A Conversation with Nicole Franco

Nicole Franco is a stage and screen actress currently starring in the Broadway and West End smash-hit, The Play That Goes Wrong which is currently playing at Theatre on the Bay following a sold out run in Johannesburg. A returned season of the production has just been announced for Joburg later this year. In addition to acting, Nicole also works as a second language teacher. We sat down to discuss this hilarious new play and her diverse career. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I definitely don’t think there was any particular person. I can only say that I was one of the many people that it was the only thing that I ever really felt passionate about, and I did quite well at school so I was thinking that I should do something else, [something] more worthwhile. I didn’t know what to do after school. I started doing a BA, had English, Psychology, I vaguely considered doing law or journalism, and then at the time, at UCT, it was separate, you could do a BA or you could do a performer’s diploma. I was doing a BA and drama was one of my subjects. They had an annual theatre projection for the BA students and we did Agamemnon. Geoffrey Hyland directed and I got cast as Clytemnestra. I had such an amazing time doing it. It was so much fun and I felt so inspired and excited and I was like, “This is the only thing that I really want to do.” I continued doing a BA, but I auditioned and was accepted to do a performer’s diploma as well and then I just continued. Once you get the bug of theatre or acting, it is quite hard to find anything else that is as compelling. It’s very hard because it just combines so many different types of things. It’s psychology, it’s sociology, it’s historical context, it’s anthropology and it’s creative and expressive. It just fulfills a lot of needs. I could say more.

Please do!

Having said that, I was basically working as a full-time actress after drama school but then I went with my husband to travel and we were teaching. For 8 or so years I didn’t really act. Coming back, I then had a child so I couldn’t only act because it’s too intermittent. It is great when you get a job, but then you don’t have a job and you can’t live like that when it is so unpredictable. I’ve been teaching but still wanting to act, going for auditions, sometimes working, but I am quite happy now that I don’t only rely on acting. I see my friends who do and obviously it is great when you are up but it is just so precarious and not only that, you can become so tortured because you are constantly doubting yourself. You are constantly evaluating yourself, you are constantly worrying, “Are you good enough? Is someone else better?” But at least now I have other stuff that I do that I feel good about.

What was it about this production that made you want to be involved?

A lot of things. I haven’t done that much comedy, I’ve done a bit but most of my experience is in drama and really nice meaty dramatic roles. Comedy is another genre that is very exciting and fun and challenging and of course it is a very successful play. It is a new phenomenon. It was obviously very appealing to be in something really popular [and] get the response from the audience. Alan [Committie] is a very clever and talented comedian so to see how he works as a director was also exciting. It was just really appealing on a lot of different levels. The part is fun. It is a fun ensemble piece. 

I’m quite curious about the audition process for this. Did you just have to go in a room and fling yourself into walls?

To tell you the honest truth, apparently there was quite a lot of rigorous auditioning that didn’t include me. I think Alan wanted to balance the cast. At the beginning he was considering casting a generally younger cast, as it is in the original cast from London. The creators of it were all younger, in their 20’s, recently out of drama school and so he was looking at a lot of younger actresses and I think that he did put them through their paces. But by the time he thought of me, or I was suggested to him, or however it came about… he knows my work so I must say that I didn’t really do much for the audition process. I assured him that I could be thrown around like a plastic doll and he believed me so I didn’t do any of that. I just read but apparently the other girls did a lot of cat-fights. I didn’t have to do any of them. 

Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

My little scene that I have with the inspector is a lot of fun. When actually I’ve jumped ahead so I say “42” and he says, “How many sailors were there?” I answer and then he asks the question. It took a long time to learn because obviously it is counter-intuitive and you have to know your lines so well because you are not waiting for a cue that you answer a question. That is really fun. I’ve also really loved been pulled through the window. 

The PTWW079
Photo credit: Christiaan Kotze

I feel like there is a big misconception that comedy is easy. This play looks incredibly difficult. What is something that you think could be quite surprising for people to know?

It’s so interesting and I think about it all the time, there is like a weird thing going on with the audience psychology and the actors on stage. How you get a laugh, how you play to the audience, it is so technical and yet intuitive. You cannot learn, “You wait beat 2, 3 and then you say the line.” There is so much going on about psychology that you can’t articulate about what people find funny. And the people who are really good at it, it is just an amazing talent. It is a combination of understanding the way people look at the world, what’s surprising, and what their expectations are because a lot of the time it’s like fooling their expectations but then it is actually fulfilling their expectations. Sometimes you know you’ve set something up and you know the audience knows what you are going to say but then you say it and they laugh because they almost want their expectations to be met. Other times it is a big surprise. It is surprisingly difficult and technical and yet intuitive.

Did you all hit it off as an ensemble right off the bat? 

We are a really lovely cast. We really love each other and we get on really well. It is really nice. Some people in the cast had worked together before but a lot of us were getting to know each other for the first time ever. So that definitely takes time but I can say we all got on from the word go. There aren’t any cliques. It’s not like the older ones and the younger ones. We get on very well together. We are nice and supportive of each other and that’s really been a pleasure. I think this place seemed like such a huge challenge, and it was, because we had a really short rehearsal period. We had about two and a half weeks or something and it is such a technical show. There was a huge amount of adrenaline and fear and excitement to get it to opening. When it got such a positive response, the first week or so, we actually weren’t ready to open. There was all that just to remember the actual show and remember our words and our moves. There was a huge amount of excitement around that and then there was the opening and it was like, “Ok it’s actually a long run.” Then you have to get in a new gear where the excitement is over and you know you can do it but now we have to keep on being good night after night.

Now that you’ve told me about traveling and teaching English, while researching for this I stumbled upon Mama English and wanted to know if you wanted to talk about that?

Oh the game show! Basically it comes down to, again, trying to survive and make money. When I traveled I taught English as a second language and I also learned Mandarin so I also teach beginner Mandarin to people. I’m a teacher and an actress. My very good friends are Nicholas [Spagnoletti] and Edward [van Kuik] from the Alexander Bar. They are also software developers and they’ve got a theatre so putting all those things together, when I was low on finances for a while, I was thinking, “What can I do?” And it came to me to make a theatrical game show for English language learners. Nicholas and Edward helped write software. I developed a character called Mama English and I’ve got teams of students. It’s a game show, it’s in the theatre and they’ve got buzzers that are connected to a computer and to a screen so when they press the buzzer a bell goes off and you see it on the screen and points that the different teams get come up automatically. There are different kinds of competition, there are grammar questions and vocabulary questions where they have to talk, there is a blindfolded round where they have to taste things and do all different things and then they get points and it’s a game show.

Photo credit: Christiaan Kotze

In terms of your career, what is something you are most proud of?

About two or three years ago, I got a phone call to say that an actress had an accident, she ended up being ok but she was not able to perform, suddenly, at the Hilton festival in 10 days’ time. It was a two-hander comedy called Same Time Next Year. I learned it in seven days of rehearsals by literally watching the DVD, learning the actress’s moves and doing it. It was play with major amounts of props and wigs and changes. It was a comedy and it was an hour and 40 minutes with just the two people on stage. I learned it in those seven days and performed it at Hilton and it was wonderful. It was actually quite interesting because I had to do it so fast, half of the nerves and everything around it like, “Am I actually going to be able to do it?” There was no time to worry about actor’s choices or “Am I good enough in this line?” I just had to go with first choices really fast and not second guess myself. It was quite an interesting learning experience to do it like that. 

What is something you’ve found to be your biggest challenge?

I think for every actor, it’s dealing with your self-doubt and just being able to take the rejection all the time and just keep on plodding. You’ve got to deal with it in a way that’s healthy otherwise you become very vulnerable all the time. In terms of working now, and I have found this because I did quite a lot of work as a younger actress and then stopped for quite a while and I’ve come back to it later, I think I do second guess myself less in the rehearsal process now and just kind of make choices and stick with them. It’s something that has come with age that is actually quite nice and quite a relief to just make choices quicker. 

Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?

Loads. It’s amazing how I always thought, something like, “I want to play Juliet.” And now it’s like, “I’m going to be Juliet’s mother!” The days of playing Juliet are over. Some of those things maybe the ship has sailed. I definitely would like to do more film because it is a medium that I haven’t had enough experience with and it is very challenging. It is very interesting. For me, it is so different to theatre. In some ways it is so much easier and in other ways it is so much harder. When I studied it was only for stage. I just feel like I am still so curious with playing with the film medium and I just haven’t had enough chance to play. Hopefully there will be more of that. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Lara Foot, I think she has done some amazing work and Jennie Reznek and the Magnet Theatre, generally, do amazing work. 

You can catch Nicole in The Play That Goes Wrong at Theatre on The Bay under June 17th. For tickets click here.

The Play That Goes Wrong will make its return to Joburg for a limited run in September. For tickets click here.

Special thanks to Allison Foat and Hannah Baker.

All photos given with permission by Allison Foat.

Cover photo courtesy of Nicole Franco.


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