By BRUCE DENNILL
How Now Brown Cow Productions prepares to take to the stage with its debut theatre production, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, on stage at Theatre on the Square in Sandton from 4 – 29 October 2022. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a theatrical masterpiece by acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (In Bruges; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Hangmen) and winner of four Tony Awards, is a darkly comic tale about the turbulent, dysfunctional, and often savage relationship between mother and daughter, Mag and Maureen Folan. The play centres around the life of Maureen (Julie-Anne McDowell), an unmarried middle-aged woman, as she cares for her ailing mother Mag (Jennifer Steyn) and tries to find love. When two brothers enter (Bryan Hiles and Sven Ruygrok), we are set on a path to the play’s thrilling conclusion. Interspersed with romance and humour, this psychological thriller will have audiences on the edge of their seats. McDowell talks about her journey with the piece so far.
Live performance: the thrill versus the nerves – where are you on that curve as a new show starts?
That’s a great question. It’s something I struggle with. Right now, though, I am just thrilled to be working in this play, with this phenomenal cast, and being in the hands of the amazing Charmaine Weir-Smith. The rehearsal period takes place in September. It’s a process I love: getting to understand this character, what motivates her and why. I see what I identify with and where that emotion or feeling sits in me so that when I enter the rehearsal space it’s more of an instinctive playing of what drives her. Obviously, during rehearsals you play, progress, hit brick walls, side-step, find new pathways and progress again – so it can be both nerve wracking and thrilling. And then opening night looms and it’s like a high-speed train hurtling down the track and the nerves kick in. It can be overwhelming!
How do you find the balance during the rehearsals and other preparation?
The key is finding that balance. For me, it’s about bringing it back to why I am doing this and what I am doing. I love theatre – I always have. I love stories and storytelling. Nerves, to a certain degree, are good. They keep you focused and alert; they provide energy. In fact, if I’m not nervous then I worry. But too many nerves can derail the process and be self-destructive. I find that prepping as much as I can helps me trust in the process and as a result I have less time for nerves. Opening nights are terrifying, but I try to bring myself back to the story and the sharing of it. When I let nerves overwhelm me, I am making it about me, which it’s not. It’s easier said than done, of course. I’m not a person who can chit-chat in the dressing room backstage beforehand. I put my earphones in, block out the outside world, warm up my voice and focus on breathing exercises to remain calm and focused, and visualise the character’s world. Being part of an ensemble piece helps. Standing alongside your castmates before lights go down and then up is a very special and unifying moment.
What are you looking for in a role?
Complexity. A character who, when you scratch the surface, peels away to reveal numerous layers. I’m drawn to the dark side, to characters who challenge me to re-evaluate myself and my values. I need to be able to identify with them on some level, even if their decisions and subsequent actions are taken to the extreme. By finding points of connectivity, I always learn about myself. It’s not always a comfortable experience delving into that place of vulnerability and truth, but you come away with a greater understanding of the human condition and yourself. For better or worse. I enjoy plays that provoke thought and discussion; that shock or give you something unexpected. And I want to be moved. The writing is key, because it’s the architecture of the production. The scaffolding. If you have a well-written and structured play, with well-defined characters in the hands of a visionary director then it’s gold. And of course, the cast. I mean look at the line-up in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. I feel very, very blessed. This is a dream come true for me.
Acting is a vocation, a thing you can’t not do. How true is that for you now?
All I know is that it has been a part of my life since I was very small. It’s a part of who I am and what I love. It’s in my bones. Without it, I feel like I am missing a large chunk of what makes me me. When I moved to South Africa years ago, on a Life Partner visa, I was unable to work. I got married, had two children and set up a PR agency handling overseas clients. But as the years passed and my kids got older, I craved performing more and more. I did a Meisner Acting course for a year and then spent six months with the Indigo View Advanced Actors Academy. Then, four years ago I finally received my South African ID. I was cast in Couplet, followed by The Revlon Girl, and the fire was reignited. Then Covid. What those two years taught me is that, if the need to create and tell stories is in your DNA, it will seep out. If one outlet is blocked, it will find another. I need to express myself creatively. It is my lifeline in a way. I starting writing, first short stories. Then I completed an MA in script and screenwriting. I think it saved me from going mad in lockdown, because now I was writing my own narrative, one that I could control. To return to the stage now feels like all the jigsaw pieces of me are moving back into place. I just want to grow as an artist and as such I will continue to push myself in various directions to see where that leads. I have realigned my vision, closed my PR agency and positioned myself to make theatre and perhaps even film fulltime whether that be acting, writing or purely as a producer. But preferably a mix of all.
What are the toughest expectations to deliver on – all the way from the first audition to the end of the run?
It’s all part of the same thing for me, and it’s my own set of unreasonable expectations, to deliver the result and get it done perfectly. Which is impossible and, in a way, restrictive. I need to remind myself that it’s a journey of discovery. It’s playing. A continually evolving piece.
Tell us about your current production, and what makes your character interesting to play?
She’s complex! Maureen is vulnerable yet fearsome, broken yet indestructible, hopeless yet hopeful… she’s both good and bad. I first saw this play 25 years ago at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast and I was blown away by the story, by the searing language of McDonagh’s writing and by this mother-daughter cat and mouse game. I left the theatre reeling and it stayed with me for a long time. I felt for this character. She moved me and fascinated me and I couldn’t shake her off. This play is multi-award-winning for a reason. It is the perfect mix of witty dialogue, side-splitting comedy, romance and gut-punch twists and turns. It is both deeply moving and shocking all at once. I am thrilled (with a healthy sprinkling of nerves) that we can bring a little bit of Ireland to South Africa, and maybe one day bring a little South Africa to Ireland.