On Monday, when Brightos— a dance group from Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Dowa District— emerged winners in KaJive Season 5 Competition, one of the things that swayed judges in their favour is costume.
Despite it being a dancing competition, the winners utilised their knowledge of costume to offer one of the best routines in 2021’s KaJive competition.
The theatre industry can, surely, borrow a leaf from the dance competition.
Talking about theatre, at the onset of the year 2021, one thing theatre lovers were sure would remain constant, in terms of stage performances, was that of costume.
More so because, over the years, patrons to theatre performances have come to identify costume used in vernacular language plays with poverty.
Rags have, for years, become a permanent feature on theatre stages.
In Malawi’s rural setup, for example, the spectacle of actors clad in ragged suits and apparel is synonymous with plays, especially where social issues are tackled.
And, yet, every moment, ranging from the storyline to the costume, should essentially be a tiny pearl of good, coordinated taste.
However, while stage-acting is supposed to be the dish the entire acting meal builds toward, every aspect in the production stage should be treated as vital.
However, this seems not to be always the case in local theatre circles. As if bearing testimony to the fact that the country’s theatre industry is going through its gawky moment of adolescence, costume issues seem to be swept under the carpet, a reminder, perhaps, that costume is not on the list of Malawi’s most pressing national challenges!
Consequently, supported neither by precedent nor creative improvisation, costume preferences continue to hinge on trial and error in Malawi’s theatre industry.
So used is the audience to the apparent neglect of professional costume that it often does not show any hint of discontentment, save for the fact that lips of audience members seem to tremble with the ecstasy of anticipated laughter whenever play directors chance upon the timely costume..
Otherwise, so long as the production crew dishes out a disciplined performance, it is as if the mind of the Malawian theatre-lover is stacked against costume designers on one hand while local production crews, on the other hand, seem not to be in the mood to lose themselves in costume issues.
But, in an ideal situation, is this normal?
University of Malawi (Unima) Drama lecturer Smith Likongwe is on record to have admitted that costume plays a crucial role in professional theatre.
“In professional theatre circles, there are special costume designers and costume makers. These are often hired part–time to fit specific productions so that they may also be available to other theatre companies. Another option in professional circles is the existence of agencies with costumes for hire.
“These agencies are often attached to theatre houses and may be owned by specific theatre companies. This is where relevant costumes are rented out for the duration of a run of a production, say, one month. There are specially designed costumes that are often required such as men’s suits, police, doctors and nurses uniforms and others.”
This is Likongwe’s take on the issue.
Seasoned actor Mkwachi Mhango is also on record to have said something along the same lines.
“With my experience in the United Kingdom, I can say that our friends understand that costume plays a critical role in performing arts. Before production, they do check on costume and damaged costume is promptly replaced. You have costume specialists. So serious are they that you even have two or three sets of costume. Performers also have professional tailors, who take all the measurements in the course of the production to ensure that the costume meets an individual performer’s specifications. .
“Actually, production crews include the technical manager, who is responsible for issues such as sound; costume manager, who is in charge of costume; stage manager, who oversees costume arrangements on stage and works hand-in-hand with the costume manager, among others. The objective is to ensure a coordinated and professional production,” he said.
However, Mkwachi observes that this is not the case in Malawi. He says local media practitioners have played a key role in perpetuating perceptions that costume is peripheral in theatrical performances.
“In Malawi, media practitioners think that theatre is kuvala zigamba [spotting rags], hence most people overlook the role of costume and I think the Zigamba [rags’ costume] mentality has played a part in this. Why should we always portray poverty in our productions? Does life in Malawi revolve around poverty?”
“Again, issues of costume, wardrobe and stage management are not taken seriously in Malawi. Outside the country, everyone [including costume designers] understand their part but, in Malawi, most people don’t engage designers.”
This is a challenge that has not escaped the attention of Solomonic Peacocks Director, McArthur Matukuta.
“We need to have costume designers but this is not the case at the moment. We need people with the technical know-how but there is a gap at the moment. The positive thing about specialist costume designers is that they know where to get the materials and how to get them. Every production requires tailor-made costume materials and that’s where they become handy,” Matukuta said.
Matukuta attributes current challenges to the lack of institutions specialising in the provision of education services on costume while meeting the demand for costume materials.
Indeed, there have been suggestions that lack of specialist costume specialists [individuals and institutions] in Malawi has also negatively affected the film industry. For example, award winning filmmaker Shemu Joyah is said to have compromised on costume in his award-winning film despite hiring costume experts from Zimbabwe.
Success will, however, largely depend on how theatre groups carry themselves. Sometimes, it could be argued, there is a lack of sympathy for the ‘troubled’ theatre groups due to the actors’ pretention that everything is okay in their usual unduly boisterous fashion.
But, for the most part, costume has no fixed place in local theatre-lovers’ hearts because they have not realised the beauty of costume.
Moving forward, one expects that the 2022 will come with surprises, costume-wise.