Ted Grambeau is a legend in surfing circles.
For the past four decades he’s been one of the leading photographers of the sport, its personalities and of the ocean environment.
He’s also the creator of The Surfer and the Mermaid, a book for children coming to the stage by director Leland Kean for Merrigong Theatre Company.
It has been, says Kean, who is Merrigong’s artistic development manager, the most unusual back-story of any children’s book he can think of.
“Ted was in Tonga [in 2007] to take photographs of humpback whales for a book by surfer and eco-activist Dave Rastovich,” Kean says.
“What Ted didn’t know was that Dave’s then girlfriend, Hannah Fraser, was a model and a professional mermaid.”
“They all hopped in a boat and went cruising the reefs off Tonga and came across a massive pod of humpback whales. Hannah threw on her mermaid tail and went swimming and Ted jumped in the water and took these incredible photos of Dave and with the humpbacks.”
When Grambeau released the photographs, Kean says, many people couldn’t quite believe their eyes. It had to be some kind of trick, a manipulation.
“But that’s one of the incredible things about the pictures. Those are the images he saw. They’re straight out of the camera.”
Meeting a mermaid
Those images eventually caught the eye of author Tim Baker, and The Surfer and the Mermaid, a story of a boy who is captured by a mermaid and taken to meet the whales and see from their perspective what humankind is doing to the oceans. “He’s gifted with a lesson to show his friends and to find a way of teaching the world about how we’re damaging the ocean and what we can do to fix it,” Kean says.
The Merrigong production, which plays at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre from July 18-20, is an expanded version of an earlier adaption seen in 2012 at the Bleach Festival on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
“The original show was really simple,’ says Kean. “Just an actor on stage with Ted’s images projected on a screen behind him as he told the story. But one of the things that I would hear at the end of the show – particularly from the little girls – was ‘where is the mermaid?’”
Enter video artist Mic Gruchy (with whom Kean worked on Merrigong Theatre Company’s The Lost Boys in 2018) and Wollongong University-trained actor Lucy Heffernan, who suited up for a mermaid-themed photo session.
“Mic shot her from various different angles so that we’re able to animate the mermaid,” says Kean. “The show has Lucy’s voice in there, too, which really helps bring the character to life.”
Kean and Gruchy are both surfers. “My obsession with the ocean, both above and under the water, has been life-long,” Gruchy says.
“We wanted to make a really magical space for the children’s imagination in the theatre. They will be totally immersed in the story, literally feeling like they are under the ocean. It will be a deep and magical space.”
The video effects include footage taken at Garie Beach, near Helensburgh (“a very unspoiled coastline,” says Gruchy) and stock footage of plastics pollution and coral reefs. Grambeau’s still images are made to move with motion graphics software.
“We used Adobe After Effects to create rippling and bubbles over the photos and a wave sequence where the young surfer gets wiped out,” says Gruchy. “And we have a whole series of underwater shots looking up into the sunlight with rippling effects. It gives you a beautiful, immersive sense of motion. It really draws you in and down with the mermaid.”
In keeping with the show’s message, designer Katja Handt’s set for The Surfer and the Mermaid is in part made from the very things that do so much harm to the ocean environment – the ubiquitous plastic bottle.
When you’re making a show for a new generation of environmentally savvy young audiences (Kean says the show is pitched at children aged 4 and above), it’s important to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
“The whole set, which is like a giant wave, is built from recycled materials,” explains Kean. “Even the projection screen we’re using is part of an old damaged one from our big theatre. We’re trying to build the entire show with an environmental focus and have that guide our practice as much as possible.”
The message delivered in The Surfer and the Mermaid is one of hope.
It’s also a call to action for all to work toward the health of our oceans at a time when they are facing unprecedented challenges from global warning, acidification and pollution.
Kean is hoping to take the show to a national audience.
“It goes to the Bleach festival in 2020 and, fingers crossed, the idea is to try to make it travel as far as possible, especially to communities on the coast.
“It’s like everything we do at Merrigong. We’re always looking for that opportunity to give a production a longer life and connect to regional audiences.
The Surfer and the Mermaid plays IPAC, Wollongong, July 18-20