An Unforgettable Trip through the Hilarious Bowels of Hades
Frogs Under the Waterfront was an adaption of Aristophanes’ The Frogs performed under the Wellington Waterfront with the audience in paddleboats. The concept caught the public imagination right away and it became a big hit of the year, winning Fringe Awards and later being nominated for Best New Director and Most Original Production at the Chapman Tripp Wellington Theatre Awards.
The show was divided into three acts, each act separated by a relocation of the audience via paddleboat. The first scene took place in a cut-out in the waterfront, with the audience sitting in traverse as Dionysus and Xanthias ask advice of Hercules before their trip into the underworld. This scene was in full view of the public, and we’d often draw crowds of hundreds as the frogs stood on exposed pilings and sang. Charon would arrive with a caravan of 15 paddleboats, and the paying audience would be loaded in and taken into the darkness deep beneath the waterfront (Hades) for acts two and three.
I went first with a large red row boat full of all gas lanterns, extra fuel (all the scenes were lit with open flame camping lanterns), and all the 'backstage' props and costumes. The point on the waterfront boardwalk that this coincides with under the waterfront is marked with a red dot and labeled 'Act 2' on the map to the right. I’d usually tug another row boat with a kayak placed inside for me to pull out and use later, as I'd generally spend the duration of the show in my kayak, surveying, making sure everything was running smoothly.
Looking at the map below you can see a long stretch under the waterfront: travelling underneath this was quite an exciting little daily journey. Depending on the tide I’d kneel or stand at the front of the row boat, grab the evenly spaced rafters above my head and fling myself onwards down through the mussel covered pilings. The boats towed by my row boat would bump and crack against the pilings behind me as I whizzed through the narrow gaps. You see, there wasn’t quite enough space between the pilings for traditional rowing as such, so this was the only logical form of propulsion. Movement would consist of flinging myself and the boats forward as described and then ducking to dodge the hanging metal, errant wires and low lying rafters. This was especially exhilarating in high seas with heavy waves. Every actor also brought over a paddle boat or two. There were 15 boats to bring over in total.
I’d leave the props, costumes and lanterns on the set for the actors to further set up, and then I’d hop in my kayak and make trips back and forth from the performance area to the boat shed to make sure everything was running smoothly. Surprisingly it usually was.
Being the height of summer, there were throngs of schoolchildren leaping from the waterfront into the waters of our performance area. They took to waiting until we were at a distance sufficient for an attack and then bomb into the water, soaking the actors and all our gear in the process. I couldn’t seem to reason with them, as is often the case with schoolchildren, but eventually we did come to a compromise. I would allow every one of them, for every night of the performance, to bomb me in my kayak in exchange for their leaving us alone for the rest of the afternoon and night. This worked a treat, and more and more of them joined the gang when word got out that a defenseless American was easy-pickings in a kayak.
Once all the boats had arrived in the their location, hidden from view under the waterfront, Charon and the frogs would sit in the boats in darkness for a half an hour or so, singing, sleeping, and chatting. Meanwhile Dionysus and Xanthius waited in the boatshed until the audience were in place.
Once the audience were seated on opposing staircases and Dionysus and Xanthius arrived on thescene, the Frogs and Charon waited for another half hour silently in darkness and then emerged on cue in a croaking, schloping, creaking convoy, to load the audience in and take them into the dank underside of the waterfront.
After the show, just into dusk, myself, 9 tired actors, and the stage manager would maneuver the boats under the waterfront through the darkness, after which we’d lug them back up the steeped incline from the lagoon and place them on end and spray them with freezing cold water from the nearby firehouse. The frogs washed their decorated wetsuits and bathed in the freezing cold waters of the sculpture fountain “The Albatross”. Amongst all these physically excruciating ordeals, there was always excited banter and song. Even in torrential downpours, when water would leak through the cracks in the boardwalk and bits of washed up trash bobbed up through the murky water amongst the frogs’ heads; or when props and costumes and chunks of the set had been washed away with the incoming tide; or when drunk passersby heckled the actors in the first scene open to the public, there was never a “bad” show, never a shattered morale.
After all the boats were cleaned of the muck they’d collected under the waterfront and stacked neatly in the tiny boat shed, the actors bundled up in their warm clothes, joined me for a debrief and then went their separate ways.
The pre and post show preparations were hardly short of a rigorous boot camp exercise. We were all fit as could be by the end of it.
The set was constructed and designed by my good friend Giles McNeil and I. Perhaps my fondest memory of the entire process was standing in a rowboat underneath the waterfront during an extraordinarily high tide and heavy storm, with the mountainous waves bursting through the pilings of the waterfront. The row boat rocked madly as I held onto the overhead rafters trying to keep us steady while Giles drilled holes into wood above us. In the wave ravaged open row boat with us was a laz-e-boy fated to be hung up on the metal brackets he was drilling in. I indeed asked for a laz-e-boy hanging above the rafters to seat Aeschylus, and Giles’ design was flawless. It’s low center of gravity allowed the actor playing Aeschylus the ability to gesticulate freely and lean forward without fear of falling in the water, then lie back confidently when he’d had his say.
In the epic battle of poetic wit, Euripides was stationed across from Aeschylus, alternately prancing and relaxing in a fishing netstrung up between four pilings, his lower body often half submerged in the undulating tide.
Act 1, taking place in front of Pluto’s house, had a challenging set itself. The site was actually a hidden beach at the very back of the waterfront, almost twenty metres from where the audience stepped into their boats. A facade was erected using old bits of wood and carpet, creating a house with McEsher-esque windows and doors. I remember distinctly nailing these bits of wood in, and with each thump showers of rust would fall into my eyes. The whole area was also naturally decorated with stones, and hanging with buoys of all sizes, sunken flower pots, one gallon chemical drums, and all sorts of strange items which presumably had washed and been hoarded by the half-aquatic, hermitical residents of Pluto’s palace.
The actors in this scene have many a nightmarish tale to tell about the cramped space behind the facade, which to onlookers seemed to have a wide open space behind. In fact the beach ended abruptly and huge black boulders protruded swiftly upwards. The actors, when not performing, were soaking wet and had very little to sit on, with their only illumination being a thin gas flame. These were stern warriors. And apparently (I’ve heard from inside sources) this is where the whispers of mutiny against the director first began. In jest of course. I think.
The idea for this show came after taking a kayak for an illegal jaunt underneath the waterfront where the show was eventually to be performed. I’d wanted to stage a performance in this area ever since moving to Wellington. The structures and sculptures on the waterfront at night are lit with alluring colors, andthis particular area is aglow with a mystical green. After my initial exploration through the area I found that the open space went far under the boardwalk in all directions. Tangled wires and rusty sheet metal hung from the roof, and the sound of footsteps and voices could just be made out above. In the middle of a sunny afternoon I easily glided into and dank pitch darkness with a few strokes of the kayak paddle.
I was touring New Zealand with the Ugly Shakespeare Company during that period and read through play after play on my free time, trying to find something suitable for the location. I thought I’d settled onMarat/Sade, quite keen on the idea of having the hydro treatment built into the aquatic environment, with Marat’s bathtub floating on the water.
However, once I picked up Aristophanes’ Frogs I could see the entire scenario play out in my mind, in the space. I saw the movement of the boats and the set came to life in my mind. There wasn’t a doubt that this was the right play. With the built-in boat journey into Hades, and the quick transition from daylight to darkness that the setting offered.
The biggest hurtle to jump was, expectedly, the safety consent from the City Council. As the area is traditionally off-limits, I had to do some serious convincing. Luckily, the other party involved in the discussions, the property manager for the Wellington Waterfront, was wonderfully laid back and didn’t seem to have a problem with anything we proposed. Although we did leave out the details about drilling holes in the rafters of the boardwalk to hang a lay-z-boy from the ceiling. But who would know.
Once I’d drawn up a convincing safety plan around every aspect of the show I got busy raising funds. After about four months I’d raised a measly $7,000 and joined the Fringe Festival in the hope I’d be able to squeeze a few more pennies out of them. I couldn’t.
Process of Creation
In October of 2008 I modernized the script, cutting huge swathes of dialogue, and replacing the long political tirades with ones that were better suited to our time and circumstances. 2008 had been an election year, and the conservative National Party of New Zealand had arbitrarily latched on to the message of “change” from Obama’s presidential campaign rhetoric and turned it against the liberal Labour government of New Zealand that had been doing fairly decent things in the country for the past 9 years. New Zealanders are as susceptible to nonsense as Americans are, and so they were won over by this half-baked and unimaginative rhetoric--a point that was hit upon constantly in the adapted script. But once the script hit the rehearsal room, and fell into the hands of veteran comedians and improvisors, there the references to contemporary New Zealand and world events flowed in by the bucket load. One of my hardest tasks proved to be damming and carefully funneling the creative outburst. I was a blessed director in this sense.
The show could only run every other week, so the show times had to coincide with the low tide, thus ensuring the audience didn’t smack their head on the top of the waterfront as they were herded about in their paddleboats. This did limit the number of shows we could do, because we were hemmed in to a timetable dictated by the heat of summer. The actors were already cold enough as it was, without having to brave that water in the Antarctic swell of the Autumn months.
The show opened in February, 2009 and sold out after the first couple reviews came out.
The audience met in a room in Mac’s Brewery, across from our performance venue, where they were given a safety briefing and donned with lifejackets and two Obols for Charon the Boatman (Boatwoman in this instance). The stage manager led the audience on their way to the cut-out in the waterfront which would serve as our stage for Act 1.
Behind the Scenes
Some of the little issues we had to contend with daily included: the tides, the swell, whether last night’s storm had swept the set away, the territorial seagulls, the ubiquitous manta-rays, water-pollution, playful penguins frolicking before the bow of a not-very-maneuverable row boat, the hole-riddled, sinking paddleboats, missing oars, costumes reeking of the sea, and gangs of school kids bombing us from the sides of the performance space.
I’d arrive at the boat shed (doubling as our greenroom, dining room, and costume / prop storage) around 2 PM and begin maneuvering 11 voluminous paddleboats through the swanky tables of an outdoor cafe and lugging them down a steeped descent--between families, couples and groups of school children enjoying the sun--into a lagoon.
Once all the boats were in I’d usually have about half an hour to relax in a white lawn chair in the boat shed, basting in the stench of stale lifejackets until the actors and crew arrived.
The fact that by the last week of the production’s run, the arduous routine of readying the show was carried out without a single instruction was truly illustrative of the camaraderie that a successful show can instill in a group. There were holes in the leaky paddleboats to be duct-taped, costumes to be dried in the sun, lost props to be found amongst the various debris of a boat hire company at the height of summer, wounds to attend to, and finally boats to be navigated to the performance space. Through often tumultuous waters, beneath low-lying foot bridges and under almost a kilometer of boardwalk, this was by far the most interesting element of the pre-show business. On the rare windless days my actors would often peddle the paddleboats to our performance area over the open ocean, settling into a steady rhythm basking in the harbor sun, in full costume. Below is a map with arrows drawn in to show you our various routes from the boat shed to the performance area.