Nicola Date is a Cape Town based actress, designer and arts manager. Currently she holds the position of theatre manager of The Masque Theatre. A jack of all trades, Nicola is also the writer of her one-woman show The Worst Auditioner in the World which had a successful run at The Alexander Bar last year.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
When I was a small child, at least this is the strongest memory I have, my granny always used to take me to watch Janice Honeyman’s pantomimes. I think that was the first trigger for me. I saw those people on stage just totally passionate about what they did and I said, “I want to do that one day.” But I didn’t really understand what it was all about and when I was about five or six years old I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a ‘dezigner’ which was a designer. I think that’s where it all started and I became a designer. I suppose at the time I thought fashion design was designing but then I realised in adult life that you can combine your various passions and use theatre as an umbrella to express them.
What was the jumping off point for you once you had graduated school and were going to university? What specifically did you want to focus on?
I went straight after school to study fashion design and I only stayed for a few months and then realised that the fashion industry wasn’t for me. I wanted something more expressive, more creative, more avant-garde. At least my experience of fashion school, which I didn’t give it much of a chance, was that fashion was clothing. After that I looked into how I could study costume design and I found the Wits degree. And what I loved about the Wits degree in Joburg was that it was a combination, I could study costume design but I could also study all other aspects of design and performance. It was a really well rounded, well-faceted degree. That was an opportunity for me to combine all my passions into one.
You are also an actress…
I always acted in school. I was often involved in the school plays and I had a really passionate drama teacher who really inspired me and coached me. When I was at Wits, I did acting in first and second year and then I realised that I also actually wanted to go into other aspects of the arts, which I knew before but I was really passionate about Musical Theatre. I was very fortunate to be selected into the Musical Theatre group which was run by Gina Shmukler and Adele Strombek and there I received a lot of amazing training. I am not predominately an actor, I do act occasionally. I wrote a show, I am writing a second show and I am performing in Grease now* at the Masque Theatre as part of the fundraiser but I wouldn’t say that acting is my predominant focus. But life is long and it is one of the many things that I do.
It’s so interesting that it is not your primary focus yet you wrote a one-woman show which is probably the scariest thing you can do as a performer.
With my show though, I always had this idea because I’ve had some terrible auditions as I think most people have. The audition process is often designed to not service the actor. I don’t think that is necessarily anyone’s fault but it is petrifying. You go in there, especially as a young performer, you can be as prepared as you want to be but the minute you walk in there the nerves just hit. Also at some of the advert castings, what we are told to do in a blank room with a camera in front of you is absurd. I always had this idea and realised that no one has actually written a show about auditions and through writing, I kind of knew, because I always tend to air towards comedy naturally, but when I was writing the show I was like “this is a comedy. There is no question.” But the funny part of the show is that it’s what happens. There is nothing overly fabricated. Megan Furniss, who directed my show when I did it at The Alexander Bar, she really was amazing in helping me hone in my writing because I am not an experienced writer whereas she is. She was an amazing help. She helped me greatly in structuring the show.
I was saying to someone recently that I hope I don’t become famous because if those casting tapes come out….
Exactly. I remember once being at a casting and I was told, and I’ve got this in my show, it’s not direct, obviously I edit a lot of the reality to fit on stage but I was told that I was “sitting on the toilet and suddenly I find myself in a casino and my clothing turns into an elaborate dress and I must walk through the casino.” And you just have to do it. And you have to do it convincingly with absolutely no inspiration. That is the inspiration behind The Worst Auditioner in the World. I think a lot of people who saw my show were like “wow. Does this really happen?” Someone who came to see it told me that I had really given her some good insight into the life and world of a performer.
I wanted to ask you about managing the Masque Theatre. What is that job description and what is a typical day like?
My job is mostly a day job. I usually work 8:30am-4pm and it’s really just running the theatre, booking the space, managing productions, running the theatre from a business and financial point of view. Because we are a small NPO we don’t have massive departments. There are literally two full-time staff members. My job probably runs beyond the stereotypical theatre manager; I also do marketing, I do it all. The other day I was gardening and weeding outside. It really is just about making sure that the theatre runs smoothly. I’m there now and then during the evenings when the action is actually happening to make sure that that is going ok but we have an amazing team of volunteers who run the theatre during performances at night as well as the odd part-time staff member who does lighting and backstage. It’s hectic but it’s really rewarding and enjoyable.
In your perception of other theatre’s and how they work or do you find that theatre management a male-dominated sphere or it is relatively balanced?
Off the top of my head, I would say that it is pretty balanced. If you look at, I’m just looking off-hand at the few theatre managers that I can think of and it’s probably 50/50 male/female. My gender has never really come into question besides the fact that I have a child. These days women have to wear many hats and should wear many hats because at least in my household we both share the roles of being bread-winners and parents. That is the only time that my gender has been brought up in my job.
Throughout your career what is something that has challenged you the most?
Up until this year, I have been working freelance. It’s been a personal challenge of that fear of not getting work. I’ve been very fortunate to always, somehow, manage to find something. And I think it’s helped that I’ve really been multi-faceted and willing to do absolutely anything which is what I think is required if you want to be successful in our industry, to specialise in many things but not just be like “I’m an actor and that is all I am willing to do.” I think the personal challenge for me has always been the fear of what is next. As theatre people every job is so different and every experience is so different. It’s always been a challenge, you almost learn something from every job, and I don’t think you can ever be perfect because we aren’t dealing with numbers, we aren’t dealing with an A-Z. I suppose it’s easier now in my job because it is more structured, although I’m dealing with different shows all the time. As a theatre-maker, you really have the challenge of the unknown and you often, in retrospect, go “I wish I had done that differently” but you just get stronger and stronger from those experiences.
What do you find to be the biggest misconception about your work?
I think people tend to know you as one thing. For me, people tend to be surprised when they learn that I act. I wouldn’t say I was an actor. I would say that I am a theatre-maker who sometimes acts. Because I have predominately designed up until now I think people have tended to know me as a young designer. That has probably been the biggest misconception.
What has been your favourite project that you have designed for?
I’ve had a lot of projects that I’ve loved designing for. There was a really random corporate show I did with some friends. It was A Conversation Between a Hyena and a Giraffe that was on at The UCT Business School. I had to design two costumes for that and it probably stands out, despite doing bigger projects, as being my favourite project ever because it was just such an exciting challenge to turn people into those animals. My other favourite job was Magnet Theatre did the first ever South African production for children aged zero-two years. Working with Jennie Reznek, I designed the tents and costumes for that show. That was a really amazing experience because we were all learning and doing something completely new that had never been done before in this country. That was incredible.
What is something you are most proud of?
I think being a 28-year-old young woman managing a theatre that is growing rapidly. The Masque Theatre is an amazing community space. We are really starting to do some great outreach work and we are running a sold-out musical, which for this theatre, hasn’t happened in a long time. I am proud of the obvious change that I am making in this space but I am doing it with a great team of board members and trustees and a wonderful colleague Ashley. He works beyond the call of duty. The fact that I have managed to take on a space single-handedly is something I am proud of.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I have to start off with Megan Furniss. She offered me one of my first design jobs when I first moved down to Cape Town. I was a young person, I wasn’t known, and she took a chance on me, which I just thought was really special. She has remained someone very special in my life. I’d also say Tracey Saunders, the arts journalist. She has inspired me. She is such a strong woman. Also, Michele Belknap and Yvonne Finch, who are board members at The Masque Theatre. Michelle is a great theatre-maker and a huge support for me and Yvonne has been a huge support from a business point of view. There are many women who inspire me, but I think those four and my most recent.
For more information about The Masque Theatre click here.
Special thanks to Hannah Baker.
*This conversation took place in December 2016.