You’d be barking mad to miss Little Theatre’s latest play

A Taranaki actor’s stage career has gone to the dogs – wagging tails and all. 

This month 28-year-old Frankie Roberts will put her professional theatre training to the test when she treads the boards as a stray dog in Little Theatre’s latest show, Sylvia.

“It’s such a fun role to play,” she says. 

“Sylvia is one tough cookie. Having lived on the streets she’s had to be sassy, determined and most definitely cheeky in order to survive. But she’s also incredibly loving and just wants to be friends with everyone.”

Although Roberts will be behaving like an animal on stage, she won’t be dressed as a dog. In fact, the audience simply sees a man bring home a friendly stray woman from the park, fleas and all. 

“It’s great, because I get to play a humanised version of a dog.

“So, it’s been a lot of fun exploring how best to make Sylvia a relatable and real character, with some dog-like mannerisms.”

While the dog’s new owner Greg is smitten with the unconditional love she shows him, his wife is less than impressed and sees the furry friend as a threat to their already rocky marriage.  

Frankie Roberts is a marketing manager by day and an actor by night. She says her stage work is far from a ruff job because she gets to hang out with cute dogs like Hughey.

The show’s director Nicci Smith co-owns a dog grooming studio called Pup Culture. She let Roberts join her at work to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be a dog – specifically a lively labradoodle. 

“I wanted her to see their lovable, boisterous, doofus characters,” Smith says. 

“I think it’s definitely helped her bring Sylvia to life.”  

Smith reckons people would be barking mad to miss this kooky play.

“It’s a really charming show that helps you to see the craziness and love that a dog can bring to your life.” 

Smith hasn’t always loved dogs though. In fact as a child she had five cats. At the same time.

“My husband is more of a dog person and that eventually rubbed off on me. So our first child was a golden retriever named Daisy.” 

Written in 1995, the play has appeared on Broadway starring the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. 

Roberts, who trained at the Waterfront Theatre School in South Africa, appears onstage alongside the talents of Chris Watson, Rebecca Williamson and Jo Morrissey. 

Sylvia is on at New Plymouth Little Theatre from March 31 to April 10, 7.30pm. Tickets are available from iTicket.

Words by Taryn Raynes, with photos by Adele Smith.

Main photo caption: Chris Watson, Frankie Roberts and Rebecca Williamson are having the ultimutt time rehearsing for Little Theatre’s next production, Sylvia.

Sylvia’s a theatrical puppy love triangle

The latest show at Little Theatre is a charming look at a love triangle between a man, his wife, and his beloved dog Sylvia. Director Nicci Smith had a chat with us about dogs, why she loves them, and if she’s been using treats to train her cast. 

Hey Nicci! You’re directing a play called Sylvia, which opens later this month at Little Theatre. Can you tell us what Sylvia is about?
Sylvia is a funny, moving play about man and his best friend, set in New York. Greg is a man facing a midlife crisis when he finds Sylvia the dog in the park. He’s determined to keep her although his wife, family friend, strangers and a therapist all have strong views on this. 

That sounds awesome! What made you choose this play? 
I vaguely remembered hearing about the play when it was done at Cue Theatre in the early noughties, directed by the late, great Derek Treeby. I didn’t get to see it at the time unfortunately, but I remember reading about it. Being a fan of movies and TV programmes about dogs and other animals I decided to order the script about two years ago and instantly loved it. I was just waiting patiently to be asked by one of the theatres to direct. 

Nicci, auditioning potential Sylvia’s in Central Park in New York in 2019 

You’re a dog person, right? 
Funnily enough growing up I was more of a cat person, and at one point we had five cats when I was a kid. However my husband is more of a dog person and that eventually rubbed off on me. So our first child (of the fur variety) was a golden retriever named Daisy, followed ten years later by a Tibetan terrier named Milo. They both moved with us to New Zealand in 2002, sadly neither are with us anymore.  

We now have Brodie, a 13-year-old spoodle and Fonz a shih tzu cavalier cross. We also have two moggy cats Izzy and Dobbie and a munchkin cat called Frida. Also regular visitors to our house are my daughter’s dogs Hughey the spoodle and Lochie the cavoodle. 

Also, just over three years ago my daughter and I decided to train as dog groomers and we set up business in our basement. So, on top of all our own dogs we get to cuddle and beautify about another 20+ dogs per week at Pup Culture Groomers!  

Dog cuddles are the best cuddles

So, do you use any ticks of the dog grooming trade, or any treats to get the cast to follow commands? 
Oh that’s a great idea. I did suggest early on that treats would be rewarded for line learning, but I’ve yet to follow through. I’ll try that this week. 

Nicci, very important question here, if you were a dog, what breed would you be?
I think I’m the human twin of my dog Fonz the shih tzu cavalier cross. Long body, short legs, food motivated and not a big fan of exercise. We recently have become medical twins too. Last year he had to get his gallbladder removed. This year I’m waiting to see a specialist as I now have gallbladder issues. 

What do you think of cats? 
I’m a big fan of cats. I’d be hard pushed to choose between dogs and cats 

Fav dog movie?
Probably Marley and Me – it makes me laugh and cry – I ugly cry every time I see it! And when the kids were little we all loved the animated film All Dogs go to Heaven.

Frankie Roberts and Rebecca Williamson rehearsing for Sylvia

Back to the play. The Broadway productions have had some pretty big names in them, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. Who’s in the New Plymouth cast, and how’s it all going? 
We have Chris Watson playing Greg. He’s no stranger to New Plymouth theatre, his most recent appearances include Kings of the Gym and Noises Off at Little Theatre. 

Rebecca Williamson is playing Kate, she last appeared in The Actress at New Plymouth Repertory Society. Jo Morrissey, a newcomer to New Plymouth plays three roles – Tom a dog owner, Phyllis the family friend and Leslie the gender neutral therapist. Both Rebecca and Jo are from the USA and have been keeping us right in pronunciation. 

The title role of Sylvia is played by newcomer to New Plymouth, Frankie Roberts. Frankie, from South Africa, studied theatre when she left school and she’s delighted to be back on stage after a break of a few years. 

Thankfully our only hurdle has been rehearsing around the theatre building upgrade. I’m told it will be looking fabulous by opening night. 

Chris Watson and Frankie Roberts rehearsing for Sylvia

So role of Sylvia the dog is played by a woman? What’s it like directing a woman to play a dog? And have any actual dogs been involved?
Ha ha ha. The character of Sylvia is described as a labramutt. She’s a cross between a lab and a French poodle. It was written in 1995 before labradoodles really took off. 

Frankie who plays Sylvia has come down to the grooming salon a couple of times to meet our labradoodle clients. I wanted her to see their lovable, boisterous, doofus characters. Although Frankie already brought a lovely physicality to stage I think it’s definitely helped her bring Sylvia to life. 

Any props that have to be chewed are brought home to Lochie the cavoodle who is at the delightful chewing stage and happy to oblige.

Nicci and her twin, Fonz

Why should people come and see this show?
To see the craziness and love that a dog can bring to your life. I think anyone who’s ever had a dog, love them or hate them, will be able to relate. 

Sylvia, by A R Gurney and directed by Nicci Smith, is on at New Plymouth Little Theatre from March 31 to April 10, 7.30pm. Tickets are available from iTicket

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