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Building an Audience for Malawian Political Theatre

Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr.: Welcome to Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre podcast, produced for Howlround Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide, in partnership with Advanc[ing] Arts Forward, a movement advanced inclusion and justice through the arts by creating a liberated space that uplift, heal, and encourages to change the world. I am your host, Fumbani Innot Phir. Jr, a producer, actor, director, playwright, and of course, a freelance journalist.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre I interview established theatre artists from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in modern world, defines the problem, the better solution to sustain the culture of performing arts in this generation of motion pictures. In this podcast, I’ll lead discussion with established performers, directors and writers that are exploring ways of greeting all the challenges, while their works inspire the community.

Bright Chayachaya, welcome.

Bright Phumayo Chayachaya: Thank you very much.

Fumbani: All right. As a young theatre practitioner in Malawi, vibrant one, we decided to bring you in for this podcast program whereby, we need to interact with you to see through how theatre in Malawi is progressing. And we decided to call you in this interview to explore. But tell us, who is Bright Chayachaya?

Bright: So Bright Chayachaya is a theatre practitioner in Malawi, basically who ventured into theatre as an actor, but has grown into becoming a theatre director as well as producer, whereby he also curates some other theatre productions. Of course, he's not studied purely theatre, he studied communications and cultural studies. But then through the exposure to theatre, through the academic institution that he went through, he’s been… I got to love theatre as a passionate person. I got to love theatre and exposed to different literatures that have helped to move Bright Chayachaya into a theatre person that you know today.

Fumbani: Alright. It's tricky, and it's interesting to know that you did a separate program from theatre. But likely with passion, you are at institution whereby they offer programs for performing arts like drama. And from there, you were so popular with drama than your program. What was the secret behind?

Bright: Like I said, passion is what drove me towards theatre. When I was going to Chancellor College, I'd been selected for performing arts to study communication in cultural studies. I knew that I'm doing communications and cultural studies after I go to the university. But before going there, I thought that I'm studying bachelor’s of arts humanities, which offered drama as a course. So I was eager to do drama. And then when I got the news that I'm not purely going to study drama as a course, I wanted to study it as an extra course, but then due to academic pressures and stuff, I didn't do that. And then I got a chance to join what we called the Chancellor Traveling Theatre. That's where I got most of the experience through the exposure that I had with different guys that were studying drama. That were directing us, that were helping us, molding us, sharing us different literatures that we studied.

So from then on, I started doing, I would say that I spent most of my times in the drama section than I did to my program that I was studying, that's communication and cultural studies. And the other thing is, communication, basically what we're studying was media. It was more or less media studies. But then I chose to use the very same theories that I would study there, to try and apply them, using traditional media, which is mainstream theatre that you know me for today.

Fumbani: Before you joined the professional theatre, after the journey at college. And you were part of the Chanco Traveling Theatre. Of which historically, we know Chanco Travel[ing] Theatre way back. It has been very vibrant. And I recall during your time, you to see several performances. Several performances, you do production at Mwezi Arts Festival, Blantyre Festival, and so many other festivals in Malawi. The experience of Chanco Traveling Theatre, when you joined the grouping of youngsters at the college, how was the experience being part of the team?

Bright: It was quite interesting because I joined the group a year after the team that I found decided to bring back Chanco Traveling Theatre because Chanco Traveling Theatre had died in the late nineties, early/late nineties, somewhere there. So in 2010, the group decided to come back and then start, revamp the Traveling Theatre. So when I joined, I met people that were passionate about the group, the Chanco Traveling Theatre group. So most of them, they were in fourth year, and I was in first year. And most of the people that were in third and second year were not that passionate. So much, that when I got into second year, no one up there was there to support the group. So it was like, I took the mantle of running the grouping when I was in second year. And joined by some other people from this first year, we managed to revamp the group and then we started touring with different performances, coming to Blantyre, going to the Lilongwe, and then going to several festivals like the Mwezi Wa Wala Arts Festival and then the Blantyre Arts Festival as well. So it was quite interesting because for me it was, like I said, I wanted to study drama, but then the opportunity was not there for me to study. So Chanco Travel Theatre became more or less like a course for me to study theatre.

Fumbani: Drama. All right.

Bright: And here we are.

Fumbani: Yeah. Okay, quite a journey, you being part of the Chanco Traveling Theatre. In Malawi, we recognize Chanco Traveling Theatre as one of the prominent theatre in Malawi because we know Chanco, producing theatre practitioners in each and every as graduates. And when we hear about Chanco Traveling Theatre staging a performance at such a place, people flock to watch quality theatre from intellectuals. Now, you graduated, you went out of college. What was the first step for you to enter into professional theatre. Independently, apart from being part of the college and being part of the institution. Then you decided to come up with a theatre grouping as well as a company. And what made you to establish a theatre company?

Bright: So basically, you're right, Chanco Traveling Theatre is a pioneer of theatre. We can't talk about theatre without talking about Chanco Traveling Theatre. So after I graduated from college, that was in 2015. In 2016, we decided to continue with doing drama. So I ganged up with my fellow former Chancellor students, who we were together in Chanco Travel Theatre, we were staying together in Zomba. So we say that, let's continue doing this. So we took up a banner that was started in 2012. They called it International Alliance for University Theatre. Basically the idea behind it was that they wanted that, people graduate from college, they should not stop drama, they should...

Fumbani: Continue?

Bright: Graduate into International Alliance of University Theatre

Fumbani: Oh, I see, Okay.

Bright: But then, the dream died somewhere around 2013, thereabout. And then when I got out of college and decided that maybe we should take this thing back. But then after engaging people to get ideas from them on how best we can approach the idea that we had was that, if we use university theatre, it would be limiting. What about we find something that would encompass everyone? Everyone would be willing to join the grouping. Because if we use theatre, it would mean that only those people who went through universities would be able to participate in that particular theatre company that we're about to establish. So after engaging with people and then looking at the philosophies that were there, we thought it wise that Umunthu—International Alliance for Umunthu Theatre. Umunthu Theatre, whereby we have to champion the philosophy of Umunthu to people, was the best solution to encompass everyone, so that everyone should be willing to join the grouping. Because humanity, umunthu: everyone is welcome, I am because we are. So that's what we wanted to champion that time. So we started the grouping, that was in 2016 with friends, and then we started doing productions in 2016-2017, up to now. We are still doing theatre productions. Of course, we haven't done in a production this year, but then we are planning on doing another production. That's in the pipelines.

Fumbani: All right. We missed you on stage. Basically, when Umunthu came into limelight in 2016, we saw you coming up with adaptation from South Africa. It was everywhere. You make a tour, a two man production. You tour in secondary schools. Why did you decide to say, okay, after premiering in good spaces, let's take the production to secondary school. So, what was the main idea?

Bright: The idea was to interact with students that were still studying in secondary school. We know there are competitions like, there's National Arts Schools Festival, and then there's ATEM.

Fumbani: ATEM, which is drama festival as well.

Bright: Drama festival as well, for students. So after watching different performances from students during the festivals, we thought it wise that, what if we engage students at another level? We had to share the knowledge that we had with students. So basically what we're doing is, we would perform and then would have a discussion with the students so that they understand how we came about into having the particular production to state it. So, it was some sort of capacity building to the students. Capacity strengthening, rather, to the students so that they experience what theatre is all about. And from there, they should pick up a few things. And then when they were doing their festivals, they should be able to use the same knowledge that we shared with them, to do their different productions.

Fumbani: Okay. And with Umunthu, you started something like a movement. You see? By that time theatre in Malawi, in terms of support, up to now, it's kind of hard to take resources, pumping money to do a production. And how did you manage to do that? Being graduates. That time, you didn't have any job, and your only job was theatre, but you manage to do some productions.

Bright: That question is quite interesting. There's always a question that goes, graduates from Chancellor College don't practice. So we thought it wise that, what if we tried? Because what wanted to do is try and do it. So we started doing it, but what we're doing is, the little savings, the little money that we'd get from whatever.

Fumbani: In the box office?

Bright: Box office or whatever. We'd use it to fund our different productions. Now there comes a problem with funding. So what we thought was, for me, now, I thought it wise that maybe, if I find something that I would be doing, I'll be getting money from that, and then I'll be funding the particular theatre production. So I joined and started working as a theatre person as well, to another organization. Youth Network and Counseling. But then now the challenge is, there is sort of what we call conflict of interest. Because I'm working for an organization that does theatre, and for me to still practice mainstream theatre, it's like I'm conflicting myself. My allegiance goes more to Umunthu Theatre. And you're not going to feel that I'm betraying you. So it's hard. That's why you notice that we've been underground for some time. We're still trying to work it out, how best we can still do it.

So basically, it's a hassle for people to do theatre. Because for you to do a production, you need to have resources for rehearsal and resources for you to travel to different spaces. Without money, you can't do it. And funding, as well, is nowhere to be seen. We'll talk about that. But then it's something that we've been crying for. We need funding for us to do productions, but then funding's nowhere to be seen. So we rely on the little that we get from whatever endeavors that we take upon.

Fumbani: Still on a Umunthu. 90 percent of the productions we watched from Umunthu, the cast of the productions, I can say 90 percent, even 95 percent, the cast is either the graduate from University of Malawi or they're still students at the same campus. Is it your plan to do that? Because of limited resources, because utilizing students to be part of the cast, it will be at a cheaper price than a professional Indigenous artist, outside there. So what was your plan? Or, what is it?

Bright: So it's quite interesting that you observed that. Because for us, Chancellor College provides us an opportunity to interact with students. And students at Chancellor College are passionate about drama. Most of the students that we work with, you'd find that maybe they're not studying drama as a course, or they were and they stopped, but then they're still passionate. They still want to do drama, and they can't practice. But some are doing drama. As for us, we thought it wise that, it's an opportunity that we have to tap into, whereby we engage students and those people that are outside the institution that, obviously, they studied drama. And then we work with them.

It's not by design; it's by chance, I would say. Because I remember, when we were doing Sometimes in July, we had to call out for people to apply, for those who are within Zomba. Because of limited resources, we can't take someone from Blantyre or Lilongwe to come to Zomba. We can't feed them. So we said, those who are available, they should apply for particular roles in that particular production. So most of them that applied were some from Chancellor College. And some who were within Zomba, but then there were not students at Chancellor College and they were never students at Chancellor College. So we worked with both students at Chancellor College, those who graduated at Chancellor College, and those from the community. So it was actually a blend.

And we started, we're also about to do this other production Chamdothi, an adaptation from a book Beyond the Barricades by Mufunanji Magalasi. Actually, the play was by Dr. Mufunanji Magalasi. So we wanted to do that. I will tell you that almost 95 percent of the cast were not students from Chancellor College, but rather people that we identified outside Chancellor College that never studied drama, that are never part of the Chancellor College corridors or the universities. So we wanted to do that. But then due to other factors, COVID and other things, we were unable to continue with that particular project. But then we still have plans to continue with that particular project. So it's not by design, basically. It's by chance and opportunities that are there, and we tap into the available opportunities so that maybe things should keep moving.

Fumbani: All right, okay. We'll go back a bit. You went to Chancellor College, and the Chancellor College Traveling Theatre. We cannot align away from that. Most of the production were influenced by the academic purpose, or you decided to do production maybe by your lecturer or an adaptation based off or inspiration you learned from class, from your friends learned from class. And in Umunthu, we discover that your content, basically, or your focus on poor theatre. And poor theatre, basically. Also experimental, most of your productions.

Bright: That's right.

Fumbani: Was it basically on resource purposes? Or was it just, okay, this is our style?

Bright: That's quite interesting. I don't know what I would call it. But then it's basically something that, after discussions with different people, we thought, for me, I feel poor theatre is the best way to go. Of course, it's not that I'm not competent with other approaches of theatre. We can. But then due to resources that are there, we can't say that we'll travel to Lilongwe or to Mzuzu with a production that's realistic in nature. That we have to carry beds, we have to carry things that are needed for you to premiere a realistic play. So poor theatre provides us with an opportunity that, even five people, you can travel without the burden of carrying several things, and still more have your performance done elsewhere. So it's basically towards the source constraints that pushes us to be doing poor theatre. And in fact, even watching productions that are realistic in nature, I think as for Malawi, we don't have the capacity, I can't say the capacity because of maybe due to lack of resources, we can't properly manage to do realistic theatre because realistic theatre needs a lot of money.

Fumbani: Time.

Bright: Time as well. For stage managers and set setters to sync together and then move stuff around during performances. So I mean, we can't have that.

We can't talk about theatre in Malawi without talking about Du Chisiza. But then, he's gone, and we have a different crop of actors now.

Fumbani: And we can also say, because it's poor theatre, it's easy to experiment.

Bright: It's easy to experiment. So it's that kind of thing. We to don't want to be, basically, limited to one particular...

Fumbani: Style?

Bright: Style. So I think it provides us that opportunity. We experiment a lot despite that we have, at the back of our minds, that what we want is to do for poor theatre, but then still more, we experiment a lot. Drawing inspiration from different approaches.

Fumbani: Yeah. And still on poor theatre, in thematic angle, most of your production, people say they are connected to politics. Is it true?

Bright: We have done several productions. We do people plays, people drama. If you watch our productions, you find that most of the productions that we do are inspired by stories from...

Fumbani: From the community?

Bright: From the community, from the ghetto, from people. We tell people stories. But then we look at how the authorities are oppressing the poor people and how decisions made up there are affecting people on the ground. So it's not basically that we are into political place, but then we look at how politics affect people on the ground, how governance is affecting people on the ground. Because as we say, as Umunthu Theatre, I am because you are. If people up there do not love their people, that means people are suffering. So we want to show how people are suffering, so that maybe those are there, it's some sort of social activism that we do. To enlist, raise awareness on how people are suffering based on the decisions that are made somewhere. Made by politicians, made by people running the show currently. So that's what we do. We were not basically saying that we are doing political plays, but then we are doing social activism, whereby people should be aware of the issues.

Fumbani: In the artistic language, it's like that.

Bright: It's like that.

Fumbani: But to do to the society, it will direct interpret in an angle. Because the journalists will interpret the whole content as a political attack. It will depend on the gatekeepers who like to say, okay, I think the story needs to get out in this way. Like Sometimes in July. You staged it before this current regime. It was just, “Okay, people were remembering those days, what happened 2011.” But when you staged last year, it sparked something to the society. Okay! It was a play of demonstrations in 2011. Is it because they are demonstrations as well?

Bright: There are demonstrations as well, here within Malawi.

Fumbani: So you wanted to reflect that. Yes, lucky enough you staged it on...

Bright: That was on the seventeenth? It's three days before the actual date when the demonstrations in 2011 happened.

Fumbani: Right. So it was quite interesting to see in such a way, whereby you talk to the society, you interact with society. And then sometimes we discover that such type of productions woo the audience to come and watch. Because they will say "I watch my story, I watch our story, I watch our narratives". Now you talked of adaptations from a book of Magalasi, Professor Magalasi, right?

Bright: Yes.

Fumbani: This is maybe the first time to say in Malawian actor, a Malawian producer, a director wants to adapt a production by a Malawian. It's kind hard, I know. To you, how did you decide to do that? Because 90 percent of adaptations in Malawi, they are foreign content.

Bright: Yes. So it was a team discussion. Basically what we wanted to do was to use the same for educational purposes. Because as you know, currently, students in secondary schools are studying a book by Smith Likongwe. One of the plays that we're studying is Chamdothi. So we wanted to use that as well for the students. So we couldn't have just taken the play as it is. So what we were doing was to try and tweak it a bit so that it should be performable, and so that people should be able to understand the particular story, to add in a few things and remove a few things that we deemed that maybe these are not particularly necessary because it was translated from English to Chichewa. And then the translation, sometimes we're off. So we were trying to do all that with that particular production. So we have done all the groundwork and then we had started rehearsals. But then it was that kind of thing. So for us is a lot about, Chamdothi is one of the oral stories, folklores that we've been taught since we were young. And then it was not only meant for secondary students, we wanted to also to perform it in different theatres.

Fumbani: To remind us those days.

Bright: To remind us, to tell that story. That this was the story that we used to be taught. As a way of preserving as real culture in Malawi.

Fumbani: All right, okay. So now Umunthu's there. Now we have seen Umunthu on and off, but you as actors and your team, you haven't been off the mainstream theatre, apart from Umunthu Performing. We have seen you in festivals, doing workshops, participating in the panels of the competition. And mostly, as we can say, current, you are one of the theatre patrons. You watch most of the productions in Malawi.

Bright: Yes.

Fumbani: Yeah. What drives you that caliber? Because It's quite different for others. Because most of the artists, they say, okay, I'm an artist, I'll perform, off I go. Most of them, they don't like to go and watch other performances, they don't like to go and do some workshops. And maybe as well, to inspire youngsters. You are part of NASFest, National School Youth Arts Festival, whereby you're on the panel, you're in the workshops, you interact with kids. What drives you to be part of it?

Bright: The drive basically also draws much on the passion that I have for theatre. So as for me, watching other people's performances, I believe that learning is not a once off thing. And then you can't only learn through practice. You have to observe what other people are doing. From there, we draw inspiration. What other people are doing, and then we learn from what other people are doing. How they're approaching different texts that are there. So through that, I believe I grow as an artist and I grow as an actor as well. So I have to watch as many productions as I can, for me to grow as an actor and as a theatre person. As a director, I need to see how people are approaching different productions, so that maybe, when I'm directing my own production, I should be able to draw inspiration from other people's works as well.

And the other thing is, I usually say that, if theatre Malawi, maybe it's facing different challenges, it's because of lack of opportunities to learn. So that's why I usually volunteer myself to do workshops, to share the knowledge, the little knowledge that I have, to other people as well as the youngsters. Using NASFest or any other festival that I would be called upon to do that. So that I should share the little knowledge that I have in theatre. So basically, that's the drive. It's about the passion that I have for theatre. It's not only always for me to be on stage or me directing a particular production. That's where you find me in theatre. It's, because I have passion for that, I need to see. And you'd find that, after watching each and every production, I would as well interact with a particular director or even actors, just to hear from them or share insights, or to exchange notes on how good the production knows where were the problems and how best can we approach different productions.

So it's all about passion. I would love to see theatre in Malawi back to the glory days. I don't know how it was because I didn't watch any other production, but then it pains me. Because most of the times after each and every production, you find someone say, I know this production cannot be as good as Du used to do it. But then I've never seen how Du used to do it. So you can't tell me how I should do it. But there's still moments just hear that it pains me. So I want at least that we should be able to appreciate theatre as it is now, because a lot of things have changed, I mean.

Fumbani: Very. You have just sparked something.

Bright: Yes.

Fumbani: The issue of Du Chisiza. Because when you say the glory days, we talk of days were from 1960s to 2000. People say that was a glory days whereby people, audience patronize theatre spaces in large numbers. Sold out tickets and stuff. But the name that comes out each and every time was Du. And yes, people will say, “Ah, you're not doing it like Du was doing in that time.” To you, how do you take such words from the theatre patrons? I know most of them who state those text are the guys who used to watch Du.

Bright: Or those who used to work with Du.

Fumbani: To work with Du in those days. Now, do you feel like, okay, because they are not able to fit into theatre industry with good productions. So they have to say theatre is gone, theatre died a long time ago in Malawi. But you could see another comment from someone who didn't watch Du production way back. And say, wow, this is something.

Bright: This is a great performance.

Fumbani: This performance. To you, what's the main problem with these issues? What's the main problem?

Bright: I respect Du. He's a legend. I hear he's a legend. And I also adopted the same notion that Du was always a legend. We can't talk about theatre in Malawi without talking about Du Chisiza. But then, he's gone. And we have a different crop of actors now. We have to respect them and appreciate them as who they are. Du was a brand. Fumbani Phiri is a brand. We don't have to basically completely compare Du Chisiza to Fumbani. Because there are two different entities we need to appreciate Fumbani as how Fumbani is doing his productions. We need to respect Du, and set him out. But then the other thing is, I feel audiences then would flock to watch theatre. Because I'm sure in Malawi then. That was in 2000, we didn't have lots of homes that had television sets. Football, people would only listen to football, they would not watch football. Now we have English Premier League, we have the Champions League, we have lots of things that have saturated people's homes. Today's TV is there for people to watch the different channels.

Fumbani: The motion pictures, Netflix.

Bright: Netflix, whatever. So for us to penetrate, it's hard. Because I think from 2000 to somewhere there, theatre indeed would say, because they say that theatre was dead, they killed theatre. And then we are trying to revive it. And we are doing our best by bringing out political production, by bringing out the best that we can from the little knowledge that we have. Because we didn't learn it from anyone else. We're just inspired by the passion that we have. You get it? So for me, it depends. But then at the same time, it inspires me to do more. That's why I always try to push theatre to different heights. So I think the sooner we realize that maybe those days are gone and we are in a different generation, whereby we are saturated with a lot of things and then we have to fight through, so that the audience should come back to the theatres.

I mean, we still have theatre. Theatre is still alive. Maybe when we say commercial theatre is sort of dead because we don't have audiences, maybe I would agree. But then you find people doing applied theatre. They're using theatre for social change, they're doing theatre for development. Whereby, when you go to communities with your performances, you find lots of people coming to watch your performances, the audiences are there. So theatre is not dead. Only that commercial theatre doesn't have that audience that it used to enjoy in the early nineties.

All stakeholders need to work together towards bringing back audiences into theatre spaces.

Fumbani: Way back early nineties. And on top of that, we talked about poor theatre and realism theatre. And these two has been compared so many times. If we go to South Africa, they're using every type of theatre to produce good content. Here in Malawi, currently as we say, it's very hard to produce a realism theatre, based on the audience. Audience of nowadays needs faster things. Things with a lot of techniques, digital and staff. So poor theatre of digital is very okay to work with. And youngsters, they're able to do that because they're the millennials. They know how to work with technologies, right?

Bright: Yes.

Fumbani: So way back, most of the productions were realism theatre. You see sofa, it's everything on stage, props in tight. So I think there's a conflict.

Bright: There's a conflict.

Fumbani: There's a conflict of how you produce the productions today and how they produced the production in those days. And I remember when I was in secondary school, and as you can recall, during our time of drama festivals. And it was a time of shifting from realism theatre to poor theatre. We used to get every prop on stage. But by the time we venture into that era, there was a transition. And that transition also helps you as well, as an artist.

Bright: Yes.

Fumbani: Right? And I can see, we can say, okay, this one, I think wasn't part of the transition of theatre from the realism theatre to poor theatre. So now you talk about commercialization of theatre. We have problems, right?

Bright: Yes.

Fumbani: Ninety percent of the guys who patronize theatre, maybe they are artists. I mean, maybe the 10 percent is the guys who just want to enjoy theatre. What are the solutions or the problem we can see, we can curb this, we can divert from that?

Bright: It's quite a challenge for people to prepare a particular piece, publicize it, and then showcase the production, but then the audience do not come. It's quite frustrating for the actors. I remember in 2016, I wanted to quit theatre, but then people had to talk me through it, and I continued. But it's hard for artists currently to do a production, because it's hard for people to come and watch productions. I don't know, is it because of marketing or what?

But then for me, I think we, even artists as well, do not patronize other people's productions. I think you alluded to that point at some point in time. So I think for me, for someone to know that there is a production, I think they would know it through other artists as well. So if artists would be able to patronize other people's production and bring along someone so that people should be watching productions, it would be a solution to audience scarcity in Malawi. So we need to work together, all stakeholders need to work together towards bringing back audiences into theatre spaces. So it's not a one man's job. It requires a lot of work for both the artists and theatre associations and the government as well. So that people should come back to theatres and patronize theatre as people used to. And as well, I think there's a problem with consistency as well. Consistent in terms of quality productions as well as quantity. You find that, as we're saying, Umunthu last performed in 2021, July. This is 2022, September. Which is a year and three months. People haven't seen Umunthu.

Fumbani: Yes, we need to see you.

Bright: People need to see us on stage. So it's all of that. We need to be consistent in terms of production and quality as well, because we have starved the audience for some time. People have forgotten that, ah, maybe we had theatre productions in Malawi. People will just say, ah, there's a production. Two or three, four months later there's nothing happening. And then they hear... So people are occupied with a lot of things. What if we bring them a complete program of how events should be. Events in a year or in a quarter. Theatre productions that are there in a quarter. People would be able to plan, at such a date, I'm going to watch a particular production. So we need that as well. Consistency needs to be there from the theatre practitioners.

Fumbani: And you talk of consistency. Consistency maybe will require how many theatre groups we have in Malawi. From the database I have from National Theatre Association from Malawi. Yes, I as the publicist's secretary, now as currently members who registered this year. We have about sixty theatre groups nationwide who are registered. So we also have some theatre group we know but they're not registered. In total, we have about one hundred.

Bright: One hundred, yes.

Fumbani: Right? For individual theatre artists, we have a lot of them. But we have also seen some production coming up. Okay, let's do a production without a name. They'll do a production. So I think if you can engage the association to work it out, how best can you work it out? To say, okay, we have these members, we have these grouping. Let's go back.

Bright: So you're saying that we have sixty registered theatre groups in Malawi, in the National Theatre Association of Malawi. Sixty. In a year, we have fifty-two weeks. What if in a year, each grouping produces four productions? We're looking at 240 performances that are there. That's disregarding that they are too early in that particular production.

Fumbani: Yes.

Bright: You get it? So 240 productions in a year in Malawi. We make the much-needed noise, that theatre is back in Malawi.

Fumbani: We'll definitely make the noise.

Bright: Not theatre, but commercial theatre is back in Malawi.

Fumbani: Obviously, it'll be back.

Bright: It will be back. So that kind of thing that, as theatre practitioners, we are passive. It's stemming from the passiveness of what we love. That's killing commercial theatre in Malawi. As I said, from 2000 to somewhere around 2015, 2016, and 2017, that's when I've seen groups coming out to do productions. We've seen the coming in of, ye talk of Umunthu Theatre, we talk of YDC, we talk of Young Travelers Theatre, we talk of Dzuwa Arts that are giving people content. But then, that's not enough. We have different productions, different theatre groups that are there. They need to come out and get back on stage. The stage is cold, my friend.

Fumbani: Yeah, very. And the consistency itself will also help the stakeholders, to support the industry.

Bright: The stakeholders to support the industry.

Fumbani: Because frequently, production, they say, okay, audience will be there. Audience will be obvious, okay? Each and every Friday, I have a show, and they're going to watch. Let me buy my popcorn and watch a theatre show. Next week, I'll be back as well, to interact and stuff. I think there's a lot to work in theatre. And you being part of it, it will help us.

Bright: It will.

Fumbani: It will help us. So, you talked about theatre, there is no dead. And you talk about there is theatre for social change. And of which, as I'm saying, somewhere, tomorrow, some guys who are doing the very same thing. Popular, we say theatre for development.

Bright: Theatre for development, yes.

Fumbani: Development of which Chancellor College is the main champion of producing such practitioners. And most of the practitioners, when they graduated from Chancellor College, they run away from professional theatre in the mainstream. So they hide from theatre for development. Because that's where the money is. The donors are there.

Bright: The donors are there. Money, you go where there is greener pasture.

Fumbani: I'll go back. The very same thing with the discussion I did with Max DC. In 2000, it was a year whereby donors flocked to the country. They supported the mainstream theatre, not theatre development. It was already there with funds, but they supported the mainstream theatre. You talk of the coming in of Nanzikambe. From nowhere, Nanzikambe was there. From nowhere, Nanzikambe was everywhere.

Bright: It was everywhere, yes.

Fumbani: Because of finances. With that, more theatre groups were supported from, this was support from Germany, France, Norway, and even USA. Now it comes from, in 2010-2011 we have political instability or something else in Malawi, with the day in order. Then the France embassy went out, Norwegian embassy went out, and even the UK stopped pumping money in Malawi. And you can say the donor system was off. And also, it affected the theatre industry in Malawi. Yes, that time maybe you and I were just students in secondary schools or you are in the first year. Do you think, if we can recall back the system of donor syndrome, can it work for the industry? Or can it break it again?

Bright: We can't completely run away from donors, currently as a country. We need donors to support us. Of course, I understand. There's a challenge as well that comes with donor dependence, because they have to address their agenda through your productions. So we still need the finances that they use to provide us with, so that we still have to move as a theatre in Malawi. So we need that dependence for us to survive, we need the money for us to survive. Because the little that we get from there that will prepare us to do other productions as well. However, I still don't get why donors pulled funding from the creative industry because I still see donors funding the civil society organizations in Malawi. They're pumping in lots of money, and then no one is willing to pump in money to the creative industry. What's the problem? What happened?

Fumbani: Yeah, the question is, what happened?

Bright: So we need to start digging deep. We need to have a conversation with our so-called theatre legends, for them to tell us what happened. We can't attribute that to the political instability. You talk of cash-gate in 2013 that affected funding in Malawi because there was a shift from then, because funding used to go direct to government and government used to distribute the money to different organizations or work with different organizations. But now, donors are pumping in money direct to the civil society organizations. And no donor is pumping in money to theatre groups. What happened? It's a question that we need to start having. It's a conversation that we need to have. I'm sure, from the little noise that I have, it's an issue of governance. I believe there was mismanagement of resources. People were not able to manage the resources that they had at that particular time. So that maybe to sustain the theatre industry. And it was hard.

There's a challenge as well that comes with donor dependence because they have to address their agenda through your productions.

Fumbani: Just to add up, during that time as well, we would see a lot of production coming out.

Bright: Coming out, yes.

Fumbani: But most of the production, we have derived from foreign content, one.

Bright: Foreign productions.

Fumbani: Two, the audience, there was no audience. But because there was money, still the production were be done.

Bright: Were still being done.

Fumbani: Each and every time we could see a production, but funded. Now with this generation, a generation that believes on telling narratives of their own.

Bright: Telling their own people's story, yes.

Fumbani: Right? Narrative of their own. Because those donors would set their own agendas for you to tell. Do you think, if the donors will come now. To say, here's the money, do a production based on this, this, this, this. Do you think they'll also contribute in killing the creativity? Because to come up with a production, a classic production based on your own narratives, it's creative.

Bright: It's creative.

Fumbani: But to do a production whereby they say, okay, I want you to do a Morie production. It's a foreign content. You'll be forced to adapt it. You put it in your content. On top of that, you need to put that culture from that country, to the audience as well. So do you think that, if we can ask those questions, what happened, then we can get the answers? Or we say maybe mismanagement of funds. We can say, yeah, we can manage the funds well. We can find the system whereby you can control the finances, the staff, but we still do the productions. Now to the creative part. Yes, the money is there. Not the creative part. Do you think they're going to kill the creativity. Do you think They're going to kill the element of common relatives in our country.

Bright: It would contribute to some extent, to hinder creativity of cultural creative practitioners in Malawi. But then there's need for people to survive. People need to be happy. So with the money that they'll be pumping in, to some extent would adapt their particular productions. But then we are already passionate about what we want to do. We can still be doing our own productions. From the little resources that we would get, we'd be able to save from that, and then bring out our different productions. I remember Nanzikambe used to enjoy funding from the embassy from Europe.

Fumbani: From UK and Germany.

Bright: They would do productions that they were told, "Do this particular production." And as well, you should know that these particular funders, they also want to promote our own cultural narratives. That's why you'd find that Nanzikambe was able to do a production that talked about Mbona.

Fumbani: Yeah, I remember that.

Bright: Talked about Jack Mapanje. The productions were funded, but then they told the Malawian stories. Maybe they used approaches from them, then they will do plays by stories originating from Malawi. So it's not necessarily that they would, of course they'll push their agenda, but then still more, they will give you that platform to explore your own particular realm, and then come out with your own stories and tell your own stories. And then people want local stores. They need our stories so that we take them out there, so that people should be able to appreciate what we have.

Fumbani: All right. And now let's just go back. As a graduate, you got an opportunity to proceed with the excuse of drama theatre because you were part of the University of Malawi Chancellor College whereby drama is being taught there and we have lectures. Sometimes you could learn from them through interactions and stuff. Now the whole Malawi, 18 million people and 70 percent are youth. And from that percentage, a lot of them want to access college education. And the college education need also to look on. Do we have a platform for theatre? In the whole Malawi is only Chancellor College that gives that opportunity. So it's like if, we can say a year, only have about an average of twenty to fifty people graduating.

Bright: Fifty people that are graduating. Current twenty, yes.

Fumbani: Yeah, twenty. Right? Not necessarily saying mainstream theatre. It is Just part of it. Do you think we need to do something about theatre for education or something that are built to the capacity of iIndigenous artists? Those guys with talent, the inbound talent in theatre. To at least get a skill with education.

Bright: Yeah, it's quite important that people's capacities have to be strengthened. And to some extent, as far as building people's capacities in terms of understanding what theatre the nitty gritty as what theatre is all about. Because we've seen people doing theatre out of passion and we call it natural talent. Then there's need for them to mass skills, approaches to understand how audiences' deal is. That would help them understand how audiences think, so that when they're doing their productions, they should be able to be in line with the international market. Because most of the productions that we see, they're enjoyed by the local audiences, but then we can't sell them outside. So for us to make enough money, we need also to take performances out there. So people need to understand what theatre is all about. They need to understand the backbone and whatever. So that when they're doing it, they should be able to produce quality productions.

So we need a lot of interventions that would be tailored towards building people's capacities. That's why we're looking at issues of funding as well. If we get enough funding, we'll be able to conduct different workshops with people. I understand Chancellor College currently is running a project. We had a cultural Indaba, that was in 2017-2018? Should be 2018. And then right now, we have solar. That's also calling upon people who did not have access to course study of theatre in a formal institution. Basically, we only have Chancellor College in Malawi.

So such initiatives have to be there, so that people should be able to learn theatre from those who graduated, those who are still studying theatre. So that people should be able to share that kind of knowledge that people get through the academic system. So that's why we need lots of trainings in theatre by practitioners that are there. We need festivals so that people should be able to appreciate. That's why I also said, people need to be patronizing other people's performances, for them to learn from each other. We need that kind of interaction from artists as well. Because I enjoyed, you have an initiative called Theatre in Mandala. I enjoyed the particular interactions that are there after production. So that people should give their insights on how they enjoy that particular production. We need such kinds of conversations. We need platforms whereby artists should be able to come together. And currently, we don't have theatre spaces that accommodate artists, that allows artists to go there just to have fun. Just to hope to interact and do things. So we need such spaces in Malawi. We need different trainings that would provide people with skills for them to produce quality productions.

Fumbani: Yeah, okay. Let me say, it has been a great conversation with you, and insight in education. You talk about the techniques of theatre, you' being one of the youngsters in Malawi pushing theatre up. It is quite a pleasure for you to be part of the conversation. And yeah, I hope next time also have another episode with you, and interact.

Bright: Yeah.

Fumbani: And thank you very much, Bright Chayachaya, also known as Phumayo.

Bright: Phumayo, yes. Currently, I'm pushing for the elimination of the name Bright. I need Phumayo Chayachaya.

Fumbani: You need the local name.

Bright: The local name, yes.

Fumbani: Okay, I understand. Once again, thank you very much.

Bright: You're welcome. Thank you.

Fumbani: Thank you so much for having a chew with us. This has been another episode of Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre. I was your host, Fumbani Innot Phiri. Jr. If you're looking forward to connect with me, you can email me at fumbaniphiri@gmail.com.

This episode is produced as a contribution to Howlround Theatre Commons. You can find more episode of this series and other Holland podcast in our feeds: iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “Howlround Theatre Commons podcast” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post the rating and write a review on those platforms. This help other people to find us. You can also find the transcript of this episode along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Do you have an idea for exciting podcasts, answer, or a TV event that theatre community needs to hear? Reach howlround.com and submit your idea to the commons.

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Thoughts from the curator

In Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr. interviews established theatre artists from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in a modern world, define its problems, and find better solutions to sustain performing arts in a generation of motion pictures. Fumbani leads discussions with established performers, directors, and writers who are exploring ways to greet these challenges while their works inspires their communities.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre


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