Performing seal in play on Civic stage

By Dionne Christian

Stuntwoman Rosalie van Horik takes the rough with the smooth, writes Dionne Christian

Being a target and cannon fodder are all part of the job. Photo/Robert Catto
Being a target and cannon fodder are all part of the job. Photo/Robert Catto

If you're feeling the heat this summer, spare a thought for dancer and stuntwoman Rosalie van Horik.

One of the stunt doubles in The Hobbit movie trilogy, van Horik is now rehearsing for the play 360 in a building where the mercury regularly hits 40C, but she can't strip down to shorts and a T-shirt because she's wearing a full-body seal suit.

And not just any old seal suit. It was custom-crafted to fit her exact proportions and its creation involved hours of being slathered in plaster, with her arms propped in seal flipper position, so a full body cast and then costume could be made.

"There's limited vision and air circulation and it gets very hot. It's a good job I'm not claustrophobic because a lot of my work involves 'creature work' and being dressed in various prosthetics and restrictive costumes. This is a different experience because the characters I usually play (such as elves in The Hobbit) are drawn from fantasy whereas this was based on a real animal. I went seal-watching and had a lot of fun learning about them."

The suit is so restrictive that van Horik has to be zipped in and out of it and accompanied by a full-time wrangler during each performance.

She says portraying a performing seal is a different experience. But there's a lot in 360 most of us probably haven't seen before: indoor fireworks, a young woman shot out of a cannon above the heads of the audience, a swan that swims around spectators, and a chance to sit on the Civic stage in a swivel seat so you move with the story which takes place on a circular stage.

It's the tale of Gee, a prodigal son who walked away from his family of circus-performing siblings (Adam Gardiner and Olivia Tennet), their big-hearted but domineering dad (Andrew Grainger) and their beloved pet seal (van Horik) to find his own fame and fortune. Because Gee is seen at various times in his life, he's played by three actors: Milo Cawthorne, Gareth Reeves and Bruce Phillips.

Being a target and cannon fodder are all part of the job. Photo/Robert Catto
Being a target and cannon fodder are all part of the job. Photo/Robert Catto

It was commissioned in 2008 by the New Zealand International Arts Festival and the Auckland Festival after the latter called for "ambitious and adventurous works" which, says director Ben Crowder, might normally not have received funding.

It had its debut in Wellington in 2010, earning high praise from reviewers who described it as extraordinary, thrilling and stunningly original. Its 2011 Auckland season did not eventuate, partly because of the demands involved in staging it.

The circular set has the audience seated in the middle on swivel chairs so they can spin around to follow the turn of frequently surprising events; sound and lighting follows the 360-degree concept. A huge space is required to fit the set and performance spaces of that size are usually for large-scale productions.

In Auckland, the whole thing is performed on the capacious Civic stage and, although there's room for 2500 people in the theatre itself, there is space at 360 for just 80 who wind their way through the narrow passages and corridors of the Civic to get to their seats.

If it sounds like a gimmick, it's not, says co-writer Carl Bland who wrote the play with his late partner and creative collaborator, Peta Rutter.

He says the staging and encouraging the audience to move with the story was simply the most effective way to tell the tale.

"It was originally a drawing which had been hanging around in a notebook but we decided it was a nice way to tell the story of a prodigal son whose story ends at the same place it began.

"It's an intrinsic part of the story and the right way to tell it rather than reflecting a desire to make a 'wacky' show. We didn't set out to do something which was tricky or gimmicky or different for the sake of it."

Van Horik, Cawthorne and Tennet, who were in the original cast, are pleased to get a chance to reprise the intricately choreographed and precisely timed show. Tennet describes it as very physical but also poetical and wonderfully imaginative.

Cawthorne says he's just glad he's not in the seal suit.

"I wore it for a photo shoot and I've got to say I really don't know how Rosalie does it."

What: 360
Where & when: The Civic, January 13- 25

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