Theatre was once a dominant force, dominating proceedings to the extent of putting football in a corner.
Today, theatre is playing second fiddle to other arts fields, including poetry, which is the toast at the moment.
Although some poets’ work leaves a lot to be desired, especially because some poets are breaking rules by treating poetry as comedy, poetry is enjoying its own share of success.
Gone are the days when Blantyre Cultural Centre (BCC), formerly French Cultural Centre, used to pull huge audiences when the likes of the late Du Chisiza Jr and his Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre (Wet) were staging their plays there.
With a few drama groups making their efforts to keep theatre in the limelight, drama in English is still battling for its spot.
As for drama in vernacular, Kwathu Drama Group continues to lead the way. Kwathu, which was formed in the 1980s, has not lost its shape and, because of that, they continue to attract massive audiences in different areas.
But, generally, theatre has been in the shadows of other players in the arts industry.
Of course, it can be said that a lot has come up on the ground and, with technology taking everything to another level, comparing the past, when few people had television sets, to the present is a futile attempt.
Today, people have cell phones for conducting various transactions such as watching films and music videos. This was not the case in the past.
As indicated earlier, poetry was nowhere near theatre in the past. People could not fancy watching live a poet dropping his or her verses. But this has completely changed.
What then has poetry done to move forward?
“To me, it’s just a question of the theatre industry putting its house in order. What I see in poetry, for instance, is that they have created a different environment through their verses which is exciting. Their poems are tackling day-to-day issues and that has been strengthened by the fusing of comedy into it,” says Gilbert Mpeketulo, a theatre fan.
He says technology has also brought a lot of changes and that it is high time the theatre industry adjusted to the environment.
“I don’t think people are tired of watching stage plays. There are staunch theatre lovers out there but, probably, they need mature plays,” Mpeketula said.
Smith Likongwe is not a strange name in the world of theatre. He has been there and is a lecturer at Chancellor College, University of Malawi.
Likongwe has written several plays.
After the ‘burial’ of the year 2017, the dramatist observes that drama groups largely failed to garner new audiences since the style and themes presented were the usual ones.
“Whenever there are performances by some groups, the audience expected and ended up watching plays that were similar to those they had watched before.
“I believe this would not encourage audiences to continue patronising many shows in the wake of competing activities. The theatre practitioners chose to continue staying in their comfort zones,” Likongwe said.
However, on a positive note, Likongwe said a few budding groups sprouted up.
“Of particular mention is Umunthu Theatre, comprising former president of Chancellor College Travelling Theatre Bright Chayachaya and Fletcher Chelewani,” he said.
Likongwe said the two braved the theatre industry and produced some productions and performed in various places.
He said, with some quarters indicating that Chancellor College Travelling Theatre was not vibrant, Umunthu Theatre is one of the products.
“It is not common for most of our students to graduate and form their theatre companies. Chancy Mauluka is one of the few that formed theatre companies after leaving college,” Likongwe said.
And, true to his word, many graduates who have studied drama at Chancellor College have ended up joining other jobs.
Likongwe said another positive thing to note for theatre is that groups such as Dikamawoko Arts, headed by Tawonga Nkhonjera, were able to come up with plays of a different type from the usual ones.
On the issue of Chancellor College Travelling, Likongwe said it did not have a lot of presence outside of Zomba in 2017.
He, however, said high quality performances were a common occurrence on campus.
“But, like I have said, we needed to take the productions out of Zomba for people to understand what I am talking about,” Likongwe said.
This year, according to Likongwe, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre is going to set the pace, starting from next month when it shall unveil two books of plays.
“As you may be aware, publishing is not common due to various challenges. It is the Cultural Fund Malawi, spearheaded by Hivos, that has made it possible for Chanco Travelling Theatre to publish two books – and I do not want to talk a lot about the two books because we will launch them soon,” he said.
But Likongwe hinted that one book shall be a trilogy of the lives and times of the three immediate past presidents.
The titles of the plays are Bakili’s Wit, The Tragedy of Bingu and Amai’s Turn.
He said Chanco Travelling Theatre shall produce these plays and present them separately in a number of places this year.
“They are full length plays and cannot be shown on the same day. The second book shall comprise plays based on our cultures and traditions,” the dramatist said.
He said audiences should expect a vibrant Chanco Travelling Theatre this year.
“The trick is that we have a very large pool of talented actors and actresses and rotation, where one features in only one major play to also be able to concentrate on studies, shall be used. As usual, we shall bring unique presentation styles to the audiences,” Likongwe said.
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