By BRUCE DENNILL
The How Now Brown Cow production company recently launched a programme called The Writers’ Collective, which will present the opportunity for three groups of writers to work with a mentor over a period of four months each and have the platform to each present a first draft of a new stage play that may be considered for production in time to come. Every block of four writers, over the initial 12-month period, will work with a different, expert mentor and they will receive a monthly stipend to enable their efforts in delivering new ideas and scripts.
The inaugural group of writers will be mentored by BAFTA winner and double Academy Award nominee William Nicholson, who revised the book and additional lyrics for the iconic South African hit musical King Kong, which was presented at The Fugard Theatre in 2017, winning eight awards.
The participants for the first instalment of The Writers’ Collective (running from 1 February 2021) are: Amy Jephta (The Ellen Pakkies Story, Trackers); Koleka Putuma (Collective Amnesia, No Easter Sunday For Queers); Greg Homann (A Voice I Cannot Silence, In Our Skin) and Karen Jeynes (Everybody Else (Is F*ucking Perfect), Kiss Kiss).
How Now Brown Cow founder Julie-Anne McDowell Hegarty chats about her company and the programme.
Launching How Now Brown Cow in a pandemic: it’s value (in terms of supporting artists and developing and ultimately staging new work) is obvious to any thinking observer, but doing the hard production yards (not least raising funding) in the current scenario is more challenging than ever. Beyond a passion for the arts (though that might be enough), what convinced you that this was necessary now, and here (in South Africa).
The idea to set up a theatre production company pre-dated the pandemic. In fact, it was something I was already considering when I first met Daniel Galloway in November 2019. I met with him at that time to get a feel for the types of plays in which The Fugard Theatre might be interested. When I learned he’d left The Fugard, in February 2020, I immediately got in contact and asked him to come on board as a co-producer on a play due to run in October at Theatre On The Square. In lockdown, the idea for a production entity mushroomed and we explored the many ways in which it might work. The extended period allowed us time to consider the landscape. We had originally intended to launch the company in line with our first production, but as the pandemic continued and our industry became more disheartened we decided to launch it at the end of 2020 to show optimism, hope and belief in the importance of theatre. Obviously, the biggest challenge for us right now is when we can get our work onto a stage. This pandemic has devastated an entire community of practitioners, productions companies, theatres themselves as well as the individuals; the actors, directors, choreographers, stage managers, lightning techs and everyone else. But launching How Now Brown Cow and forging ahead helps us remain forward-facing and positive. It keeps us focused on the end goal – getting back to theatres. How Now Brown Cow will produce theatre in South Africa first and foremost. I live here now and this is where I spend most of my time. But I would love to see our work travel. I am from the UK and return home often so my dream is to see our productions go overseas and play in London, Belfast, Dublin even…
In broad strokes, how does one go about launching – and funding – such an enterprise in an industry currently not enjoying much (or any) political and commercial support?
We are funded privately and have a budget for 2021 and 2022 for a certain number of productions. Obviously, theatres are struggling to re-open in any meaningful sense with social distancing protocols, financial feasibility and of course the willingness of audiences to inhabit closed, intimate spaces. Realistically, we are looking at the second half of the year before we can roll out a production. However if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can not actually plan too far ahead and that the goal posts continually change. So, in the interim, we have allocated part of our budget to launching The Writers’ Collective. We believe in the power of storytelling, the importance of stories in our culture to help us understand each other and ourselves and the relevance more than ever for this in our recovery from the COVID-19 decimation. We are unable to get back onto our stages just yet, but we can plan for it. We can still create. So that is what we are doing. We are investing in our storytellers and their writing to provide us with stories to tell when we open back up. From The Writers’ Collective we will have an additional, possible 12 scripts from which to create work. I guess you could say The Writers’ Collective is our first production, of sorts. We are constantly looking at ways to try and make our budget extend further and be more meaningful, so we are reaching out to other like-minded individuals or corporates to join us in supporting the arts with sponsorship/funding. We have committed to 12 writers in 2021. It’s small, a drop in the ocean of what is needed and what could be done on a bigger scale. But it’s a start.
How were your first batch of candidates for The Writers’ Collective programme chosen? They’re all writers who enjoyed a significant level of success already. Some commentators might say that the resources could be better invested in younger, less experienced up-and-comers, but dealing with individuals who already know the ropes does increase the chance of the material being generated being of high quality – pieces that could theoretically go into production sooner rather than later. Was that part of the thinking?
I guess it does depend on how you look at it. For How Now Brown Cow, we have a budget and duty to allocate it responsibly. We are a production company, not a learning institution. We are not equipped to teach or even guide a less experienced writer through a scriptwriting process. There are colleges and courses that specialise in that. We are looking for writers who can write scripts that will go into production and be seen. We have started deliberately small, three groups of four writers, who will deliver a first draft script and be paid a stipend. This is their living and they will continue to earn a living now, even while theatres are closed. Our first four writers were selected from many many talented and gifted writers. We are fortunate to launch our collective with these heavyweights, and hopefully it shows our commitment to the industry and to producing excellent work. I think that our resources are best spent in the talent we have and know and nurturing that for now. Of course, down the line, it would be great to look at how we are able to expand on that. The other thing the pandemic has taught me is that you need to adapt to new circumstances and run with it. It would be wonderful to get to a point where we can indeed encourage new writers and up and coming talent. It will be dependent on funds. But the income we generate from productions will be re-invested in productions and it’s people.
“Tell South African stories” is a brief that can be interpreted in a thousand ways. What are the hoped-for outcomes, in terms of the types of theatre created and the potential audiences reached?
What I mean by that brief is, write stories that resonate. We are a diverse nation with a unique DNA. To encourage our audiences back, and especially our young people, into a theatre space as opposed to streaming at home or other diversions we need to make theatre relevant. Theatre that people see, hear and feel as something they recognise. There is always a place for Shakespeare and the classical texts of Tennessee Williams and others, but I believe we also need real-life dramas and comedies that “talk” to us. I’d love to see plays that reflect the people we are today, the issues we face today and make us think and feel and ultimately provoke dialogue.
It’s wonderful to have William Nicholson as the mentor for this batch of writers – how did he become involved? And how important is it have both company and guidance on a writing journey like this? Many writers (novelists, and others, as well as playwrights) often complete the process on their own…
Bill Nicolson worked with The Fugard on the rewrite of King Kong, on the script and lyrics. Daniel, as the former MD of The Fugard, had worked with him then and approached him now with the idea of The Writers’ Collective. He was and is extremely excited about what we are trying to achieve and immediately jumped on board with his support. He is the most generous, humble and kind man who has the most incredible career under his belt. I’m still pinching myself that he’s part of the process but it is testament to his belief in storytelling, theatre and his altruistic nature. It’s important to have a sounding board as a writer. It is a solitary process, but many writers do appreciate an objective opinion and fresh perspective on their work. The choice of mentor is key. I think any writer would be hugely grateful to have someone of Bill’s calibre look at their work. Of course it’s not prescriptive, so the choice is theirs – how much or not they reach out to him.
Twelve new works is a potentially notable addition to the canon of original South African theatre. It’s also quite a large number of plays to introduce to a (currently) subdued industry (should the works develop that far). How will momentum being maintained once these scripts are completed, to make sure that the pieces move from the page to the stage?
Our commitment at this stage is payment for a first draft script. From that point, we may commission a final draft. Then we would look at first option to produce that play.
What plans are there to partner with existing South African production infrastructure to stage these plays?
It’s crucial that we work together as an industry to keep our industry alive. We are all in this together, we are all suffering and we are all looking to get back to theatre as soon as possible. We have so much in common. As How Now Brown Cow, we believe in collaboration and will absolutely look to support other production companies and look forward to working together where appropriate.