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Getting close to life through set designs

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No goats, cattle, dogs or cats lumbered about because, maybe, such scenes would have been too challenging to carry out in as little as 30 minutes.

But, in terms of set designs hinging on local traditions, students from secondary schools that participated in this year’s National Schools Arts Festival (Nasfest) on Saturday in Lilongwe showed that every new festival has become a rising point on the curve of artistic ventures. This is because, in Lilongwe on Saturday, it was hard to look at the design sets without relating them to real life.

Some of the settings that captured the imagination of theatre lovers were houses, traditional leaders’ courts, funerals, dining rooms, bathrooms, orphanage centres, prisons, streets [in cases of protests or planned protests], maternity wings, hospital admission rooms, wells, graveyards, among others.

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According to http.artsalive.ca, all the scenery, furniture and properties the audience sees at a production of a play make up the set design— physical surroundings in which the action takes place.

It adds that the set gives the audience information about the director’s concept of the production by suggesting the style and tone of the production, creating mood and atmosphere, giving clues as to the specific time and place of the action and offering creative possibilities for the movement and grouping of actors.

The site further indicates that all the things appearing on the stage, other than the scenery, are called stage properties, or props, and these include furniture, draperies and decorations. These complete the set and are an integral part of the set design.

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Designing life-like objects

Lilongwe Girls Secondary School, through their Lilongwe Girls Arts Theatre, set the ball rolling with a play titled ‘Tears of a Woman’.

The story— written by Domingo Phiri, and scripted and directed by Enock Nyirenda— revolves around Chinsisi, who endures oppression and exploitation, and has to fight her way out of the vicious circle of sadness.

At the centre of the story is a man a sitting president elects to head a committee tasked with investigating cases of abuse. It turns out that the appointed man once abused the president’s biological mother, after he (the appointee) had killed the husband to the president’s mother in a bid to fulfil his desire to lay his hands on the woman.

The sitting plan depicts a typical Malawian village, although there were no libanda, ndendera, ngome houses in sight.

Michiru View Girls Secondary School, who staged the play ‘Light versus Darkness’, were busier than Lilongwe Girls Secondary School in terms of set designs.

In their play, a Good Samaritan called Mr Thindwa abuses a blind woman, raping her. The child that is born is raised at an orphanage— Chitolera Orphanage— and gets adopted by Mr Thindwa, who sends him to study abroad. In the end, the adopted child, Timothy, discovers the truth and all hell breaks loose.

Some of the set designs used in the play include a maternity room (well-portrayed by a patient’s bed and nurses who were attending to a pregnant woman), an orphan care centre (which is depicted through children who are busy playing and a post indicating the name of the centre), a dinner party (depicted through the presence of chairs, tables, waiters and, of course, drinks), among others.

Zingwangwa Secondary School from Blantyre also invested in set designs when they staged a play titled ‘Innocent Heart’. The story revolves around the death— suspicious death, that is— of Mwandi.

Fingers are pointing at the obvious suspect and yet the murderer is the man the people look up to.

A traditional leader’s court, house, among others, are part of the set designs.

This was also the case in ‘Tears of a Woman’, a play staged by Lilongwe Girls Secondary School. The play is about a woman, Chinsinsi, whose heart can no longer hold under the weight of male chauvinism. Happiness does not exist in her lexicon.

The play features rural surroundings, a house, among others. For the most part, the stage does not need a horde of set design changes.

Not to be outdone, Zomba Catholic Secondary School came up with a range of set designs in ‘The Day Without Rain’ play. To begin with, guns made their way onto the stage, and the presence of uniformed men— other than real physical surroundings— depicted the presence of tight security at a prison where freedom fighters were being held.

There is also another scene, depicting people attending a meeting in an office, where the presence of tables conjures pictures of a living room, although the physical setting does little to match that appeal.

On its part, Kawale Private Secondary School featured a house setting in ‘Tears of Mandida’.

The school also did its best to portray a rural setting, where much— if not all— of the activity takes place.

SOS Secondary School, in their play, ‘The Verdict’, may as well be described as innovators following their portrayal of a court room.

Using a table and court inscriptions— not to touch on the costume of the presiding judge—the play manages to bring the patron from the honeymoon of the imagination to the reality of an injustice that has taken place in the world.

Apart from court room design set, the school also brought a well into the Kamuzu Institute for Sports stage.

But New Green Jones Secondary School can be said to be the kings of set design, for their efforts in ‘Kokoriko, Kwacha’, brought to the fore some of the things that happen in a typical Malawian village.

For instance, the school depicted a witchdoctor’s working room in a manner that stole judges’ hearts. In a witchcraft scene, fire burns, the sound effects add a sense of mystery to the scene, and the surroundings— not every much in terms of the building, but in terms of the environment— indicate that they really invested in imagination.

It could probably be because the participants invested in set designs that the three judges— Mathews Mfune, John Mchirikizo and Joyce Mhango-Chavula— decided to award the school with the best scene and the scene had, of course, been influenced by set design.

That Best Scene prize, given by the judges themselves— went to New Green Jones.

Mchirikizo talked of the difficulties of coming up with a winner under such circumstances.

“Getting a winner out of a winner is difficult,” Mchirikizo said.

The disappointing thing about the festival was that only secondary schools from the Central and Southern region participated in this year’s Nasfest, leaving out those from the Northern Region.

However, Nasfest organiser, James Kitchen, attributed the development to lack of funds.

“Due to logistical challenges, the Northern Region failed to hold their regional contest and, as such, it was not represented in this year’s festival,” Kitchen says.

Nasfest has been addressing cross-cutting issues through theatre, dance, poetry and story-telling.

Culture for development

For Director of Culture in the Ministry of Civic Education, Culture and Community Development, Elizabeth Gomani Chindebvu, the festival plays another important role. It “promotes good behaviour among school-going youth because that is the nursery of a developed society”.

Section 26 of the Constitution of Malawi provides for the right of citizens to participate in cultural life of their choice, and offers guarantees on the enjoyment of social and cultural development.

“This is exactly what government is encouraging. Of course, we also need to carefully select which cultures to promote and which ones to discourage. We do not want to encourage cultures that propagate the spread of HIV and Aids, for example,” Chindebvu says.

For Shadreck Chikoti, who funded this year’s festival through The Story Club, both culture and the arts offer good platforms for attitude change.

But all too often, he observes, they are used wrongly and fail to play a reformatory role in society.

“As Story Club, we know that art preserves our culture; art speaks on our behalf. We, as artists, have powers to create and change society.

“But, sometimes, we abuse it. The way we portray women in songs, for example. 90 percent of our art does not respect our women. Very often, we refer to women as flowers. We need to stop lecturing women on how they should dress. We, as artists, can change perspectives on women because we are ambassadors,” Chikoti says.

One day, maybe one day, a festival will be held just to celebrate women.

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