In the Swim with Alice Mary Cooper

In her all-ages performance piece Waves, the eclectic Australian artist imagines the life of a woman 'credited' with creating the butterfly stroke

Alice Mary Cooper (32) is an Australian performer living in Edinburgh who just happens to have been born in England. Her artistic biography is equally multi-faceted. A self-described 'actor, clown and theatre maker', Cooper's new show, Waves, which opens at the MAC on May 18, started life as a piece of fiction. 'I wrote a short story about a very old woman being looked after in a care home for a French magazine, Jean Marie,' she says. 'It was quite short, 1000 words, and I chose the character for the feel of it. In the story, I referenced a famous Australian swimmer, Fanny Durack, and I used to swim at the Fanny Durack pool in Sydney.'

The theatre piece is ostensibly about this woman, Elizabeth Moncello, who invented the butterfly stroke after losing her brother in a swimming tragedy. We meet her as an old woman now in a care home. Cooper says it was not difficult to assume the mantle of old age. 'Because I am not becoming Elizabeth on stage but am assuming her perspective. When writing the story I was swimming at a pool and met a lovely New Zealand woman in her late sixties or early seventies and I was thinking about her.'

And the subject matter, around the swimming stroke that takes its shape from fish, is close to Alice's heart. 'The butterfly was always my stroke but it isn’t my favourite any more. It’s easier when you’re younger.' The story has in fact undergone a sort of sea change, she reveals. 'The tragedy came later. My character originally says she doesn’t want to eat fish and chips which leads into the plot and it ends as she goes down to the beach and swims out to sea. So it’s about the end of life.'

It may also be about how we see reality. For the truth is Cooper's plausible plot and main character have no basis in fact at all, although they have bags of verisimilitude. In other words, made-up performance can be truer than you think. 'I hadn’t thought about that but I am interested in the question of truth,' she offers. 'In my head, it’s true. Stories often begin with characters and if you’re a storyteller, you have to shape-shift different people. Children often ask me about Waves, "Is it a real story?" and I say "It is a true story"'. As she says, it contains a lot of the elements of her growing up in Australia.

Waves was an Edinburgh Festival hit last summer and reviewers praised it as the 'wackiest show at the festival' and 'a modest gem', while one critic noted Cooper as being 'an engaging performer and her rapport with audiences is obvious'. She trained as a clown at the Philippe Gaulier school in Paris after finishing her degree in theatre and film at Melbourne University. 'Clowning isn’t usually on the careers officer's list but I remember as a child seeing Marcel Marceau live in Sydney.' She was captivated.

Cooper's family often went to the theatre and one of the first productions that impressed her was a version of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. 'I remember this amazing staging by the Sydney Theatre Company with these enormous animals, including very big giraffes.' Other early influences include The Goon Show, thanks to Cooper’s English father. 'We listened to it on the radio and I loved Peter Sellers,' she recalls. 'I thought The Party was brilliant and my brother and I giggled at it forever.' Her brother did not acquire the performing bug though, and now works for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. Cooper describes herself as the 'strange middle child', the one who wants to be different.

Have audiences varied between Cooper's native Australia and New Zealand, where Waves has so far been on tour? 'Not necessarily, but age groups differ in their reaction,' she says. 'In Auckland, we'd get school groups in the day, adults in the evening. At the Art in Action Festival in Oxford, I had an audience of 10-year-old boy scouts brought by their scout leader, and they loved the story and started copying me. They were full of beans. Elsewhere we had one group of 17-year-old boys and I thought it might not be their cup of tea, but it was.' She adds that she does not change the script but will adapt it to suit different audiences, an approach that chimes with her clown training. 'In a nutshell I learnt to be beautiful on stage, how to have presence and about being sensitive to the audience. So Waves is in a way a dialogue with the audience.'

Eclectic is the right adjective for Alice Mary Cooper's output. After producing Waves, she went on to gain a commission from Harlow Playhouse in Essex to produce a work entitled The Box about a First World War time capsule. She has also produced theatre around her political views and is a supporter of the Green Party. 'Tomorrow I am doing a workshop about climate change and sustainability for Creative Carbon Scotland,' she explains. 'It's a storytelling exercise and an experiment. The story is about the bushfires in Australia and maybe people here will relate to it because of floods and other events. I explore what happens when a community has to leave its home. What will they put in their suitcases? Will a child take their teddy, will they need a hug?'

As a consumer of the arts, Cooper says her tastes are catholic. 'Recently I saw the Australian Malthouse Theatre at the Lyceum put on a dramatic version of Picnic at Hanging Rock which was brilliant. I enjoy a lot of new things at the Traverse Theatre,' she says. 'I work as an usher at the Usher Hall, part of my link with Edinburgh Council, which is good as you get to see a range of work. You don't want to stay in a vacuum.' Having said that, she admits she would like to see more live music, having enjoyed a recent gig by Johnny Flynn, of Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit ('It was very nice').

Bringing Waves to the MAC involves Cooper's first visit to Belfast but her Northern Irish friends have been filling her in. 'I've heard great things about the MAC from my friends. I think theatre can be like going for a cup of tea. You need a balance between something warm and nourishing but it needs to take you out of your life for a moment, to think about things beyond you.'

Her future plans include more work and staying in the Northern hemisphere, for now. 'I'm rooted for now and am happy I'm an associate with Imaginate – the arts company for young people - in Edinburgh. Coming from Australia means you have a different sense of geography so going down to London is easy, quicker than going to Melbourne when at home in Sydney. Also, living in the UK means living in Europe; I am obviously anti-Brexit.'

In terms of performance philosophy, Cooper has a fitting summary for an artist with her particular disciplines: 'The clown wants to be loved but we only do things the audience want. We're open to what we receive and can change the story half way through.'

Before her gender was known, it was decided Cooper would be named after her father's best friend Alistair. She worked out that as a professional performer she would have to alter her stage name, or risk disappointing followers of the reverend with black hair who pretends to dismember reptiles. 'Yes, I added my middle name,' she laughs, 'although if I'd kept the name Alice Cooper, I might be filling larger halls.' Even so, whether it's shock rock you prefer or theatre based on a swimming technique, it may just be a case of different strokes for different folks.

Waves comes to the MAC, Belfast on May 18 and 19, with performances at 8.00pm on both days. Tickets are priced £12.50-£18. For booking visit www.themaclive.com or call 028 9023 5053.