Working in theatre and stage production: Graduate story

Thu 14 Dec 2023

Discover the journey of Julie-Anne McDowell, an actress turned writer and producer. Learn how she pursued her passion for storytelling, overcame challenges, and achieved success in the screen industry. 

Find out how the MA Writing for Script & Screen course at Falmouth University played a pivotal role in graduate Julie-Anne McDowell's creative growth and career development.

Read our interview with Julie-Anne below:

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. 

Julie-Anne: As an actress, avid theatre goer and voracious reader I have always loved storytelling. As a little girl, I would live in make-believe realms both on stage and off and today still love being transported to other worlds and exploring different realities.

I believe in the transformative power of stories, the age-old custom of storytelling to inform us of the world around us and help us learn about each other and ourselves. Julie Anne McDowell

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland I took ballet and drama classes and spent every spare moment in rehearsals for some show or other.

But under pressure to secure a decent education I studied a Joint Honours French and Spanish degree at Manchester University followed by an International Marketing Diploma through Boston University.

As Export Manager for Denman International I hopped on and off planes throughout the world eventually settling in Johannesburg, South Africa to marry a former customer (the only time I ever crossed the line with a customer I hasten to add!). 

I then set up a sales and marketing agency “Shake Your Tail Feathers” representing several international beauty brands looking for distribution in the South African retail market. Amongst other things this involved communicating the essence of each brand through writing press releases. Essentially a form of storytelling. 

My life in South Africa includes three children, three tortoises, two dogs, a husband and a hedgehog. The hedgehog being the least maintenance. 

Why did you choose to study online with Falmouth Flexible? 

Julie-Anne: I was wanting to marry my passion for performing with my love of writing during the Covid lockdown. I researched various online courses none of which related specifically to the stage.

However, I kept returning to the Writing for Script and Screen course at Falmouth University as it receives such positive reviews. I chatted to the Course Leader John Finnegan and explained my predicament of wanting to write for the stage.

He assured me that the skills acquired in this course were the fundamentals in the craft of storytelling and absolutely transferrable to the stage. John suggested I complete the first module and then decide if I wanted to continue. I never looked back.  

What motivated you to study the MA Writing for Script & Screen? 

Julie-Anne: Having enjoyed an “Introduction To Creative Writing” course back in 2019 I had continued writing short stories as part of an online writing community “The Writers Write”.  In the first Covid lockdown I used storytelling as a creative outlet for processing my feelings. 

When we entered the second lockdown, and a further prolonged period of enforced introspection, I prioritised my passion and decided I wanted to return to acting. Acting is a tough and unpredictable career filled with mostly rejection wherever you are in the world. 

I am a 50 year old white female in South Africa, with a funny Belfast accent, so the potential of work for me here is limited to say the least. It became clear that I should try and create work for myself. Develop my love for writing, expand my skill set and make the work happen!  

Graduate Peter Salisbury has gone on to win international film competitions. Read his story:

Show me the interview >

How has the course helped you progress in the screen industries? 

Julie-Anne: While I loved writing short stories, I had no idea about how to structure one. The architecture of a story is what holds it together and hopefully propels the audience from the beginning to the end. The learning of this structural craft provides a framework within which each story is told. 

Understanding the difference of what a character wants and needs, the emotional arcs, the plot points, the interweaving of A,B,C story lines, visual storytelling and driving pace have been invaluable in turning my ideas into a working script. 

Learning in a collaborative way with the online forums where your fellow students critique your work and you theirs is invaluable. Providing feedback to others harnesses your learning in a practical manner forcing you ultimately to evaluate what works or doesn’t and why.   

Can you describe the ways in which the course has benefitted your creative practice since graduating?  

Julie-Anne: Learning the craft of storytelling and benefitting from the 2 year incubator space of Falmouth, allowed me to flex my creative muscles, learn the craft and start to believe in myself.  The feedback and encouragement from the various tutors drove what might have ended up as theory on dusty shelves to getting out into the industry and creating something tangible.    

Since embarking on the Masters, I have set up my own production company called How Now Brown Cow Productions (HNBC) which post-graduation produces both theatre and screen plays.  With the original goal of creating work for myself as an actress it has now evolved to producing challenging stories both from established international works and new South African writing with the ultimate aim of travelling stories across the pond.   

Our first theatre production in 2022 was the Irish play The Beauty Queen Of Leenane in which I played the lead role of Maureen. Our production won five Naledi Theatre Awards, including Best Production 2022 and is set to transfer to Cape Town in August 2023.  

One of the short screenplays I wrote during the course, The Hive, went into production in 2021 and onto the film festival circuit in 2022 winning a bunch of awards including the South African Guild Of Writers Muse Award for Best Produced Script, the Toronto Women’s Award for Best Scriptwriter and LA’s Festigious Film Award for Best Script. I was nominated for Best Actress at The Rapid Lion Film Festival on home turf in South Africa. 

Since graduating, I have acquired the rights to adapt a South Africa novel into a screenplay. I wrote the pilot and the treatment for a 4 part TV series during my final module. I am currently working on reshaping this story into an 8 part series with additional writers to ensure an authentic South African voice.  

In 2021, I established The Writers Collective initiative with HNBC which commissioned 12 local SA playwrights to deliver 12 first draft scripts. We employed some industry heavy weights such as Bill Nicholson, Greg Homann and Paul Warwick Griffin as mentors to guide their creative process and provide feedback. 

Out of this writing pool, we have progressed 2 so far to a final draft stage. One will debut in December 2023 at The Market Theatre Johannesburg and the other in February 2024 at Cape Town’s The Baxter Theatre before transferring to The Theatre On The Square in Johannesburg. 

How has the course helped you keep up to date with screenwriting industry trends? 

Julie-Anne: The course makes their extensive resources available and does touch on current trends in some of the modules. But the onus is on us, as it should be, to watch as much as possible, read as much as possible and mine areas of interest in order to ensure that we, as individuals, are up to date with the latest developments. Especially going forward. 

What are networking opportunities like for online students? 

Julie-Anne: Like most things in life, I think they are what you make them. Keeping connected to my fellow students/graduates, following their projects and championing their progress unites us in our common goal of sharing our humanity through fictional worlds. 

What was the support like, both during the application process and your studies? 

Julie-Anne: The conversations and support during the application process were great. They understood my concern about stage versus screenwriting and tried as best possible to allay my fears.

During the course, tutors were available on a weekly basis to check in, ask questions, mull over ideas and generally just chat about all things screen related. It was helpful because as a writer you are often alone in your own head space and this helped in feeling connected to the university community and my peers.    

Would you describe the course as a good investment?  

Julie-Anne: For me, it certainly was. Quite apart from saving me from insanity and boredom in lockdown, It took what could have been a pie-in-the-sky dream to grounding it in reality and making myself accountable.

It has been the launchpad for my second chapter career and provided me with a deep love and appreciation for storytelling which feeds into each role I now play as writer, producer and actress. 

During Falmouth's MA Writing for Script & Screen, you will explore strategies for promoting yourself as a freelance scriptwriter and work on a major script development project. Choose from three start dates per year:

Show me course details >

Writing for Script & Screen

Get in touch today