 2014
By Dominic Smith
Any keen swimmers who’ve ever struggled to master the butterfly might see the majestic stroke quite differently after the fantastical journey imagined in this Brighton Fringe Emerging Talent- nominated show.
It’s a slice of historical fiction presented by Alice Mary Cooper, who invites the audience to the wake of self-effacing swimming star Elizabeth, who has left her native Australia and moved to the UK.
That move is one of a few similarities between Cooper and her heroine. They both love swimming and each developed their own form of butterfly.
Writer, producer and performer Cooper reveals she created her own brand when she was a child by combining breaststroke kicks with butterfly arms because her legs were not strong enough at the time.
She excelled for a while but when her coach said it was time to change to the proper stroke she quit competition.
In Waves, Cooper plays a friend of swimming star Elizabeth, who takes the audience to a small room to tell them a story about this pioneering swimmer, who invented the butterfly. It moves between fact and fiction and is not a documentary.
“It’s a tragedy that sparks her to swim,” explains Cooper.
“She lives on Gabo Island, off the coast of Victoria, which is known for its pink granite lighthouse, which is the second oldest in Australia.
“Now the island is a national park, but before it was occupied by sailors. The waters are treacherous and she grew up on the island because her dad was a mason from Italy brought over to restore the lighthouse.
“She was taught to swim and to not fear the ocean.”
It is depression-era Australia and money is tight. Elizabeth’s life changes when her cricket-loving brother jumps in the sea to get a cricket ball he’s spotted. Disaster follows.
“She runs down and tries to save him but he drowns. She manages to get back to shore, but after that she hates the sea.
She screams at it every day for months and months. One day, she looks at the sea and it is calm and hot, she wants to put her feet in, but she’s made a vow never to swim after her brother was taken by the vicious sea.
“But she begins to talk to the sea, to make it into a person. That conversation goes on for months and she learns that maybe the sea is not this horrible monster that has taken her brother.
“Her brother was too small and got lost in the sea so she changes her idea of what it is.
“She begins to learn how to swim from sea life.”
The piece grew from a short story Cooper wrote for a friend’s literary magazine, Jean Marie, which is based in Brittany.
Later she began to create a story for a life based on the original tale and this was then chosen for an Ideas Tap grant to perform at a Storytelling Festival.
Over the past year, since performing Waves at Edinburgh Festival in 2013, she’s honed the production with the help of industry experts.
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