Audience Behavior in the West and Africa
There has been little research and discussion of the behavior of theatregoing audiences in different parts of the world. I feel it is an important area that makers of theatre as well as performers involved in cross-cultural theatre collaborations need to pay attention to. Misunderstanding audience behavior can confuse performers and directors to a considerable degree.
In 2018, an MFA theatre student from Britain came to work with Mzuzu University students in a devised performance. During the premiere at the university, the student audiences, who found the play to be a mirror of what they do at the university, started clapping hands and commenting loudly. They were even giving instructions to the characters on stage, telling them what to do and what not to do. To the audience, the play was about them and for them, and they related to it. I was performing alongside the student actors I direct. The behavior of the student audience was not new to me and to the student actors, but it was new to the visiting theatre professor from Britain.
The visiting professor was displeased with the actors. Based on the audience’s reaction, he thought the actors were behaving funny on stage. This was because he saw the audience laughing and clapping too much and a lot of audience talk towards the actors and among themselves. The reaction was like that of football spectators. His observation was compounded further by the fact that he could not understand the language, but he knew that play very well. I tried to explain about the audience behavior in Malawi, but the explanation seemed not to satisfy him. It was clear he thought such appalling behavior by the audience and actors was unacceptable under any circumstances.
That actor told each actor backstage that it’s not that the audience that is cold, it’s the way audiences are in the Western world. His words proved true: we were surprised with a standing ovation at the end of the performance.
To understand the visiting professor’s reaction, I turned to theatre professionals who have worked in both Africa and the West. A theatre professor at the University of Malawi, Zindaba Chisiza, articulated clear differences in audience behavior:
“Most of Africa’s performance forms such as gule wankulu, Malipenga, vimbuza, visekese combine story, dance, song, music, and use of traditional musical instruments. In these performance forms, there is a strong element of co-performance. The audiences participate in certain moments by clapping hands, joining the singing, shouting directions to the performer, laughing, and talking with the performers. The audience is not just a spectator, but forms part of the performance. There is no barrier, in certain circumstances, between the audience and the performer in the world of the play. Hence you will see, even in a performance of classic plays on a proscenium stage, audience members shouting directions to an actor when he/she is about to do a stupid thing. In the Western world, hardly do they break the wall between audience and performers unless it is an avant-garde kind of performances where there is deliberate breaking of the wall and the audience is engaged to participate.”
I have witnessed impact of the differences that Zindaba outlined. My first European tour was a production Come Freedom Come by Smith Likongwe, a renowned Malawian playwright and an academic. We first performed the play in Blantyre, Malawi, a city with a huge theatre following. The audience clapped, shouted in satisfaction, and booed some characters’ behavior in the play. As performers, we enjoyed that too. Energy levels never faltered. Our first performance of the play in Europe was at Det Apne Teater in Oslo. The audience watched in total silence—just a little laugh here and there, but controlled. As actors, we started exaggerating the acting so as to get the “cold” audience reactive. Inexperienced with European audiences, we almost spoiled the production, but one actor had had a onetime experience with the European audience. That actor told each actor backstage that it’s not that the audience that is cold, it’s the way audiences are in the Western world. His words proved true: we were surprised with a standing ovation at the end of the performance.
In a collaborative performance of Aide Machinery, which involved Malawian actors and actors from Germany, some German actors in Malawi were similarly surprised at the audience behavior in Malawi. The play had been performed in Germany first, and it was a very good show in Germany. There were standing ovations at the end of the show. In Malawi, almost every audience reacted by clapping and commenting during the show about how an actress in the show performed her music just like the American singer, Madonna. Eventually, the German performers enjoyed such reactions. They got used to the audience behavior. Had they known in advance about the audiences they would be performing to, I think they could have enjoyed right from the beginning in the same way the Malawian performers eventually got used to audiences in Norway.
With the focus so much on the stage and the audience in darkness, people felt that they were not really an active part of the experience.
When I spoke to Kate Stafford, she shared similar experiences. Kate is a British theatre practitioner and director who established one of the first professional theatre companies in Malawi, Nanzikambe Arts. She has worked with Malawian performers for over ten years. She also established Bilimankhwe Arts in the United Kingdom, which, among other things, brings performers from southern Africa collaborate with performers from the United Kingdom. She said that she clearly sees differences in audience behavior between Malawi and the United Kingdom. In her experience, a Malawian audience expects to participate and be a vocal partner in the experience—shouting out advice to the actors, heckling, noisily laughing, and cheering. She gave an example of one of the Shakespeare productions she directed: when Hamlet is at Ophelia’s grave and cries out “I loved Ophelia,” in anguish, a member of the audience in Malawi shouted, “Too late” and got a huge laugh. With a Western audience, that the same moment was met with silence and quiet emotion from the audience. When Nanzikambe performed Hamlet at the British Council in Malawi, which is a venue where most people from the Western world watch theatre, she observes that all was very quiet right until the end, when the audience stood and clapped and cheered. Until that moment, the Malawian actors were convinced that the performance was going badly because they were getting no vocal feedback.
When I performed at Theatre Konstanz in Germany and in Galway, Ireland the audience behavior was as Kate has described. The audience sat quietly throughout the whole performance of Tales of a Migrant. There were a few short, controlled laughs in certain moments. There was, however, heavy clapping at the end of the show. We had just performed the play in Malawi before the European tour, and it had attracted huge comments, laughter and clapping during the performance. This behavior of Malawian audiences is akin to what Kate has read about English audiences in Shakespeare’s day, when his company performed in outdoor spaces. Kate’s theory is that things changed when theatre moved inside and evening performances became possible with the advent of stage lighting. With the focus so much on the stage and the audience in darkness, people felt that they were not really an active part of the experience, and there just to watch. Over time, they became much quieter and passive.
Participation is not an option in Malawi.
Thokozani Kapiri, a Malawian theatre Practitioner and academic who performed Tales of a Migrant with me, spoke to me about why why most theatre going audiences in Africa are participatory. Kapiri holds the view that artistic performance has a special effect of audience interaction in southern Africa. A performance, even of theatre, is organically generated as an interactive form of art where performers and spectators interact with one another in a two-way communication system without any written code of conduct. He points out that it is similar to oral literature in which the storyteller shares a story the audience already knows. In such a situation, the audience sing songs and joins in telling the story. That tradition, he says, has stayed on, even with the emergence of conventional Western forms of theatre that use the proscenium stage. The Western theatre in Africa, he said, has had to accept this element inherent in performance forms of art in Africa. “Participation is not an option in Malawi, he said, “and no actor should be perturbed but rather embrace that as a major part of viewing performance among African audiences.”
In 2016, British theatre director and academic Amy Bonsall worked with Mzuzu University and Nanzikambe Arts actors all from Malawi in a Chichewa version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was translated by Malawian writer Onjezani Kenani. The play was staged at Mzuzu University and in the central region of Malawi, in a rural community at Chief Mankhamba headquarters. The play received standing ovations and clapping during the performance. During the performance at the chief’s headquarters, one could hear chiefs relating the behavior of Juliet to many other girls who don’t obey their fathers. Amy had previously taken a similar version of the play to Stratford-upon-Avon with Bilimankhwe Arts. I was privileged to be in the cast in both Britain and Malawi. The differences in audience behavior were remarkable. In Britain, it was all quiet with a controlled laughter here and there and heavy applause at the end of the show. Those performing for the first time in Europe were a bit disturbed with the quietness, despite being informed about performance behavior in the Western world.
When I told a few student actors from the United States at Virginia Tech about audience behavior in Malawi as explained in this essay, I got mixed responses. Some felt that audience behavior in Africa would confuse them a bit in certain moments, while others felt that they would really enjoy performing to such an audience.
As I said earlier, I am not giving directions on what to do. Rather, my aim is to collect examples and generate thoughts on cross-cultural theatre collaborations. There has been little research and little writing on culturally-specific audience behavior, and schools and many training institutions focus little on audience behavior. Perhaps this is why sometimes you have good directors and performers thrown off balance when working in an unfamiliar audience environments.