In the limelight: Julie-Anne McDowell, How Now Brown Cow Productions, theatre production company, launched 2020, South Africa

Julie-Anne McDowell was born in Northern Ireland. She trained in theatre and worked as an actress. As a side hustle, she worked in public relations and marketing. She met her South African husband to be, on a work trip. In 2006, she moved to Johannesburg, married and had two children. Initially, she was unable to get a work permit which prevented her from working in South Africa and pursuing her theatre career.  She continued working with her international lifestyle clients [payment in the UK]. In 2017, her SA residency work and work permit came through and she was back on stage in 2018 and 2019. Her work included The Revlon Girl, directed by Steven Fenstein, for which she received a Naledi Theatre Award nomination for best supporting actress. Covid-19 and the pandemic may have put a pause on theatre for McDowell for the year 2020 but it has also been a time to innovate and look to the future. Recently, McDowell and Daniel Galloway [formerly general manager of The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town] established How Now Brown Cow Productions, a theatre production company. They have a number of projects in development and look forward to bringing theatre to audiences in South Africa and are hoping to tour productions internationally. Watch this space.

TheCapeRobyn: You were born in Northern Ireland and settled in Johannesburg in 2006. How did you get to live in South Africa?

Julie-Anne McDowell: I met my husband on a work trip to SA.  I was handling the international marketing for the haircare brand, Denman and I came out to SA to consider the market and evaluate the distribution options.  He was working with Dis-Chem at the time.  He sat in on the meeting and although I was due to take the owners Ivan and Lynette Saltzman out for dinner he ended up stepping . Fast forward 12 months I had relocated to Joburg. Our Denman sales took off. My husband is not involved in theatre at all but he does love going to theatre, luckily.

TheCapeRobyn:  How did you connect with Daniel Galloway? You live in Joburg. He lives in Cape Town. What led the two of you to start How Now Brown Cow Productions?

Julie-Anne McDowell: I met with Daniel last November [2019] when he was still with The Fugard.  I had the license for a play and I was keen to gauge the interest of The Fugard.  We discussed the play and many other related matters and kept in contact afterwards.  When I saw that Daniel had left The Fugard to pursue independent producing in February, I phoned him straight away and asked him to consider producing my play.  I sent him the script and he agreed.  Then lockdown happened.  We chatted often and at length during the following months about the industry, hopes, concerns, shared visions and the idea of How Now Brown Cow was born.  Our geographical location is not even an issue thanks to Facetime/Zoom etc I think lockdown has taught us all that we can create and work remotely.

TheCapeRobyn: Tell us about the title, How Now Brown Cow?

Julie-Anne McDowell: How Now Brown Cow is a vocal exercise that actors often employ to ’round out’ their vowel sounds for a Received Pronunciation (RP) English accent.  Northern Irish people like myself have clipped closed vowel sounds so our pronunciation of this exercise is often mocked.  So it’s a nod to my heritage and to my profession as an actor.  But I also LOVE cows and so it has an affectionate tone too.

TheCapeRobyn:  A major promoter told me that they are looking at June 2021, earliest to start anything big-ish in live theatre. Any indication of when we can expect How Now Brown Cow Productions to start rolling out live shows or is it too soon to call?

Julie-Anne McDowell: I think that realistically we are also looking at the 2nd half of next year.  It’s a difficult call as things change almost weekly regarding the Covid -9 situation and so it’s hard to plan.  But we are sensitive to the audiences and whether they are ready to get back into a theatre and also the expectations of what they’d enjoy seeing.  We will continue to monitor the situation and hope to roll out some productions as soon as possible.

TheCapeRobyn:  How Now Brown Cow Productions will stage productions with script ready work and also commission new work? Do you plan to tour plays nationally and internationally? May people submit scripts for consideration?

Julie-Anne McDowell: We are looking to produce work that people will want to see and that they will enjoy.  That will include some licensed plays, some commissioned work and yes the aim is to tour the work in Joburg, Cape Town and hopefully elsewhere.  Where appropriate, we would like to travel plays, even overseas. More than ever we believe in storytelling as a means of understanding each other, ourselves and our situations.  Without stories we have no theatre and so where possible we would like to empower writers and commission new work that reflects our lives today.  The issues we face here in SA and the issues we face as a global community.  Relevant theatre that speaks to us and that we recognize as South Africans.  We are especially interested in stories that are South African but which resonate globally.

TheCapeRobyn: If someone has rights to a play, can they approach your company to produce?

Julie-Anne McDowell: Yes, we’ve already had a phenomenal response to the launch of our company.  And are currently reading the material we’ve received to date. We have a certain budget for 2021 so will select projects that fit our criteria and are financially viable.

TheCapeRobyn: How Now Brown Cow is a theatre production company – but it could perhaps include films?

Julie-Anne McDowell: Why not down the line.  It’s something I’m interested in as I’m studying a masters in script and screenwriting- perhaps short films as a beginning…

TheCapeRobyn: Filmed broadcasts of live work has become a vital means of bringing live theatre to audiences. Does How Now Brown Cow Productions plan to offer this as part of its service?

Julie-Anne McDowell: Not at this point. ‘Live’ is the key word here and I think it is incredibly challenging to film a live performance and for it to work.  Theatre is unique and special because of the live exchange.  The energy and communality experienced first-hand. To transfer that to a recorded version with the barrier of the screen as is, misses the point somewhat.  Theatre is dialogue driven. The characters drive the plot – whereas on screen it is the shots and the visual reality that hooks us in. Theatre is live performance and to my mind should be experienced live.

TheCapeRobyn: It looks like 2018 and 2019 were very busy for you in terms of theatre work –including a Naledi nominated performance in Revlon Girl. In terms of theatre, almost everything came to a halt in 2020 with Covid and lockdown- but film continued – to a degree.  Any film projects that you can tell us about that you have been involved with during lockdown?

Julie-Anne McDowell: I’m a newbie to the South African theatre scene.  I struggled for many years to obtain my permanent residency which meant I couldn’t work.  I had my two kids, did some PR for some UK companies (paid in the UK) and did a few acting courses to bide my time.  When I finally received my South African ID card, I decided to go back to what I love most – theatre.  I was cast in the two hander, Couplet in 2018 and then in The Revlon Girl in 2019.  We played at NAF, The Hilton Arts Fest and in Joburg.  But it is not easy being regularly employed as an actor, especially here in theatre and in my case especially as a new kid on the block with an accent. I had decided to make my own work.  As I’ve already mentioned I’d acquired the license for an Irish play which was due to play in October 2020 in The Theatre On The Square. But then lockdown happened. 

In May [2020], I filmed scenes for a lockdown movie written by Sue Diepeveen [of the Drama Factory theatre] which was fun. Sue wrote a short film as part of a lockdown initiative. We then filmed our scenes from home and sent through to a video editors to compile them. I filmed my scenes with Erika Marais, through Zoom. I also signed up to do my scriptwriting masters in June [Falmouth University].  Lockdown allowed me the time to consider a bigger picture- not just my career but our industry. Along with Daniel, How Now Brown Cow Productions was formed.  We have three plays as definite projects and are considering others. I have written a short film and am writing another which I hope will go into production at the beginning of 2021.   

TheCapeRobyn:  You are studying for a masters in script and screenwriting at Falmouth University – so that is online?  I also see that you are offering insights into your journey online – for example – how to pitch for film funding? 

Julie-Anne McDowell: I started my masters which is online with Falmouth University in June this year [2020] and have just completed my 2nd module.  It’s fascinating learning about storytelling structure and plot points even if it is more screen related than stage.  I have a blog called My Benjamin Button Life which shares the key learnings and mistakes I’ve made along the way.  I am clearly a student not an expert but perhaps that helps others see where I’ve gone wrong and been corrected. It’s a two year course so I’ve a long way to go. []

TheCapeRobyn: How do you manage to juggle motherhood and theatre- 2018 and 2019 – you were on stage a lot? 

Julie-Anne McDowell: I have three kids. My step-son is 18 and has lost out so much this year as a matric student.  I have a 13 year old daughter and an 11 year old son.  It’s a juggling circus where I drop many balls, believe me.  But my kids come first, then my acting/studying.  They are at school until mid-afternoon ordinarily so it gives me a good portion of the day to work.  If I am in rehearsals then it is more intense but when a play opens, it is evenings anyway, when they are or should be in bed.  They have always known I work and they love that I act.  I have a very supportive husband and two phenomenal housekeepers without whom it would not be possible.

TheCapeRobyn: Let’s end with How Now Brown Cow Productions. At the moment, things are very tenuous but hopefully, there will be good things in store for theatre, by mid-2021?

Julie-Anne McDowell: Yes things are tenuous and the unsettling thing is nothing is guaranteed or certain.  Just when you think you can plan and move forward life throws a curve ball.  But we have three pieces of work that are strong and that WILL happen in 2021/22.  Thankfully Daniel is by my side and has many years of producing under his belt.  He steers that ship very ably and I am so thankful he has joined me on this journey.  It shortcuts the process somewhat. We have the scripts, the directors, and potential cast so a lot of that legwork has been done.  And we are talking with several writers about other projects so depending on the landscape next year we may juggle the sequence of roll-out accordingly. Starting a theatre production company, may seem ambitious and perhaps unusual in the current context but theatre will survive and we will all return to the theatre once again.  Hopefully soon.  Screen has its place of course but will never replace the live experience.  I live by the mantra that – ‘Life Is Not a Dress Rehearsal… This is it.  This is the one life and I am going to give it my best go.’  I fully intend to do what I love and do it wholeheartedly.  I am not an expert but I have a huge heart for this and the passion to drive it. I am smart enough to partner with the best people who can take it to the next level- Daniel and the writers, directors, casts, theatre practitioners who are involved will add their expertise.  We need to collaborate and work together to resuscitate our industry and bring it back to life.  I feel so excited to play a small part in that. It’s been such a devastating year for all involved.  If our optimism offers some hope then, yay!

Festive: Julie-Anne McDowell- theatre maker and producer – looking forward to staging live performance in 2021.
The Revlon Girl: Julie-Anne McDowell (right) was nominated for a 2019 Naledi Theatre Award for best supporting actress as Marilyn, in The Revlon Girl, directed by Steven Fenstein. On the left is Marianthe Stella Smart as the ‘Revlon girl’ who arrives to lift up the spirits of grieving women in this play, by Neil Anthony Docking. This production was staged in 2018 and 2019 in Johannesburg and it toured to The National Arts Festival and to The Hilton Festival. The play is based on real life events: In October 1966, in Aberfan, a Welsh mining village, 144 people were buried in the wake of the slide of a ‘slag heap’ – a build up of sludge which slammed into the local school – 116 children died and 144 people were buried. Photo: supplied.
Theatre: One day, we will be able to commune again in theatres, without masks. Julie-Anne McDowell and Daniel Galloway launched How Now Brown Cow Productions, a theatre production company, in 2020, South Africa and have several projects in development. Image: Shutterstock. Supplied.

Company: How Now Brown Cow Productions Where: South Africa Founders: Julie-Anne McDowell Hegarty and Daniel Galloway Website: Instagram: hownowbrowncow_productions

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