Association of Teaching of English in Malawi (Atem) is back after close to a three year hiatus.
The competition has played a crucial role in uplifting theatre in the country and has contributed a lot in the development of theatre.
Today there are actors and actresses as well as directors on the ground, who are products of Atem.
Atem is a brand that still stands out having also seen talented actors such as the late Du Chisiza Jr being part of it.
There are students, who did not have any interest in theatre but once they participated in Atem contests, they ended up falling in love with theatre and for some it even gave them direction in terms of choosing a career and ended up pursuing drama at University of Malawi – Chancellor College in Zomba.
In its absence, students and other theatre lovers enjoyed contests such as French Schools Drama Festival and National School Youth Arts Festival (Nasfest).
But the theatre contest is back with the team that is managing the activities now led by interim President, Dave Mpaso, saying they were serious with their comeback.
Atem has started with divisional finals which have seen three schools in each division making it to the regional finals and then thereafter there will be the national finals to come out with the winner.
“At the moment we have started. We have been out for a long time and this is due to the challenges that were there but now we are out with new things. We hope from here we can make progress and bring about the desired results,” Mpaso said.
He said the challenge they have now that they have started was inadequate funds saying they among others, do not have enough in their coffers in terms of giving out good prizes to the schools as a matter of motivation.
“As we have always said, we have knocked on the doors of the corporate world to ask for support but nothing fruitful has come out. We still call upon well-wishers, the government and the corporate world to support us,” Mpaso said.
The divisional finals has seen some divisions attracting a good number of schools whereas other divisions have suffered setbacks with only a few schools contesting.
Mpaso has attributed the low turnout in some divisions due to their absence adding that some schools have promised to join them in the next academic year.
“We hope things will improve in the next academic year. For instance in the South West Education Division (Swed), we were supposed to have 10 schools but only four turned up. Two schools excused themselves and that’s Chichiri Secondary School and Tate Academy but we had other schools such as Kalibu Academy, who only came to appreciate the contest and would join next academic year,” Mpaso said.
Watching the productions of the four schools at Swed held at Zingwangwa Secondary School, one would notice that most of the productions were rusty while some were flat and lacked direction.
Schools have for a long time scored points when it comes to costume and props. Schools prepare well when it comes to costume and props and this is one of the strengths that Atem productions hold.
However, there is still a long way to go for schools and those who made it to the regional finals in Swed in their productions which need polishing before they are taken to the regional final.
In this 21st century, Atem needs not to live in the past, schools need to embrace new ways of doing theatre and not stage productions that have outlived their fashion.
For instance, there was a time when freezing in a production was a trademark for Atem productions. This would just freeze or stop in the midst of a production. It was a common style where actors and actresses would not do without. A school that did not use a freezing style then would be counted out of the game.
But freezing is no longer interesting in these times let alone choruses where actors and actresses speak in a chorus. But all these styles still remain in the competition.
“Much as we would love to see that but there is need to change and move with times, theatre has changed but that can only change when patrons of schools and directors undergo trainings or rather we should say there should workshops whenever the contest is beginning,” one of the actors, who did not want to be named said.
Former National Theatre Association of Malawi (Ntam) president and Solomonic Peacock Director, McArthur Matukuta, who watched some of the Swed productions, agreed that there was need for theatre workshops to change the way schools go about theatre.
“Some schools have done well but for others there is still a long way to go. But workshops are crucial and we once suggested such a thing so as to help improve in terms of performances but also coming up with good productions worth a contest like Atem,” Matukuta said.
Although schools are given less than 30 minutes during the competition and even less, the competition needs to up its game and even encourage schools do more in terms of rehearsals to come out with good productions.
Atem organisers have done well over the years coming out with themes to go with the competition each year but some schools have failed to embrace the themes thereby attracting queries.
“I would say the performances I have watched, it has been 50-50 especially in Swed where some schools need to pull up their schools if they are to do well but for some they have done well especially in other divisions. I would cite Seed as one of them where the audience saw good productions,” Mpaso said.
Some quarters have however attributed the poor productions in the 2020 contest to the fact that schools were working with their patrons without fully using external directors.
“We still need external directors because they help in writing productions but also helping the schools in everything even during the competitions,” one of the directors, who has been involved in a number of productions with schools said.
In one of the contest in the Central West Education Division held at Likuni Boys Secondary School in Lilongwe, where Likuni Boys Chipasula and Mlodza made it to the regional finals to be held on February 15 2020, one of the schools which came fourth and failed to make it to the next round, Darlo Girls, complained of irregularities during the competition alleging that Mlodza used external directors which was contrary to the rules which were set for this year’s competition.
The issue is currently on the table of Atem to sort it out before the regional finals.
Mpaso said they were yet to decide on the issue having received a complaint from Darlo and that they were doing a thorough investigation.
Asked on the issue of not using external directors whether it was affecting the competition in terms of having good productions, Mpaso agreed to some extent.
“It is true. I agree with them. In fact the decision to sideline the external directors was written in a letter by an individual without consulting. We intend to rephrase this rule. Honestly we cannot rule out the involvement of external directors,” Mpaso said.
The past has seen schools using external directors in all the arrangement from writing the script to selection of actors among others.
The use of external directors has over the years seen a lot of directors working with different schools and there have been times when external directors have had to work with several schools in a contest.
But one of the patrons of one of the schools, who also did not want to be named, said much as schools have benefited from use of external directors, some have brought confusion at times.
“If only the organisers can put strict measures where external directors can work with one school at a time then the better but where one external director works with a number of schools, it brings about chaos and this is why we have had some schools complaining of bias of judges and what have you,” the patron said.