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Dance for Change

A Conversation with Robert Magasa

Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr.: Welcome to Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, in partnership with [Advancing] Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated space that uplift, heal and encourages to change the world. I am your host, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr, a producer, actor, director, playwright, and of course, a freelance journalist.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre is a podcast that interviews established theatre artists from all backgrounds. It explores precarious journey of theatre in modern world, defines the problem, the better solution to sustain the culture of performing arts in this generation of motion pictures. It is time to incite as we define the existence of critical array through creative discussions. In this podcast, I’ll associate discussion with established performers, directors, and writers that are exploring ways of greeting out the challenges while their works inspire the community.

First episode of this podcast, I’m with Robert Magasa. He’s a freelance artist; an experienced actor in physical theatre, film, and radio drama; A choreographer; and a contemporary dancer that trained with Dance Trust of Zimbabwe. Magasa is also experienced in facilitating theatre for change, theatre for development. He has vast experience in both local and international stage. Featured includes Von Mäusen und Meschen in Germany, The Tempest in United Kingdom, Animal Farm in Germany, The Frogs, Taming of the Shrew, Accidental Death for Democracy. He’s also an icon on TV series in Malawi, includes: Timasukirane, The Famous One, and Choices. Film includes Okoma Atani, Who Cares?, The Green Bomber, and also include The Undone Dawn, The Isle, The Journey Through the Life, and all this production inspire Robert Magasa to explore more life of dance and theatre. Robert Magasa has been performing as a guest actor in more than ten major theatre production, which has toured Malawi, South Africa, Scotland, England, Germany, and many other countries. He’s the founding member of UjeNi Dance Ensemble Theatre.

You’re welcome to this podcast. First of all, who is Robert Magasa? People needs to know Robert Magasa.

Robert Magasa: Well, there’s the artist me—

Fumbani: Right.

Robert:—but there’s also a chief in me. There’s also a husband in me. There’s also a father in me. That’s my personal view. So, when we talk about professional-wise, Robert is simply an actor. I started, I think, when I was in secondary school. I was at Zingwangwa, in 2005 there, when I was in form four. So you see, you just observed what the school is doing in terms of the drama school, and you like what people are doing, but you are like resent, and you don’t want to be part of that. But you are like, “Okay, I can do this.” But my last year at school, I was like, “I cannot go out like this, so let me just try something.”

Fumbani: Something. Yeah. Right.

Robert: Okay? So as many of the actors in Malawi, I’m a product of ATEM

Fumbani: Right.

Robert: Yeah. So my first year, we did three months rehearsal at school. Then, when we featured our ATEM, my first art—I still remember the character, Mr. Pofera Salambula, and the play was Double Blow—was selected the best English speaker, the best actor of the day. Right?

Fumbani: Wow!

Robert: So then that actually ignites all of it. I went crazy and I was like, “Okay, I want to do this.” Yeah.

Fumbani: So it’s kind of the journey started in secondary school, then you already say, “Okay, I’m theatre actor, let me explore.”

Robert: Yeah.

Fumbani: Then, after secondary school, I’ve seen Robert Magasa set of productions. I’ve seen Robert Magasa at Nanzikambe. I’ve seen Robert Magasa with other collaboration. Then, I’ve seen Robert Magasa running a theatre organization.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: UjeNi. Yes?

Robert: UjeNi.

Fumbani: Right? So what made you to come up with a professional theatre, like a founder with your own theatre organization?

Robert: I think you would be a very good example, or you would know why people would actually start their own theatre groups. It’s not like the idea of what happens with churches in Malawi, where I’ve got a problem with the Pastor, then I start my own and take half of it as my congregation.

For me, it was after secondary school. I wanted to do journalism, but you’ve got a dad that is... and four siblings that are looking for one person who is actually on a low-paying job and is like,” okay, I’ve got talent but we’re waiting to find money for school, why not?” So I started with Wankhumbata. We did one piece, but I saw how Khumbo was running Wankhumbata. Then I was like, “okay, so if it’s like this, then why not?” We started Banthu Arts Theatre, just like how we started YDC, just to look at the youth.

Fumbani: Yeah. Alright, I get it.

Robert: How we can get ourselves busy and not indulge into bad behaviors and maybe alcohol and drugs abuse sort of. But that was a journey, and when we started then that’s it. I just got stuck in it. Really, he was actually stuck, and they were like, okay, I’m good at this, I cannot be stuck. How best can we do this? I started a group; UjeNi was just an idea. Then, started working with Nanzikambe. Nanzikambe actually exposed me to a lot of international theatre and dance. That’s when I got the idea of physical theatre. Then, start to study choreography and get into dance. When we realized we are the only dancing people in Malawi, we were like, okay, contemporary-wise, let’s get to start a company.

So it started as a revolution. So it was me, Joshua, and Peter Magalani. Peter moved out, Joshua went do some research, then I was still there. So I get out with Mphundu then we started UjeNi Theatre Dance Ensemble. The idea for us now was business, to make money. So we were selling our products in terms of theatre for development. We were also doing choreography and video making and just art consultation and stuff. Sure.

Fumbani: All right. We saw Robert Magasa in the early days on stage literally, as you say, with some theatre company.

Robert: I miss that.

Fumbani: Then, there was a quiet moment, then you came back with on you, or seeing you, on stage dancing, and right now you are the motivator of upcoming dancers, basically, who do physical theatre, who do dance theatre, of which we missed in Malawi. You decided to say, “Okay, let me pursue this as my profession.” Having an industry whereby is crippled in terms of finances, in terms of business, but still you stick to the business, and you are here until now. And most of the youngsters they got inspired from you.

How did you challenge yourself to fit yourself into dance theatre?

Robert: It still is a very huge challenge. If you talk about the dance, you would say, “Well, why didn’t you just stop it?” But you realize how much passion you breathe for it. You will do anything just to find an excuse to take another step into the same thing no matter how beaten you get. But I’ve traveled quite around the world, I’ve seen how others are doing it, and you are like, “We are not far from this.” When you get there, collaboration in terms of cultural exchange programs and other people coming to see how you do, you go see how they do—those kind of things, the international things—they actually keep you going.

But because you can go six months, seven months without a proper job here locally, but you get one and boom, you got millions to run around with. So that actually, I was like, “Okay, let’s bank it on this one.” But there have been a lot of challenges, especially when I chose dance, to start, to move out of theatre because people until today don’t know that first and foremost I’m the actor, then the dancer.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: When I realized this, after I came from Zimbabwe to do the theatre dance choreography diploma, I did finish that one, of course, but we got the paper later. So when I go back to Malawi, and we’re trying to expose dance to everyone, especially a local audience, the reaction was like, wow, but every actor then would say, why are they doing? Because you’re doing something a bit different people understand. But this is what motivated me, every time I performed dance with Joshua, people, especially youngsters, would come to us and ask one same question, how did you do that? We want to learn that. Older people will always ask the same questions, like you made me feel different. I could tell you’re emotionally... Your body was telling you a certain emotional story, I could marry it to that, but I don’t understand it, but I feel exactly what you are saying.

So this actor was like, okay. Now, we cannot make money into performing, you know it, especially in Malawi or elsewhere in the world as well. If the art is not funded, especially in theatre then we do. So we went into educational theatre because one of our learning sessions in Zimbabwe was edutainment. So how to make money using dance. So we went into educational. So now we teach, I use dance as a tool, of course, theatre once in a while, that’s a tool to get to young people and express themself. We have a studio now at KwaHaraba Arts Cafe, we do every Saturday for the past four years. The idea is just to give your kid some knowledge and confidence. For a young girl, how to possess beauty, use it, and get smart. For a boy, how to respect the other gender, and just be smart about... Everybody’s complaining about weaker men, we’re trying to build alpha males using dance and just get them expressed really.

Fumbani: Yeah. Okay. So you started UjeNi Theatre, and all the way. As to me, apart from that being the theatre artist as well, I know Robert Magasa way back as an actor. But right now, I know Robert Magasa more of a choreographer than a dancer, and most of the guys right now knows you as a dancer, and you have an organization. There is a bit different how you conduct your things. Of course, you are explaining about education theatre, but we haven’t seen UjeNi Theatre commercializing a special show for itself. Right? Okay, we are booking Jacaranda Cultural Center, we have a show, people should have the ticket. Mostly, we would see UjeNi Theatre because through an initiative. There’s initiative, UjeNi Theatre is there to perform.

Robert: Perform. Yeah.

Fumbani: Lucky enough, you are on the panel, you and Joshua just say, “Let’s interactive with the guys,” you go and dance and stuff. So that inspiration, why don’t you commercialize your shows?

Robert: When Joshua decided to do research, I was running the organization as a solo guy. So despite the initiative and on our organogram, all that was there, that were followed, it means it was only me most of the times. But if you haven’t noticed, I’ve done performances there, free performances, but they go in schools as well. So I perform there for kids, but my strength is always contemporary. So when I want to do theatre, I do both of them, and I mix them together. But you have not seen us because we are at a level where for you to stage a performance, and for an organization like UjeNi Theatre Dancing Ensemble, is that people knows us because of the backbone of Nanzikambe Arts, and the backbone of Banthu arts.

Fumbani: Yeah. Sure.

Robert: So they know us as actors, but dance and dancers as well. But to stage a performance, starting to budgeting and stuff, and if you run it as a business, like I told you, when we started the organization we wanted it to be business. So for me, over the years I didn’t see the reason of investing into a production, where I know I would make a loss. So it could be the lazy side of it, or now you grow up, you are like you got family, or should I really put a million kwacha in a production? Will I get it back? You’re like, okay, you resent yourself because you don’t want. So when there’s initiatives like those, you take an opportunity to get into the space and perform and to keep. But if you check our page, we always post some things that we do. We’re doing dancing with disability now. We’re trying to get to schools, in primary schools and secondary schools, link this with some guys in Switzerland.

The idea is to bring back physical exercises in school. So we’re doing dance to class project, I call it dancing to class sort of, so that we’re giving a kid some sort of a thing to look forward to, to go back to school. Of lately, I’ve realized a lot of our kids come from broken homes, and the schools, in terms of government schools ratio of a teacher and the student is really huge. It’s really huge. So we want actually these kids to be known and express themself and this would be the place to.

You are using dance, and through dance you’ve discovered an angle of penetration for social change.

Fumbani: Yeah. Okay. Now, let’s stick to theatre for education.

Robert: Okay.

Fumbani: I’ve discovered most of your work, you work with children related to a certain school or certain institution. Now, through your experience and explore about theatre for education here in Malawi, do you think there is a potential that if we can utilize education theatre, start from the grassroots level, we can change the dimension of performing arts?

Robert: Oh, it’s not only the dimension, the performing arts is huge.

Fumbani: All right.

Robert: Our kids in government school, they don’t know how to express themselves. They go to school, they bully each other, they stay quiet like that. So they go to school because they’re weak, they try to be stronger and bully others that are weaker but they don’t stand for themselves. A girl child has got a problem from where they started to see gender changes in them. They don’t know how to express it. Now, when you put theatre in there, you’re making someone who is so smart. You are creating little geniuses. So it’s far more for me than just a performing art, getting the artists from the school. But whosoever is going to go primary school or government schools, as an actor, then you teach those. Wherever they go, they will use this skill and be good marketers, publicity talkers. They’ll be everything. They can be everything.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: Yeah. So for me-

Fumbani: Even the issues of how to think. Logical thinking.

Robert: Logical thinking and common sense is just got... government schools in town, better because they’re exposed to things on the internet and on TV. But I’ll try and be at the village and to talk to somebody at standard eight, you’ll feel sorry, and you are like, “Okay, I’m very much equipped.” “I’m just lacking maybe, what? Transport to come here and motivate these people for one hour.” That changes everything because it’s how you talk. You as a person, that’s normally like, okay, so I felt person can talk like this. Some of us, we haven’t been to the universities, and we get our papers online, or just maybe opportunities that we get. But then, you talk about we’re acting, we’re doing dance, and the funny thing is once you mention about dance. When I say I’m a dancer, they will say, what? Really?

Fumbani: Yes, dancer.

Robert: But if you see the next who know, to somebody who knows me, and he’s just introduced himself as a dancer, but he does this, he does that. But still, I have to stand and say I’m a dancer in Malawi, and it’s happening because most of the money I made, it was not... I mean, theatre put me there, dance made me the money, and people don’t know how until today. But there is a way to make it through dancing.

Fumbani: Yeah, to sustain yourself for—

Robert: For sure. I mean, it’s a hard career like any other else. Marketing is also hard. You go two, three days without selling; you sell, boom, you got money.

Fumbani: Now, I discovered that there is a lot in what you do at the study for education. But I discovered that there is theatre for social change. You talked about inclusive theatre performance, whereby you want to do dance with disabilities and stuff. It’s kind of new dimension in Malawi. We have some attempts way back to introduce a network of inclusive theatre in Malawi.

Robert: Oh, you need to tell me about that. I didn’t know.

Fumbani: Yeah, I’ll tell you. So we’ll discuss that one.

Robert: Okay.

Fumbani: Because for the past years, you’d see a production, whereby they could infuse someone with disability just because to wow the audience.

Robert: I see when I’m judging art, and just giving the mode of sympathy.

Fumbani: Sympathy and stuff. Right?

Robert: They misuse them.

Fumbani: But not utilizing them to tell their story.

Robert: Actually, Fumbani, that’s what made me started the dance with disability, or theatre with disability. That’s what made me, because I thought people were misusing them. For me, you have to look to them, what their abilities are. If it’s just lifting your hand, and do a choreography with everybody else about lifting their hands, include them. So that they know that if it’s five minutes, the four minutes they’re doing it, not because they were into a transitional scene or something. That’s an insult.

Fumbani: Yeah. Very.

Robert: It is.

Fumbani: So you are introducing dance with the disabilities. Yes, I’ve seen some couple of works you’re doing. Jacaranda, I saw there was one participant and stuff. Apart from utilizing people with disability to use their art for performing art, to tell their stories, what else have you discovered this process of using inclusive theatre?

Robert: Oh, I’ve just started this really recently, but I’ll tell you it’s a tough journey because it takes your time a lot because you have to... It’s different from those who are able. But now, you meet two different people with disabilities, but you need to know what they’re doing. What are they capable of doing? What can you do not to go beyond? What can you do not to insult them? Sort of. So that has always for me, being energy draining, but also because it’s the adventurous part of the way of making theatre. I really like that. Last year, for example, I had a collaboration with Theatre Suffolk from London. We did a project. It was simply as just them and a group of people with disabilities here to discuss what they’re doing.

So we did dance under the moon sort of, and they were excited, especially to share the little things like Manganje, and to see people on the wheelchair trying to do the Manganje with only the hands and spinning on the chair. So the process for me, at first, was really hard because you can’t see pass through them. You really have to see that, and not to pretend but be with them, and that takes patience. I think I thank God for that gift though.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: Yeah.

Fumbani: I think it is quite interesting to discover a certain genre you need to work in. I mean, you are using dance, and through dance you’ve discovered an angle of penetration for social change. You discovered, okay, let me utilize people with disability to tell their own stories. On top of that, it is quite interesting that you are focusing on young people. You see, you’re creating a space for them to believe themselves—

Robert: Yeah, for sure.

Fumbani: —and the youth. You talk about the issues of how they’ll present themselves to the society. If they like to stand it out, this initiative will go out as a boom. We see—

Robert: Yeah, for sure.

Fumbani: —those street beggars who are begging right now with disabilities because they didn’t have an opportunity to express their talent. Right? So I’m very overwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting this discussion to go like this.

Robert: Actually, two days ago I had a call from a doctor friend of mine. I’m not going to name him, but he works with Queens. I’ve been to school with him, and he came to Jacaranda, and we did a piece—for me, I call it preciously Jacaranda because the guy is precious—and he’s got some few friends. He’s always on wheelchair. We did a minor choreography. So when they come through, they saw this one day, and he phoned me. It was like, “Man, I’m so amazed with what you’re doing, instead of therapy kind of way of doing things. I want all my patients to come through you.” So I got a phone call yesterday. “I really told somebody to call you, so that she’s bipolar, and she wants to become a journalist but she’s got a problem of also speech. So maybe you can talk to her, dance with her, see how you can advise her. You, bring them on.” I mean, I’m connected to the media as well. “You bring her to people who are actually doing it well in journalism, they’ll talk to her, then they got... We might not get her to be the journalist, but we will inspire her definitely.” So from next week, I think that’s also what I’m getting to, and thank God we have somebody who is at Queens like that, then refer people to us like this. So we’re using the same art as a tool just to change more.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed teaching more than dancing. That’s why you don’t find me actually dancing.

Fumbani: Yeah. Now, we’re from theatre for social change, now you’re going to drama therapy.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: That will help the society. What I discovered from you and from the previous guest in this podcast is that we have different angles how we are dealing with theatre in Malawi. Some are dealing with academics being teachers or lecturers. Some are dealing as passionate actors to work in the field. You are passionate, and on top of that, profession-wise, you are utilizing the situation you have in the country to tell the message, to inform, to educate.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: On top of that, what I’m happy is this conversation is sparking a lot of stuff, of which after this podcast we’re going to discuss more.

Robert: That’s what I need. I mean, it’s been there, I’ve been doing it half-half or full-full, then you put your full speed in it. But when you’re talking to people like this, especially I know you are passionately involved in this a hundred percent deep, and there’s something I’m sure you’re picking and we can come up with... and I need people also to work. I mean, it’s always me, and I’m like, “Okay, this is my week and how am I going to handle it?” I brought a lot of dancers with me. So we do also private dance classes in people’s, especially experts that comes in Malawi and they’re looking for extracurricular activities. But I can’t do them alone.

So I train people, I train dancers. The ones that I get from Kajive is the ones that I find into spaces in the street. As long as you’re good, for me, I tell every dancer that just don’t dance, there’s no money in that because this is how I got it through. A choreographer that was from London, Ipswich, was in Malawi as a choreographer at Nanzikambe when I was starting. But she was teaching at Hillview. So after I started dance is like, “Okay, how is she doing this?” So she would follow and just see what she’s doing, and she would invite you into classes oh alright but it’s very easy. So when she left, her name was Samantha Moss, when she left, she left the school for me to teach.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: So surprisingly, I enjoyed teaching more than dancing. That’s why you don’t find me actually dancing, and you’re like, “You call yourself a dancer but you don’t dance.”


Robert: I’m like... Sumadya Malonda ako omwe.

Fumbani: Yeah. All right. Okay. Now, the journey of being a dancer, an actor, you explore. You’ve gone to several countries, you interact with a lot of expert. Element of Intercultural exchange, and you are one of the few actors in Malawi who’ve traveled a lot.

Robert: For sure. I thank God for that.

Fumbani: Yeah. I mean, traveling is precious. You see?

Robert: Oh, it is.

Fumbani: It’s precious.

Robert: I love it. I miss it after COVID, looking forward to a new one.

Fumbani: Now, the fruits of those traveling, cultural exchange programs, we have seen them. How your profession is changing each and every day.

Robert: Wow! Okay.

Fumbani: Each and every day.

Robert: I’m glad.

Fumbani: Yeah. People will go to your link to see all the content.

Robert: Yeah.

Fumbani: Right.

Robert: For sure.

Fumbani: So now, back to Malawi, the industry.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: It’s in shamble. Some are surviving.

Robert: I wish there was a better way to describe it. Shambles? Shamble is nice, man.

Fumbani: Nice?

Robert: Yeah.

Fumbani: Or what can you say?

Robert: I don’t know. Are we not buried already trying to kick the box, while we dip into the soil?

Fumbani: Maybe there are some who are just trying to survive.

Robert: But maybe that’s too hard for me to say. But it’s a pity actually because you look at government campaigns and ad ideas of employing people, talking about one million jobs. If you put few millions in art, you’ve got those jobs.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: If one company just think of taking one artist to do their... it’s a research company, or just to go about and do awareness. If that’s coming up once a month or once in two months, then this guy has got something doing. The thing about us is you give us a performance money, it’s not only me coming because his brain needs a lot. It’s like a body needs a lot of parts. So we have neutralized it. I’ll just take you back from Du Chisiza when we had no gadgets to do entertainment with us. He was clever enough to perform in schools for years and he was growing his own audience, and oh God he is a legend. He’s father of contemporary theatre in Malawi. People always talk about him like god of theatre, which I would like to believe that. But if Du was here, alive, he would do what I’m doing. He would change. He would’ve also transformed.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: Because the way we’re doing theatre is not the way he was—

Fumbani: Was doing theatre. Yeah. He survived three decades with theatre.

Robert: Yes. He could have revolved. If you look at me, you look at the fruits of Du Chisiza and look how basic it could have been today.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: We are you, Frank Patani the late, everybody else who is doing that, they are the new Du Chisiza Juniors. They’re doing their things according to how they understand theatre. We talk about comedy also here, that’s the same thing. Izeki ndi Jakobo also are the masters of comedy, and you’ll see also two acts always when it comes to comedy.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: What I’m trying to say actually is theatre in Malawi is easy to make because people are passionate about it. They don’t go to school, but they know how to do these things. We have a lot of talent that needs to be unearthed right there. But no one’s bringing any money. I’ve fight this for years, when they hire me to go perform at a corporate event, you are there, and they already treating you under. They paid you already little money, and I mean, the least they could do is just to treat you right.

Fumbani: Yeah. The respect is not there.

Robert: Yeah. It’s not there at all. So some of us we fight for rebranding ourself, and now if you need Robert Magasa, you have to have his money for him to perform if it’s dancing or theatre. If I go there, I’m not among everybody else who’s at the event. I need to the certain room or just a place where if I sit. I sit in my car; it’s fine. But very famous group here in Malawi, traditional dancers, I don’t want to even name names, but I went to a wedding somewhere, it was wedding, and they were standing outside waiting to perform. This is an actual what we’re going through as artist. But it starts with us to talk.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: To voice up things. So when they see us already treating each other like this, they know we can do anything for money, and that’s where they got us.

Fumbani: Now, in Malawi, you have several festivals, right? Several festivals. We can name it. Tumaini Festival, Blantyre Festival, and we are coming with Malawi International Theatre Festival.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: For the first time.

Robert: For the first time.

Fumbani: Maybe that one will be different because it would be fully theatre performance.

Robert: Right. Actually, I’m looking forward to that. I’ve never got excited for something for so long.

Fumbani: For a theatre. So we will not talk about that one, but all these platforms, right? You have expressed exploitation, artists exploiting fellow artists because of performances. Respect. Also, killing, then blinding of fellow artists—

Robert: For sure.

Fumbani: —here in Malawi. So I’ll go back. Yes, theatre has changed. You talk of… there’s social media, there’s Netflix, there’s stuff.

Robert: A lot of things.

Fumbani: Youngsters of this generation, you’ll find a few of them with the passion to watch theatre. That’s killing the market as well. Now, in most of my discussion podcast, I go to refer our icons: Gertrude Kamkwatira and Du Chisiza.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: How they were doing their things way back in the past. So I will not talk about Du Chisiza because we’ll compare how the media was, now coming to 2000. You could see the rise of Gertrude Kamkwatira. How she sustained theatre being a female, and that’s very difficult in Malawi to find a female writer, producer, and the director.

Robert: Yes, it is.

Fumbani: Yeah. But she dominated the whole industry—

Robert: Oh, she did it.

Fumbani:. —without donor—

Robert: No donor money.

Fumbani: —money.

Robert: Well, she had donor money from companies, but not international.

Fumbani: Yeah, like stockholders.

Robert: Yes, stockholders.

Fumbani: Because she was selling the branding of the—

Robert: The brands.

Fumbani: Right?

Robert: Yeah.

Fumbani: So that was business.

Robert: Business. Yeah.

Fumbani: Right? By that time, you could see the rise of Nanzikambe using donor funding.

Robert: For sure.

Fumbani: You could see the rise of Solomonic using donors. Right? But how, I remember there was a quote she wrote, “These donors will kill your industry.” Right? So I’m trying to refer how she stated those ways, quickly in 2011, we have political instability in the country. You were there at Nanzikambe, how the space was rasked, the donors went out, you were there at French Cultural. It went out.

Robert: Yeah. I remember French Cultural.

Fumbani: Then, you don’t have a space to perform.

Robert: Nothing.

Fumbani: You don’t have a space to perform.

Robert: Nothing.

Fumbani: Then, you could see theatre going—

Robert: Down.

Fumbani: —down. Most of the artist suffering. People will say, theatre is down because they were used to be paid after performances each and every time. But still Gertrude in those days she was surviving, but nobody tries to blend the idea up to date. Now—

Robert: Who wants to do the hard thing? I mean, that’s the other thing also. I envy her energy, and the drive that she had. I never got a chance to work with her, but we interacted before. But I really like the point that you put in terms of how did she manage to do it in 2000s. I mean, early 2000 where also technology was already advanced and people had a lot of outlet to consume in terms of intellectual property, and she really was good. But what she wrote about... I read that one, that these donors one day they’ll kill your art. That’s very true. Nanzikambe, boom, gone. Whatever politics happened there, we were there at that time, and we had... What I liked about Nanzikambe was we got trainings and we got exposed to the level where you needed to go outside the country to get that experience.

So we used to get it there. For me, everybody that worked with Nanzikambe during Melissa time, if you look at them now, they are always stars in whatever they do. But the problem is because they were receiving a lot of money for their work, they got settled with that, and it was hard for everybody else to go out and look for funds and come and do sustainable theatre. Now, that brings in me because I was part of that small cycle, and you ask questions like why we don’t see you performing? I, straightforward, tell you that it’s business. If I can’t put my dollars in there, if I’m not sure if I’m going to get it back. So for me, that’s where naturally I thought okay, let’s build our own theatre, people. Let’s build our own audience How Du you used to do it.

So you go perform, what you guys do for free to a school, you already install that in them, because I be on TV and watch movies. I be on radio, listen to something. But if I sit down watching a real energy on stage, interacting, see every drop of sweat and confusion and emotions right away on stage, trust me, it’s not going to be like a movie. It’s not going to be like a radio. It’s different. An experience for those who have not experienced it, you just have to do it once before you die. It’s really amazing. So maybe also the way we work as an artist here, artists in Malawi as a body, I think for me, it’s also a problem in terms of collaborative works.

For us, if we do a lot of festivals like the coming in of the International Festival, the other festivals, maybe the Solomonic Festival and all of those—If you bring all of these and make them theatre only kind of, so that we know that we’re building our own people. In these, we have martinis, we have people, kids coming in to perform, kids come and see good production, and we’re motivating our own kids, sort of doing. I think that’s the direction we need to take, and some of us started it a few years ago. Sure.

The thing is, the thing about history is it’s got a very strict time table. If we won’t be careful, we’ll be remembered as a country where everybody arrived too late.

Fumbani: All right. Okay. So how theatres involved are coming basically very fast. You talk from 2014 to 2019. Theatre changed very fast. You would discover little audience because people are so taken away with motion pictures. Right? So right now, as you’re doing dance, how did you consider to involve with dance and digital? How do you consider to involve dance and how the media’s flowing?

Robert: So I think we’re doing little less about it. We’re using just media and how the technology is going speed now. Mostly we do use just for advertising. So we use social media for advertising, just people to get by. But this, I’ve realized it’s not working actually. So even word to mouth is also a better marketing than just on social media, if I say we’re coming. we’re coming. So we need to find a way in terms of selling our work. I got involved in reconstruction of FAM, not FAM but Theatre Association of Malawi. We saw some marketing people coming through, and I think that’s the direction we need to take. Get advice for real marketers and see how best we can actually rebrand ourselves, and make this as a viable option for say, there’s a football day and somebody think twice, should I really go to football, or should I got to see theatre? We can do that because we have the talent. We have people that can compete on Hollywood.

We’ve got people that have, I mean, huge talent that is going... not training at all. Now, this remind me. I had a friend, a director friend of mine from Germany, he came to Malawi and they’re up there we did some auditions. This is what he said to me: “What? You mean every person who came through today never been to a school of arts?” I was like, “Yeah, including myself.” “Oh, my goodness. But the people you have here, if I can only have one month with them and I know I can come up with a lot of work.”

Fumbani: Very.

Robert: And COVID hit.

Fumbani: Yeah. Even COVID, confuses everyone. It blocked the opposition of how to interact.

Robert: Interact. Yes.

Fumbani: More festivals went down. Of course, we have the hybrid, upload some stuff. Of course, COVID also bring some opportunities.

Robert: Yeah.

Fumbani: Open our minds how to shift. Yeah.

Robert: For sure. It was a shift of things.

Fumbani: Yeah. So the industry is being run by we artists. We have seen government without pumping anything in the art industry. We are suffering from the support from the government. Yeah, it’s something else. Even the identity of the nation is falling apart because the art industry is not being supported. Way back, that’s why the whites came in to pump in more money. The west donors pumps in more money, and they’ll tell you, you’re going to do Macbeth.

Robert: Macbeth. We do our story, we do The Tempest.

Fumbani: Yes, you’re going to do—

Robert: We do Animal Farm.

Fumbani: Okay, so we want to do it African way. Yes, you’re going to Romeo and Juliet in Africa. But Romeo and Juliet, that culture, aspect of Western was still there.

Robert: Oh, it’s still here.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: You see, of course, we have their money. The thing is, the thing about history is it’s got a very strict time table. If we won’t be careful, we’ll be remembered as a country where everybody arrived too late.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: The art, we cannot tell our folk tales. We cannot sit around proudly around the fire and one guy tell us a story like Nthano. Those were amazing ways to tell our stories. Our grandfather did, our great grandparents did them. They survived through, and that’s how they kept the culture going, and give it to the other generation. We are losing it because we look like people who doesn’t have stories to tell.

Fumbani: Tell. Yeah.

Robert: I’m motivated by Mbona. He’s dancing. How was he dancing to cut through the rains, and the rains will even come? I mean, if these are fictitious stories, then why people still believe them?

Fumbani: Yeah. On top of that, we are not documenting those stories.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: Even in books.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: I remember when I was young, I never read about Sikusinja Ndi Gwenembe but you can see my brother Sikusinja Sikusinja, Gwenembe, singing aloud. What is happening? It was up until when I was in first year, and you say, we’re studying Sikusinja Ndi Gwenembe, ah Sikusinja ndi Gwenembe is a book? Yes. It’s also a fiction story. I just thought it was something else.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: Right? You see how those stories were inspiring us, and that generation is you and me? But what about—

Robert: The other ones that are coming.

Fumbani: —the other ones that are coming?

Robert: We’re getting out of this, and we want to go with the old stories.

Fumbani: Yeah. The thing from there is maybe as you post, you said earlier, you said... Gertrude and Du used to go to secondary school frequently.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: With shows.

Robert: No, they were.

Fumbani: With shows. So after some several years, those students who have that culture of watching performances, then after two, three years you find... sold out that shows by Gertrude, sold out that show by Du Chisiza.

Robert: Because they know how from those schools...

Fumbani: Yeah. Because the culture was there.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: The culture of revamping the stories within, how production of Du Chisiza by then, the Tumbuka accent how it flows, how it all... So those things I think we need to utilize, no matter what. We can go back.

Robert: We definitely have to reset. For sure.

Fumbani: Yeah. We can go back. So for you as well, you do contemporary dance, which is it inspire a lot of students because it’s new for them to do that. But how do you incorporate traditional dance?

Robert: You should also see my choreographies. You will see every contemporary dance, but it’s Afro contemporary. Within the Afro contemporary, what happens is all of... I look at let’s say Chitaguliro from Ghana, I bring it in, and I see the taguliro movement is got some Manganje rhythm. Then I put Manganje into my choreographies. So I studied a lot of our traditional dance and see how I can put it into today’s movement. So if one, two, three is Martha Graham technique, originally from America or somewhere else, then five, six, seven is definitely Beni or Malipenga somewhere. Because they have seen Malipenga for over years and it’s the same. So if I see Malipenga and close my eyes, and I’m still going to the rhythm and I’ll match the dancers on space.

So there is no longer that unique moment in there, but you need to bring that back. So that’s where you have a Malipenga guy doing... as from nowhere you see a back flip, and you’re like, wow, and it still continues. So you try to make sure that the audience now sees something new in our own tradition. I’m not... I’m not trying to change it.

Fumbani: No, you’re not changing it.

Robert: No, I’m not changing anything because I have a kid who will not watch it, but if they see a back flip, something that they see on telly, and then he’s like, “Oh, that dancer is cool.” Then, that dance is cool for him.

Fumbani: Yes.

Robert: So it’s those kind of things. So I look at our tradition, and see the back belly of the music and also the dance, the basic, how I can mix it with any other mix, mix or a dance that I’ve learnt or something western.

Fumbani: Yeah. You’re not changing the dance because even from the beginning they introduce maybe one, two steps, three steps, four steps. Then, as time goes, there’s five steps.

Robert: Yeah.

Fumbani: New steps. Aah, then this is another dance. Let’s create this. Another one. So it evolves like that. So by creating some contemporary elements, some movement with it, is how you understand how culture changes, how it evolves, how it flows. Right? So you’re not changing it because you are a Malawian, you are part of it. You are part of the tradition.

Robert: I was very sadly the other times TV hired me to be part of the judges at Kajive, they gave them a task to do a traditional dance. One traditional dance they could find. So I think they named it Beni or Manganje, right? You could see how they didn’t go into research.

Fumbani: Research.

Robert: How they didn’t put much effort on any. How they cheated through to perform.

Fumbani: They failed to interplay the performance.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: For me, that’s a sad moment because you can have a better choreography, but if I see any related dance movement from elsewhere, then you are not thinking because you’re copying. Even if you cut and paste it in your own choreography, I need to see what you can do because it does not end out from just dancing. It does not end out just from acting. You need to evolve, you need to start directing, you need to start writing. You need to start composing your own choreography. So for me, I came up with a lot of way like looking at pictures, and make a dance from a picture. Looking at people moving around the street, make a dance from there. Listening to noise, see how the rhythm bounces.

There’s a lot of things that inspire. Your difficult mom, your broken dad, your problems at the home. Your younger sisters, the way they cry, the way they move, everybody’s dancing. If that make the way Malawians move with their problem is a different way, the way the Zimbabweans dance with their problem. So that’s why the dancer from Zimbabwe is different from the Malawian dancer point of view.

Fumbani: I think the presentation itself also spark the therapy of the society.

Robert: Yes.

Fumbani: So, because you mirror the society, and you present it to the audience—

Robert: Exactly.

Fumbani: —then people say, okay, let me go and watch the performance again. My mind could be refreshed and stuff, say, “Oh, I’m feeling it. All right.” Robert?

Robert: Yes. Fumbani!

Fumbani: Yeah. It was nice having you over the conversation. Probably we will also have another episode in the future—

Robert: I’ll love to.

Fumbani: —to discuss but continue doing a great job, being a social changer. I just love the conversation from inclusive theatre. Maybe I will ask my producer to say, can we have a special serial on that? We can discuss more on that.

Robert: Please do. I would love to. Exposure is always good.

Fumbani: Yeah. Sure.

Robert: Let’s see how this can also get to help the artists in Malawi in terms of the channels that we’re taking.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: Let’s not go through the easy ways. The tough ways, everybody’s not going there, but if you go there five, four times and you fail... You know what they say?

Fumbani: Yeah.

Robert: Fall seven times and wake up eight times.

Fumbani: So if you want to know more about Robert Magasa, you’ll find the description down there, then there’s a link, you can comment in the box, then interact. Yeah. So thank you very much. See you next time.

Robert: Thank you so much.

Fumbani: Yeah. Thank you so much for having a chill with us. This has been another episode of Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre. I was your host, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr. If you’re looking forward to connect with me, you can email me at [email protected].

This episode is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episode of this series and other HowlRound podcast in our feeds, iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcast” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post your rating and write a review on those platforms. This help other people to find us. You can also find the transcript of this episode along with a lot of progressive and descriptive content on howlround.com. Do you have an idea for exciting podcast, essay, or a TV event that theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your idea to the commons.

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Thoughts from the curator

In Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr. interviews established theatre artists from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in a modern world, define its problems, and find better solutions to sustain performing arts in a generation of motion pictures. Fumbani leads discussions with established performers, directors, and writers who are exploring ways to greet these challenges while their works inspires their communities.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre


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