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Reviving theatre

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Actor Eric Mabedi looks celebratory, ready to throw the next joke.

Deep down, the National Theatre Association of Malawi (Ntam) president knows that although the name of the game remains theatre, and that the parts to be acted out are still knitted in standard format called script, what we call Malawi theatre is simply the dust of what used to be a giant industry.

In other words, things in the industry are not as they used to be.

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“The standard of theatre is going down,” Mabedi says.

To an outsider, the industry has made inroads; what with names of theatre groups such as Solomonic Peacocks, Nanzikambe Arts, Kwathu Drama Group, and, as recently as 2007, the establishment of Theatre for a Change organisation?

But, to Mabedi, these are ‘graves’ of what used to be an active and robust theatre machine.

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“In the past, you could hear of Umodzi [Drama Group] performing at the French Cultural Centre [now Blantyre Cultural Centre], Kwathu Drama Group performing elsewhere, Wakhumbata [Ensemble Theatre] performing somewhere and people would be spoilt for choice. This is no longer the case,” Mabedi observes.

Silence fills the room. It is Saturday. The venue is Chichiri Secondary School. The audience are students drawn from secondary schools in seven districts of the country.

The hush does not stop Mabedi from relating the past to the present. He is like wine; he has been growing with age.

“In those days, we had many sources of inspiration. Writers who could write books that could inspire us. In my case, I cannot talk of my success without mentioning Willie Zingani. He [Zingani] wrote Njala Bwana and Madzi Akatayika and these books have acted as a source of inspiration to me. He actually told me that, Eric, you can write something like this’. So, when I am writing a play, I often go back to his books,” Mabedi says.

Mabedi then moves two steps forward. It seems he wants to drum a message into the heads of these 20 students, who are in the company of their patrons and matrons— 15 teachers who fan the fire of theatre in these students’ minds and, perhaps, hearts when in school.

“A play is a story,” he tells them, “only that that story is put into practice.”

However, for the students to put stories that develop in their minds into practice, they have to learn the art of theatre making and play writing skills. This is where Light of Youth Creative Organisation (Lyco)’s ‘Improving Life Skills and Creativity Project’ comes in.

Lyco Executive Director, James Kitchen, observes that theatre has been facing a dark moment because the environment has not been robustly hospitable.

Training opportunities are almost non-existent and prevalence of an oral culture means anything put in black and white is looked at with disdain.

“[To begin with], we are still an oral society and, again, acting is not prioritised,” Kitchen says.

But Kitchen is hopeful that theatre may shine in the sun again, once more turning into a tool for expressing things that have happened, as well as acting as a mirror into the future.

Kitchen is speaking from the position of an insider. He is Ntam’s Vice General Secretary in the Central Region. He also serves as chairperson of the Malawi Focal Dance and Songs Society in the Central Region.

And, at Lyco, he pursues the objective of fostering arts and culture in Malawi by, among other things, spromoting the transfer of creative skill among the youth.

“The genesis of any good performance is a good script. It is sad to note that Malawi seems to continue lagging behind in terms of playwriting skills. We are still an oral society with most of the performances not in proper script format,” Kitchen observes.

As facilitator Smith Likongwe, drama lecturer at Chancellor College— a constituent college of the University of Malawi— takes the students and teachers through the basics of playwriting, it is clear that the journey has started.

He is experienced in teaching at secondary and university levels. He has practised theatre for over 20 years at various levels including producing performances in London [The United Kingdom], Edinburgh [Scotland], Oslo [Norway], Harare [Zimbabwe] and Lusaka [Zambia].

“We believe that this training shall feed into the drama festivals that we organise, Atem drama festivals and all other drama activities even after school,” Kitchen adds.

With funding from Hivos Foundation, through Cultural Fund for Malawi, the hope is that the theatre stage should not be the only beneficiary.

One of the patrons, Joyce Banda Foundation’s McMillan Gondwe, observes that the positive effects of playwriting skills can be felt even in schools.

“These trainings are very important in the sense that they [trainings] improve students’ ability to speak English. They [students] also learn to associate with others. Again these trainings are part of infotainment,” Gondwe says.

It can be said that, for the time being, the journey has started. One day, players in the industry may emerge from their rehearsal rooms to face a rising sun; people willing to patronise shows and enjoy the game!

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