Are Malawi Theatre Groups Underpricing Their Shows to Extinction?

Recently in Malawi, before artists began coping with lockdown conditions, a debate arose in the Arts Entrepreneurs Portal, a WhatsApp group made up mostly of theatre practitioners. Someone had sent an image of a poster for a performance at an arts school that had been charging both students and the general public MK 500, which equals 68 cents in USD. Not so unexpected, in a nation where the majority of people live on less than a dollar a day. But the questions were: Is it sustainable? Given that ticket prices are often the only source of revenue for a production, can that amount cover all the costs, like actors’ salaries and rehearsal halls? What does that rate mean in terms of the way we value the work we do? Is it a good idea to charge less and have more people attend a show or to charge more and have fewer people attend?

Taddja Nkhonjera, theatremaker and founder of Dikamawoko Arts, was the first to raise his views on the matter. He wanted to know how companies could make money charging this amount. “Personally,” he said, “while I understand that students are hard up for cash, I think it is undermining the theatre for students at an arts university to pay only MK 500.”

two actors kissing onstage

The Marriage Proposal (a political satire) at the Madsoc Theatre in Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo by Philemon Kuipa.

My curiosity was piqued by the debate. As a theatremaker who has experienced how ticket pricing affects audience attendance, I am always looking for ways to grow the industry and to make sure the growth is realistically sustainable. On one side of the debate, there were those who said the low prices were a way of coping with the prevailing circumstances in our economy. On the other were those who want art to claim its value and who feel like arts students should know better the value of art. They believe low prices undercut the theatre groups that charge a higher, more professional rate.

Being realistic, Misheck Mzumara, a drama lecturer at Mzuzu University, was quick to remind the group members that, for any theatre performance in a college, if you charge more than MK 500 you should expect a low turnout. This is because watching theatre is not a priority for students these days—especially compared to the past, when university education was almost free.

Theatremaker Bright ChayaChaya agreed with Mzumara, saying, “When I left Chancellor College in 2015, the students were paying MK 500 for a theatre performance and nothing has changed.” From 2015 to 2020 there has been a lot of inflation in Malawi, and prices of most everything have appreciated, but the price of theatre tickets remains the same. Perhaps this is a clear indication of where our nation has placed theatre in its mindset: at the bottom.

On one side of the debate, there were those who said the low prices were a way of coping with the prevailing circumstances in our economy. On the other were those who want art to claim its value.

Siding with those who want art to claim its value was McArthur Matukuta, founder and director of Solomonic Peacocks. “Value your art before you take it to the market. The value of your product shall make people value you,” he said. “It’s us who are the problem. We trade our business without value. We go for whatever is offered.” This is a great point. But is it realistic to do? Can it be sustained in this economy? Those who have tried have had to deal with low turnout, but at least they charged their value. Still, would a pricing model based on value be sustainable in our economy? Let’s say a theatre company charged MK 5000 per head, would audiences still flock to theatre or would it restrict theatre to an elite class that could afford to pay such an exorbitant price?

Many other theatre artists weighed in with their opinions, but, like most of these discussions, no consensus was reached. Some people suggested a meeting—either physical or virtual—that would be attended by all theatre groups in the country. Days went by and nobody commented on the issue again until I rekindled the debate. It felt too important to be left to die, like many other important topics do, because if we want the theatre industry to grow in Malawi, we must treat theatre as a business. And if we are treating theatre as a business then how we price our shows should reflect that goal. Lucky for me, this time around the thespians were up for action.

Nkhonjera said that though he respected Mzumara’s observations about low turnout at colleges if pricing were high, he also believes we need to take into consideration the fact that the times have changed for everyone, and not just the students. “Charging MK 500 is okay in kindergarten, nursery, and maybe primary school,” he said with irony. “Not secondary and definitely not university.” He added that maybe a low price would work for a group that is just starting out, but after five years of working in the industry, groups need to adjust their pricing to meet the demands of increased costs of living. “It makes no sense to have prices of theatre performances at MK 500 in universities and colleges for more than three years,” Nkhonjera said, “when in three years the prices of town buses have risen from MK 100 to MK 250.”

But how do we deal with this? Nkhonjera makes a suggestion, citing what other countries do: set up solid unions. “In film they have guilds for actors, guilds for directors, guilds for writers. Their aim is to have standard fees for everyone. As theatre ensembles, we can do the same.”

Let’s say a theatre company charged MK 5000 per head, would audiences still flock to theatre or would it restrict theatre to an elite class that could afford to pay such an exorbitant price?

There currently exists a group—the National Theatre Association of Malawi, created in 1988 as the Drama Association of Malawi—that has a mandate to coordinate theatrical arts, resolve conflicts, and protect the interests of performers. However, many theatremakers feel the association, which is supposed to take the lead in dealing with these issues—including the impact of student pricing—has been dormant. Others asked why there is a sports council in Malawi but not an arts council or a theatre council; in Malawi, sports bodies benefit from government support, but theatre bodies reap no benefit—even though we are charged 20 percent withholding tax for every gig we get from the government or the private sector. We questioned where that tax money goes if not to develop the industry.

Bright Makina, a playwright and a member of YDC Theatre, suggested trying to get the National Theatre Association of Malawi to standardize ticket prices for shows. Another member responded by saying that the bureaucracy there means it will take forever to get anything done—plus the fact that most thespians no longer pay membership fees to the National Theatre Association of Malawi is a sign of lack of confidence.

an audience

An audience watching The Marriage Proposal (a political satire) at the Madsoc Theatre in Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo by Philemon Kuipa.

Going back to the main question posed: Can the prices we are charging now sustain us? Mzumara said: “At the moment, my experience is that through art alone, sustenance is not possible.” He believes that theatremakers need to be making money in other ways, which can then fund the art. “An artist from Europe also told me the same thing,” he said, “that theatre alone is not enough.”

Perhaps he is right. Our economy isn’t strong enough to sustain theatre as a full-time profession. But until the day it is, our group has agreed to set up a taskforce that will ensure the enforcement of standard pricing—more than MK 500—for theatre shows. This group will also lobby for a theatre or an arts council that will help take care of the areas where the National Theatre Association is failing and to lobby corporate partners to start supporting theatre shows in Malawi. We keep hoping for the best. Because, as Matukutuka said, we know the value of our art and know that one day audiences will start paying that value.

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