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Creating a Varied and Exciting Theatre Culture in Malawi

If you were to take a close look at the professional theatre industry in Malawi, you would quickly notice similarities in the various shows’ composition.
Attend three and you will start feeling the monotony in all of it; it is like each performance, each story, is the same.
You are to experience either the “Dumb and Dumber” comic approach, pioneered in Malawi by a comedy duo known as Izeck and Jakobo (the late John Nyanga and Eric Mabedi), or, more likely, the ATEM approach, which are English-language plays with an emphasis on dialogue and, as Smith Likongwe, a drama lecturer at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, put it, “an overcrowded stage with a lot of unjustified chorus acting and obsession with cumbersome props.” Is this all there is to theatre in the country?Before we jump to conclusions, let us take a look at where most theatremakers here are coming from.
The name ATEM is taken from a drama competition that was founded and sponsored by the Association for Teaching English in Malawi. Students who chose drama as their extracurricular would be part of a club, and the students or their teacher would write the plays; the primary aim was to showcase how students at various secondary schools had mastered the language.
As Mzuzu University drama lecturer Misheck Mzumara observes, the competition has brought about a lot of directors, playwrights, and actors. “A number of artists have really sharpened their skills by directing secondary-school plays on a regular basis,” he says, before adding that a lot of playwrights and budding actors have their foundation in ATEM.
A community drama performance in Chichewa. Photo by the National Theatre Association of Malawi.
While the ATEM competition has seen better days—it has been dormant since last June following controversies (including financial mismanagement, lack of vision, and poor leadership)—trending now is a festival called NASFEST (National Schools Arts Festival), which was established in 2009 and follows the ATEM formula. It’s a competition in which secondary schools from various divisions write and perform plays, competing against each other with the hopes of winning a spot to battle other schools from around the country at the main national festival.
While both the ATEM and NASFEST competitions produce the same kind of play, if you attend festivals like the Blantyre Arts Festival, in the Malawian city of the same name, you will begin to realize that theatre in this country is wider in its scope—it includes physical theatre, improv, and image theatre, among other forms. This variety makes me ask: How come this other kind of theatre isn’t taught in secondary schools, which is where most Malawian actors are introduced to the art form?Attend three and you will start feeling the monotony in all of it; it is like each performance, each story, is the same.Apart from a few expensive high schools that have drama in their curriculum, government-run secondary schools don’t. Drama is just a component of English and literature courses, and the focus is on reading plays, not staging them.
As a result, a student’s only exposure to acting is through drama clubs. If these students are lucky, the plays they create with their teachers in these clubs will take them to the competition.The teachers, on their part, typically don’t have much specific theatrical training. While some schools hire playwrights and directors to help run the clubs and provide them with a steady stream of drama scripts, for the most part, because there is no pure drama program, it’s the students who study education at university who teach.
“The education program teaches voice projection, stage presence, and other basics for the sake of students to be able to articulate language so when they graduate they can make their lessons lively and creative,” Mzumara says. “They focus on improvisation, and they also do some Shakespeare.” Once these teachers graduate and start working, it’s up to them—if they are passionate enough—to run a drama club if they want.While Mzumara understands the ATEM approach was created to help with the teaching of English, he has issues with the fact that most drama competitions focus on English-language theatre.
He strongly believes drama shouldn’t only be about the language—that is a colonial mentality. To him, drama is about stories that need to be told.Telling those stories becomes very difficult when actors must do so in English.“We need people to do performances in a language they can understand better,” he says, before adding: “It’s not sane to restrict people to act in a foreign language, because when you force people to adopt a foreign language you are also forcing them to adopt a culture of a foreign country.”Mzuzu University students performing onstage. Photo from Mzuzu University.
While Mzumara agrees there are plays in the competitions that portray Malawian stories—even if they are in English—he laments the unqualified judges who get bribes from some of the schools who then go on to win. “Whether it is due to poverty or the unstructured way in which the competitions are judged, I don’t know,” he says.
“But I prefer drama festivals because at a festival people just present what they know without corrupting anybody.”Mzumara raises the question of credibility when it comes to the competitions, something that has been debated in many circles and has even led to controversy in the media.
This point raises a second question, though. Are theatremakers making note of what plays win and then using that formula to appeal to the judges when they compete? Could this be why most theatremakers have come to think of the ATEM model as the “winning model” and have adopted the same approach? If so, this may explain the monotony in performance style in Malawian theatre.
The controversies in competitions have led some artists to think that there should be no more competitions and instead schools should be invited to participate in the festivals to showcase their work. Likongwe says, “Competitions do little to improve theatre.Of course people prepare and improvements happen. But that is to a smaller extent.” While the main limitation of the festivals is a lack of funding—which means that only a few groups are invited to participate—Likongwe adds that festivals should find a way to play a bigger role in the development of artists, including offering workshops and training so that young theatremakers can gain experience and mentorship in other forms of theatre.Now that we understand the limitations of the dominant competition model, what is the best way to raise the next generation of theatremakers in Malawi?Bright Chayachaya, one of Likongwe’s former students, agrees.
He believes that festivals are the way to go as they level the ground for artistic expression and criticism. In a competition, people are there to win regardless of quality, which means they would do whatever it takes to win.
“Each time in a competition we have seen and heard people complaining that the judges were unfair,” he says. “On the other hand, at festivals, we simply appreciate art in its entirety.”
Now that we understand the limitations of the dominant competition model, what is the best way to raise the next generation of matchmakers in Malawi? Actor Joyce Chavula believes that “Malawi needs lots and lots of training skills to raise not just tomorrow’s theatremakers but well-equipped theatremakers.” In her opinion, competitions and festivals are both important and should complement each other’s efforts, offering theatremakers various platforms to display their work.
Bright Makina, a theatre enthusiast, thinks that the government should recognize art in Malawi by creating an arts council and building theatre facilities. On top of that, theatre lessons should be introduced in primary school and continued into secondary school.She also believes that there should be more theatre competitions and festivals, as well as writing competitions. “The winning stories should be made into plays,” he says, “teaching the writers how to adapt their stories into drama scripts.
”James Kitchen, founder of Light for Youth Creative Organization, the organizers of NASFEST, agrees with Makina, adding that the government needs to create platforms for theatre, including spaces as well as funding opportunities, which will help theatremakers build their careers in the art form and start earning a living from it.Mzumara feels the same way: “We need more platforms to promote Malawian arts.We need more collaborations. And these collaborations may come from festivals.” To him, competitions are not helpful in raising the next generation of theatremakers.Mzumara would also like to see people using theatre as a tool for positive social change—to advocate for their rights and liberate themselves.
“I want people in Malawi to say theatre has improved their lives,” he says. “I would like to see people who are passive bystanders taking an active role on issues that affect them directly.And to bring revenue to Malawi.” Mzumara is adamant that Malawians don’t need to define theatre using the Western definition of the word.“In Malawi, we can do theatre using any space, in a bus, anywhere.” This kind of mentality should be instilled in theatremakers from a young age.
In order to create a theatre culture in Malawi that showcases a wide variety of engaging performances, a lot of change needs to happen. Some ideas are to create a model that makes festivals more prominent, lobby the government to support the industry with buildings and funding, create more mentorship opportunities for young theatremakers, and select credible professionals as competition judges.As the theatre landscape here evolves, we will hopefully begin to see a wider variety in performances rather than the same format over and over again.

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