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Developing Genuine Malawian Theatre on Stage and on the Radio

Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr.: Welcome to Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre Podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide in partnership with Advanc[ing[ Arts Forward, a movement advanced equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating a liberated space that uplift you and encouraged us 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, I interview established theatre artists from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in the modern world, define the problem and find the better solution to sustain us in a generation of motion pictures. In this podcast, I lead the discussion with established performers, directors, writers who are exploring ways to greet these challenges while their works inspire the community.

So Inno Katz, welcome to this edition, feel free.

Inno Katz: Okay, thanks a lot.

Fumbani: Okay, people know about Inno Katz, they don’t know Innocent Katsache, what’s the inspiration of Inno Katz?

Inno: Okay, I think when I was in secondary school, I don’t know what was happening in my head, I think as an artist, I said, “I think my name is too long.” At that time, this name was too boring. Actually, I started with Inno K.

Fumbani: Inno K?

Inno: Yeah, to shorten my name to something that people can relate with and it also can be unique, something like that. So I started with Inno K, but then—

Fumbani: Inno K sounds like a musician.

Inno: Yeah, I didn’t know any musician by that time. But then I said, “No, if I put a Z, if I say Inno Katz and I put a Z, then I still maintain my Katsache, I’m also maintaining my Innocent.” But the K was just... I’m just using a letter, but I said, “no.” But I wanted to maintain the Katsache but in a very short form, because the name, Katsache, is for my grandfather. It’s not really for my father, but my grandfather, so I said, “Okay, let me play around it this way.”

Fumbani: Now Inno Katz. When I came to Blantyre from Lilongwe, I was young by then, then I got the name, Inno Katz, it took me two years without knowing Inno Katz. When you go to Chanco, you say, “You know Inno Katz, he’s a good writer.” So the name was everywhere, so your name was more of a writer than a director.

Inno: Yeah, true. Could be true.

Fumbani: Okay, then Inno Katz was there with the famous, The House in Between.

Inno: Yes.

Fumbani: The Leaders at Crossroads.

Inno: Yes.

Fumbani: When I read Leader at Crossroads, I was privileged to direct your production. But that time, I didn’t know Inno Katz, really who is Inno Katz? Just the name itself, but when I read the script, I was like, “I need to meet this guy.” So we met some several corners, we didn’t interact much but Story Workshop bring us together. So can you give us a background of your journey in theatre?

Inno: Okay, my journey starts with writing, and then I was not really that guy, that acting guy. But yeah, I think I should go back to secondary school because this is where the story starts.

Fumbani: All right.

Inno: I joined a boarding school in form three, and then we are told to do something, we had a special day, that was the Likuni Boys—it’s a Marist secondary by the Catholics. So it was a special day, every student was supposed to do something on that day.

So, I was very quiet. I was a very quiet student—

Fumbani: Serious?

Inno: Very, very quiet, there is a story. There is a story why I got to be quiet. Actually, I was supposed to be quiet. I was asked to be quiet, so I was very quiet. And then told to something, it was a must, you should do something, if you don’t, there are consequences. So I looked around and I said, “What can I do?” People were dancing, people were singing people, something in me say, “I need to do something unique and I need to do it with passion, what is this thing that I have to do?” I think my first acting was in church, I was doing this Jesus—

Fumbani: The Jesus story, yeah.

Inno: I was Joseph.

Fumbani: All right.

Inno: So as Joseph, I just went on stage, I don’t know what I was doing, but people were just cracking out. I didn’t even know. I said, “Maybe my zipper is down.” You can’t explain what you are doing, but they just love watching.

Fumbani: What you are doing, yeah.

Inno: That was my first experience and I stopped there. And then I went to secondary school, this special day, we called it Champanya day. So I looked around and I saw some guys doing some kind of drama, so I went to them. I said, “You know what? You think you can do this A, B, C, D?” Then I think you know Joram, Joram Nyirongo, that artist. We were together in secondary school. He was creating that production. So when he looked at me, he said, “I think we have clicked. You have good ideas,” so we did our first performance.

I was not even part of the drama club at that time, but I took Joram and form ones of that time. We went on stage and we brought a performance that nobody had ever seen by that time. So that started the journey and I was invited. Actually for you to be part of a drama club that time, you were supposed to go through auditions and auditions, for me, I was just, “Hey, we need you.”

Fumbani: It’s your time.

Inno: They gave me a small part, so from there I was exposed to the thinking, the theatre, the art and things, and then I started writing my own plays, imitating what I was watching. That was the bond of Leaders at Crossroads.

Fumbani: All right, likely you were selected to go at University of Malawi.

Inno: And Joram and I were very good friends, every time there was a function on Saturdays, we would say, “Hi, my friend, let’s come up with a play,” so he was good with storytelling. He brought the ideas, the concepts, “What if this girl comes like this?” And then I said “Okay.”

And then I started directing, but that time, I didn’t know what I was doing was directing. So I said, “Okay, this piece should start from here, and we go like this, and the story ends like this.” So we got famous with those production, especially at Likuni Girls.

Fumbani: Exposing yourself to the girls.

Inno: Yah we were stars by then.

Fumbani: Yeah, we used to call you by the name of Likuni Boys during ATEM Drama Festival itself, so your name was everywhere, you got selected to the University of Malawi, started drama.

Inno: The funny thing, Joram said he wanted to do drama, I had no idea that people can actually go to college and do drama, to me it was weird. I found drama to be something that is coming for me, just a talent, why should I… where should you learn about it? So I was saying if I go to college, I would study medicine, things like that. Jolam says, “If I don’t study drama, I’ll study music.” I think he had a whole background of music, his father. Yeah, I learned from him that people can study drama. Unfortunately or fortunately, Jolam was selected to study medicine, I was selected to study...

Fumbani: Drama, the opposite.

Inno: Yeah, I don’t know if he remembers this story or not. So yeah, that started it, and when I was in college, I had this belief that I have to be the best in everything I do. Actually, I was shunning reading acting books. I thought maybe they would influence me in a wrong way, maybe they would give me ideas that it’ll kill my talent.

Fumbani: Your skill.

Inno: Yeah, my skill. But when I discovered acting through books, I said, “Wow, I have never acted.” So I read those books, I started practicing, and I think I did more practice on my own, more than what we’re being taught in class, and it paid off, because every time I stood on the stage, without even saying anything, just appearing, people were just clapping hands. I couldn’t tell why. So back then in college, I was not much of a writer, but much of an actor, and then I established myself as a director through the acting experience because people wanted just to act the way I was doing.

Fumbani: Yeah, I heard about you when I was in Blantyre, when I was at Polytechnic, but I didn’t know you physically.

Inno: Wow.

Fumbani: So I used to come to Chancellor College to watch performance, then Inno Katz is this one, I was just watching. And I remember I watched some performances of Chanco Travelling theatre at Mwezi Wawala arts Festival, then there was a time a friend, Bamba, he brought me his PC, then I was watching some of the performances from Chancellor College. By that time, I knew you physically, I was like, “This is Inno,” then I remember Taddja posted a certain poster about Chanco Travelling theatre, he said, do you remember that and I said, “Inno was in the production,” is connection I have. And to say the fact, my experience in art, I have some several factors of youngsters who motivate me to work into the theatre industry, there is the Gwamba, there is you, there is Chayachaya, so because I teach Gwamba drama way back after secondary school, before going to college.

Inno: Okay this is news.

Fumbani: Yeah, we were together in Area 25. So it’s like I said, “Okay, I’ll do drama, Gwamba, I’ll be a certain couse, but drama would be my last choice.” Gwamba was selected to do drama, I was selected to do Journalism. Then the connection was still there. Gwamba used to come Blantyre to watch my work, to interact, because I was focusing, helping secondary schools with their performances, so Gwamba used to travel and help us with some pieces. And in fact, I didn’t know anything about theatre of development; it was Gwamba who trained me.

Inno: Wow.

Fumbani: For free, you see. So I like, “Okay, I need to get connected.”

Inno: You were paying back.

Fumbani: Yeah, “I need to get connected with all the friends of Gwamba,” so I started with Chayachaya, and then we get connected through Kelly. So the network was vast, and right now I can say the theatre is bright because of this team, because we shared the ideas and other elements. Now, everyone expecting Inno Katz to be something very wild in the theatre industry, the mainstream.

Inno: There’s that expectation.

Fumbani: Yeah, the mainstream. And what happened?

Inno: Yeah, true, what happened? I think when I was in fourth year, personally, I did an analysis of theatre and the way we can move. I think I was excited with the movie industry, so I said, “Maybe I should use my skills from theatre to influence something about film.” Tell you, I wrote a script when I was in third year... Actually, I was just coming from second year to third year, and I went in into the library, I grabbed a book about script writing for film, then I started reading, and then I started developing my script. So my objective then was for me to produce a movie before I get out of college so that I can show... Because I said, “What can sustain me as a human being? What can give food?” In Malawi, I’ve seen people struggling with their stage, stage theatre, I thought that should be something that we are doing, but there needs to be something that is giving us money that we can actually sponsor even those productions.

So this was my thinking then, and I wrote that script. It has never been produced, but I’ve been developing it over the years. When it comes out, it’d be a work that started way back. I wrote a script called Love Pains, and I’ve been trying to produce it, but this Love Pains led me to a bigger project, Timasukirane Season Two… a long story as well, but this Timasukirane Season Two brought me to Story Workshop.

So I still think as much as I did not make it, I did not live up with the expectation because I think I heard somewhere someone telling me, “You are the next Du Chisiza,” I said, “No, this is just too big for me.” But that’s what happened, even when I was at Story Workshop, when I just went there, they were offering me things like, “We want you to go and start doing TFD, you should help us with TFD,” I said, “No, that’s not my objective. My objective is to produce a movie,” and I was very clear on that one, nobody moved me until we produced the Timasukirane Season Two, then after that project, I said, “So where do I go from here?” And I think this is where I got stuck.

Fumbani: Yeah, the industry was already in stagnant.

Inno: Yeah.

Fumbani: So you were there.

Inno: Yeah.

Fumbani: Then you started writing radio plays.

To me, it’s not that radio drama has died, no, but it’s just the channel that is dying.

Inno: Actually, at first I was reluctant to going to radio drama, but I think opportunities just come like that, I said, “Maybe this is a challenge.” I found the radio drama to be... During that time, because I was focusing on the movies, and then I said, “If I write a radio drama, it’s all about language, people just speaking,” but then I learned a lot, that actually it’s a beautiful art, a radio drama, it’s a beautiful art because it’s not just about people speaking, it’s about people showing things through theatre, so yeah, they called Theatre of the Mind.

So yeah, I explored that one as well, I’ve been exploring it for some time now, but recently, my passion for the stage was resurfacing and I started writing a bit more of a stage play, I think for the past two years I wrote two scripts, Leaders at Crossroads you know it is from way back, but there’s...

Fumbani: Nyambose.

Inno: Nyambose Goes to Town and I Love Elements.

Fumbani: Right, yeah. Okay, so not by choice, you started writing radio drama, so can you give us the experience of radio drama? How effective it is to the community? And for a fact, we know that it employs a lot of artists in Malawi, so how effective it is.

Inno: Quite effective, but it has to be very good. What is lacking now is the promotion of this product, radio drama needs to be promoted. I’ll give an example of that, I have some other issues with that, but I will just give you an example of how they were promoting the product, and I think the radio drama did not live up to the expectation, but it was hugely promoted, but the radio drama, I think... let audience down, I don’t know, it’s my opinion, but if we design the radio drama the way it’s supposed to be designed, I think it’s a very great tool to teach behaviors, because radio is already personal, listening to radio is a personal experience.



So combining that with a story that touches on your life, where it gives you that reflection, you meditate immediately, then it opens up a new world to you, it’s like reading a novel to me, listening to radio, your brain is at work, your emotions are challenged, so it’s huge.

Fumbani: Okay, radio has quite a vast masses. It reaches a lot of people because with the dimension of Malawians, a lot of people listen to the radio. Of course it’s changing because of technology, right?

Inno: Yes.

Fumbani: So as the time is changing, technology is taking everything away. Now in Planta, you find a few guys who can listen to the radios, most of the young people. I was part of the Zimachitika The Next Generation, it was basically for young people. Did you do any assessment? Like you said, needs the promotion, did you do any assessment whereby you can reach a greater masses of young people in Malawi? Because greater masses now, they don’t focus on radio, they focus on other media, did you design something very new to fit into the technological out?

Inno: Mm-hmm. We are working towards that, I think what we need to understand here is... Because this new technology we’re talking about is social media, let’s be specific, it’s social media. You know what social media is doing, is providing us with a channel, it’s not really providing content, it’s just providing a channel of communication. So the problem here is we are stuck as radio producers, with a radio station, you see?

Fumbani: Yeah.

Inno: Nowadays people listen to a radio station for news, for sports, or music, but there’s a lot of stuff happening on Facebook for example, in Malawi, or with the influential Malawians on Facebook, even kids in the villages, either they’re on Facebook or on WhatsApp. So to me, this is just a channel. What we need to do now is to say how best do we now utilize the platform? Because that platform needs content, you can already see how our lives are being spread through social media, because radio is controlled, the radio station is controlled, you cannot spread bad stuff on radio otherwise your station will be closed up; but social media, you can spread stuff and go out like that. So I think content needs to be developed to suit a channel, like what we are doing here, podcast.

Fumbani: Yes.

Inno: Because here, I think in those days, we are supposed to go to MBC and record this, and it was supposed to be a very big process.

Fumbani: Yeah, a bigger studio.

Inno: It’s a big studio. We have to boom; we have to do all that stuff.

Fumbani: Now we have a pocket thing.

Inno: So I think what is changing is just the channel, not the content.

Fumbani: Yeah, like most of the youth right now, they’re on Spotify, they want to listen music while online, so if you can change Zimachitika to be on Spotify, right?

Inno: So we are working on a campaign called Kankha, it’s a drama that is coming up. So when the donors went down to the communities and the community said, “We don’t listen to the radio anymore,” or, “We don’t like listening to the radio anymore,” but does this argument tell you that they have stopped consuming it?

Fumbani: No.

Inno: No, they’re just not associating with the... Because you need batteries, specials, you need to go and buy batteries. It’s like nowadays, people say, “I want to buy this torch,” for what? You have your phone. So to me, it’s not that radio drama has died, no, but it’s just the channel that is dying.

Fumbani: Yeah. Okay, so I think having youngsters working on the production, it gives a new brain of ideas whereby you as a creative actor, creative director, creative everything, right? Creative everything, we’re going to see such audio dramas, we can say audio drama, right?

Inno: Yeah.

Fumbani: Audio... everywhere, in every platform, whereby you want to reach everyone, you can be in radio, Spotify, any kind of podcast you can find, like here, were we can also present it, you see?

Inno: Mm-hmm.

Fumbani: Now, you are working on those platform to sustain the industry itself, because actors are artists, and they can be a audio actors, stage drama actors, very simple people, so it’s still contributing to sustain the industry itself, right? Story Workshop has been there since 1996 I can say—

Inno: ‘97. No, 1996—

Fumbani: Yeah, ‘96. So since that, it has employed a lot of youngsters to work in... Mostly in the field of creative industry, being actors, writers. So I was privileged to be one of them, so I learned a lot basically from you, my mentor, as a supervisor. Yes, I need to be open.

Inno: But you were already great.

Fumbani: Okay.

Inno: I didn’t do too much on your scripts.

Fumbani: Thank you very much. All right, so here’s the Industry, what is the problem?

Inno: With the industry, I think the first thing is, who is funding us? This is the greatest problem. It’s not booming up because those people who are funding us, their interest is not necessarily in the industry, it’s just a means to an end, you see? For example, I’ll give you, let’s say UNICEF, I don’t know, just say a donor.

Fumbani: A donor, yes.

Inno: A donor may not target anyone. A donor out there wants you to do a program that should share information to communities, their interest is the community, not necessarily the art, but they just want to harness the art to go and reach out to the masses. So you can only say that their investment would be in the community, not necessarily in the artist, so this is a challenge with this industry as we speak. It’s unlike that we are... Let’s say we are talking about a commercial company, their interest is for you to sell their product and they would say, “Let’s invest in the art,” so the difference is the quality of the art is going to produce something that is going to cater for their needs. Like the soap operas, they were called soap operas because they were selling soap, and the soap opera had to be of greatest quality and great quality comes with huge investments. Today, they’ll give you three million to produce a radio drama. Actors have to be paid, studios have to be booked, you have to provide refreshments for everyone to come.

Fumbani: Yeah, air time.

Inno: Air time, how much does an actor get? How can we say? I am an actor; I survived on art. So the problem is where we are getting our resources.

Fumbani: And on top of that, donor syndrome has also affected the skill, the creative part, because if the message is that yeah, the message is that, we are done.

Inno: And as well, where you have just touched there, we have people who they call themselves... They have to vet the products when you produce them, these people are not actors or amongst them. There’s no one who is an actor or someone who is creative. These people are experts in, for example, in health, so you bring a product to them, they’ll say, “Ah,” instead of them focusing on the message... Okay, for example, a good radio drama that is meant to change behavior, there has to be a mix, a message should be embedded in the story.

Fumbani: Oh, yeah.

Inno: You should not be able to say, “Ah, they’re telling me to use a condom,” no, you should say, “I imply that I need to use a condom for me to avoid a situation that has happened to such and such.” But what they want you to do is, the character should speak, “Hey, use condoms every time,” see? When they don’t see that, they say, “They will not vet this, this will not come on, will not go on here,” It won’t. So in the process, you are compromising the art because... For example, if you go and watch Romeo and Juliet, what message is there? Especially you said there’s no message, but when you watch, something happens to you.

Fumbani: Yeah, and you reflect to it to your relationship.

Inno: That what happens to you, is the message. So this we need to maintain, but you can’t because these people are looking for a message, should be flying.

Fumbani: Yeah, it should be floating.

Inno: Yeah, so what you see now today’s... You hear a lot of stuff on the radio: people they start a job and from that job, they will leave the job aside. It’s just to hoop you, and then they’ll start telling you, “Yeah, you need to buy this. Hey, you need to do this. Hey, you need to do that,” so this is propaganda and as much as you are saying radio is effective, it does not tag much.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Inno: Because we are seeing propaganda and people notice this is propaganda, they’re telling us to change behavior, they don’t want to be dictated too, they want to decipher on their own, “Okay, I need to change my choices.”

Fumbani: Okay, still on the donor element, if we can go back, we used to have the time of Du Chisiza, it was called Golden Age, whereby theatre was everywhere, and you listen to radio drama series and say, “Wow,” and then, “Ah, so they were saying that?” That was the message, because how creative it was and it was about passion to deliver the message to the community. And you go and watch a performance by Du Chisiza, you find French Cultural Center is sold out, right? And there come a time whereby the donors came the game, pumping funds into the creative industry.

And we would see a lot of theatre coming out. There’s money, let’s create theatre performances. There’s money, and it goes everywhere. That affected the industry as much as I’ve been interacted with other guests in this program, the views has been in different angles, I would say the donors were just, “Okay, maybe we are the problem,” some said the donors were the problem and I guess what is your angle? Because after that period of donor syndrome, well, we saw the theatre industry dying.

Inno: Yeah, my angle is, I think I target them basically on context. You see the same donors being in South Africa. They have huge investments in the arts, perhaps it’s maybe the policies that South Africa has as a country allowing the arts. But when they come here, I just think that our policies are not quite clear in these things, so what is happening here is, when they come to Malawi, there’s a lot of compromise in how we should produce it, we should come up with this product. There’s a lot of compromise and there’s less time for you to do something meaningful.

For example, I was just telling someone that for us to produce a radio drama according to the standards of people like the Sabido—Miguel Sabido, you know that guy?

Fumbani: Yeah.

Inno: He has a whole standard, he has a whole process. Here, one person is doing a lot of stuff, they just say, “We want you as an organization or a media organization to produce this radio drama, we want to hear it on the radio tomorrow.” What do you do? They give you money. Your organization needs to be sustained. You say, “Hey, scriptwriter, what are you doing? Ah, no, I have to do this.” Okay, then you start writing whatever comes in your head, then you just find few people, they’re not even trained actors, there’s no training for actors in the radio drama, for example, you just pick them somewhere and let’s go… I think you have been listening to some of the stuff on the radio.

Fumbani: Yeah, quite a lot of them.

Inno: Very same stuff, how can you do this? Who is this acting? Even in the studio, there is no special director saying, “This story is going like this, you need to produce emotions like this,” no, these things are just happen anyhow. But you have watched stuff from South Africa, social behavior change communication stuff, very good stuff, very good content. There are programs like Neighbors, there are programs like...

Fumbani: MTV Shuga.

Inno:... MTV Shuga, we can talk about this other program, Intersexions, you watch that, those kind of stories, you notice at the end and you see that the donors are coming up, “Oh, wow. So they are here,” you see? So perhaps it’s what this country, the arts, what does it say? you ask, what does it say?

Fumbani: The policies.

Inno: What are the standards?

Fumbani: And they’re always still fighting for it.

Inno: You see? The lack of it is creating these problems, because should have said, in the policy, would’ve been making very clear that by the end of the day, we want ads to promote a Malawian cultural aspect of art, and they should have found... find us already doing these things. When they come, they should do say, “Let’s harness the art.” But in the meantime, we are creating. They have seen it working somewhere and they all come to Malawi with that template. For example, I don’t know if the story is true, what was happening with Zanthu, the stories, I think they are coming from South Africa, somewhere there, and then they would come to Malawi, basically our writers here would just translate the stuff or just try to—

Fumbani: To fix it, yeah.

Inno: To a Malawian context. I felt it should have started from Malawi.

Fumbani: In fact, it wasn’t adaptation. It was just fixing the stuff inside.

Inno: Yeah, find Chichewa. So to me, that is a challenge.

Fumbani: So you could find loopholes because some other culture can’t fit with ours.

Inno: Yeah, there was this aspect of a band. When was the last time you growing up, you were bothered with issues of a backpack? No, I want to go into a band, I want to play music, no, maybe if you grew up in Balaka.

Fumbani: Yeah. Okay, so basically, we can say culture is important in our aspect, because I didn’t watch any Du Chisiza, but I could reflect, I could watch it and how those guys are narrating, it was not exist like that. So I listened to one advert, BBC advert for Wankhumba production. You could watch the whole performance throughout. It could entice you, go and watch the performance; you could feel the Malawian gut in the production itself, right? So that disappeared.

Yet we have the University of Malawi that want to keep that record. What happened at the University of Malawi? What is happening? Because let me say the fact, 90 percent of graduates from, let me say 99 from the drama side, they end up being teachers, banks, as you say, few of them, we find them doing theatre fulfillment facilitators as part-time.

Inno: First of all, I think it’s motivation, it’s guys like you and me that would go to say, “I’m a Chanco,” or, “University of Malawi, I want to study the arts.” Or, I have heard of stories like people like... I’ve just forgotten him, but he has worked for UNICEF and another organization. I heard when he was in college, he was selected as a science student, then he heard people beating drums, then he said, “What is happening? How can people be beating drums at a college classroom?” So when he went there, they said this, “That’s a classroom, people are leaning there,” said, “These people are having fun?” So he deregistered from the sciences and joined the arts.

Fumbani: Wow.

Inno: You should expect something big coming from...

Fumbani: From that guy, yeah.

Inno: Smith Likongwe was selected to do, I think education, but he had passion for the arts. Actually, he told me that in one of the... I think it was a directing class, he was the only guy, actually, those classes we conducted in the office of the lecturer. What I’m telling you is we have a bunch of guys going to Chanco or University of Malawi and they enroll for drama, their thinking is, they’ll get easy grades from studying drama, they’ll not be bothered.

Fumbani: Right, yeah.

Inno: So the idea is, “Let me get a degree and go out as well,” by the time we were going to Chanco or University of Malawi, there was nothing like a drama school. It was a general degree. They called it the Bachelor of Arts. It’s a general degree, what you study doesn’t matter, and where you end up, it doesn’t matter. Actually, that argument is now void, we say that people went to Chanco—

Fumbani: To study drama.

Inno: But no, actually that’s the idea. It’s a general degree, you can say, “I think I want to go to the bank, I want to be to become a...”

Fumbani: A teacher.

Inno: It allows you to do that. But I also encountered a certain guy who told me that... Previously during, I don’t know, I won’t mention during Dr. Banda’s time, there was a special arrangement made in the government that people who have studied the arts, especially drama or the fine arts, they would find a space in government. So they fascinated things, I’ve seen two guys from government, but I don’t know, maybe they just found a job like the rest. They said, “This is a degree that it has allowed me to be here,” but these were the people who are supposed to be making things happen from the government side, but they are there, I’m telling you, they’re eating, what are they doing?

By the end of the day, we want ads to promote a Malawian cultural aspect of art.

Fumbani: I read a book about Stevie Chimombo, about democracy, culture, and performing arts, I hope you read it.

Inno: Yes.

Fumbani: Talks about how art was oppressed during the Kamuzu era, But still content were out there.

Inno: Yeah, and it was very active.

Fumbani: You’d find lectures producing content.

Inno: Yes.

Fumbani: Yeah, you see, even the like of Stevie Chimombo, but good content, but democracy is here, you’re free to do whatever you want, poor content.

Inno: You see oppression is good.

Fumbani: So it make you to be creative, to make something—

Inno: Yeah, you need to produce... Actually, if you go to Chanco, there’s a certain open air—

Fumbani: Open air yard that side.

Inno:. Actually, they said they conducted a performance there, John went to that performance. I think it was done by Chimombo, I think, it must be him. He didn’t get clueless, he just clapped hands.

Fumbani: The production is attacking him.

Inno: Yeah, it was. So that was the beauty at that time, people had to be ruthless with their creative...

Fumbani: Even Du Chisiza, he had a lot of production, political plays, but none of the production was banned. None, there’s not that record.

Inno: So I think another thing, what is happening to... Like I said, maybe now they have created a charter school in the University of Malawi, so I think maybe it’ll have a whole different agenda. But before, they were just a part of something and what they needed to do is to produce grades maybe, but there was not really shaping an individual that is going to influence the arts.

Fumbani: And also, I heard about this school of drama will also in Indigenous performance. Someone with broad passion, with already talented skills to get a skill from the theories and the stuff.

Inno: Ezeki and Jakobo very talented guys. To me, what they liked was skilled skill, but those people should be involved.

Fumbani: And I remember the story of Du Chisiza, he was not allowed in University of Malawi because he got an A1 in English but a University in USA said come over receive a scholarship.

Inno: You see? So I think that is one of the problems, and maybe the drama school is sorting that one out, but this has been the challenge, that’s what I observed, that even the content that we are... The plays that we produced when we were at Chanco, when I was in first year, second year, in third year, I think we had touched on something different. We had touched a whole different knot with... I think now he’s a professor, Professor Chisiza, he came with a very unique understanding of the arts, and he gave us a whole different direction, it was my first time to see that we are doing a performance in bilingual. And as an artist, I was very free to express myself.

Fumbani: Yes.

Inno: Actually, there was a whole performance we did, puppet theatre kind of thing. I was speaking Chichewa and tried to speak to Chitumbuka Sena, I was just playing with the accents and it had a huge...

Fumbani: Yeah, I think it has to do how we decriminalize our language as well. I remember I was directly one secondary school, so its harder. It’s ATEM Drama Festival for teaching English in Malawi. So maybe let me come up with a part of English production, so I used those Shakespeare language and those student were like, “Wow, we enjoyed the production,” and 70 percent of them didn’t understand the concept.

Inno: We should know Du Chisiza was part of this.

Fumbani: Yeah, so the kids were like... They did hope everyone’s perfect, it was like they’re liking something, his performance is okay, they’re liking something. What I did, “Okay, guys do the whole production in Chichewa,” by tomorrow, we need to see the performance in Chichewa.” My friend, there was a wow performance, they were comfortable, no mechanical acting, I was like, “What?”

Inno: This is what we lack.

Fumbani: We change the festival to be just drama festival in a language.

Inno: When you are in directing class at Chanco, you’re given a chance to pick a play and direct. Most of us pick plays from outside. I have never seen someone doing a performance in Chichewa during that time. And actually, I think in those years, if you did it that, well, you’d be penalized. So the thinking is in English, bolded thinking; it’s not original, it’s not authentic. How do you expect someone like this to go out and meets the Ching’aning’anis, and say, “Ching’aning’ani come here, let’s work like this?”

Ching’aning’ani will teach how flow... according to Malawian audience. They consume this stuff. They love this stuff.

And when you staged Leaders at Crossroads, I think I was just watching it on Facebook and somebody asked, “Do you do these things in this play? Can you do it in our local language so that the communities out there, hey, can watch and learn things from the play?” And think, yeah, there was a sketchy answer on that. But I enjoyed the performance. I didn’t even think about it when you brought in the idea of justice. When he came and he started speaking to Chichewa, he gave us the context of a Malawian man in a room with his wife, how they go about their business, how they even make arguments, so it was a whole different aspect, it’s like none of the players come home.

Fumbani: And I remember after that one, they aspired us for a lot in YDC, because YDC is one of English productions, right? Because of our audiences, because we’ve been doing online performances and stuff, providing the audience. So Malawians, they want more production from YDC, we said to come up with the adaptations of Animal Farm. Yes, we hate adapting production from outside, but the concept of Animal Farm, we want to bring it in the Malawian context, what is happening currently in the political sector?

Inno: Yes.

Fumbani: So we say, “Okay, let’s come up Chipasupasu.” So the production, 50 percent Chichewa, we tried the 50 percent just to assess the audience. I was in the auditorium watching the audience, not watching the performers, assessing them, they were happy to see the artists acting in Chichewa because the whole production was full of comic because of the Chichewa thing, and I was like, okay, from here if I want to do production, which I’ll base it from Malawi, we’ll do them in Chichewa. Of course, there were some white people, they could laugh because of the actions only.

Inno: Exactly. Even when you watch something, a French thing, you don’t even understand a word of French, but when you see what they’re doing, you get it, you say, “This is what they’re arguing about,” maybe you cannot get that context, but you can still get the actions.

Fumbani: And even I can say... I’ll give a comparison of TV series, the boom of TV series right now, and they do drama series, people would spare time, seven o’clock, listen Zimachitika than watching... By then, watch Mama’s Restaurant, English, I don’t understand. Let me go and listen to Chichewa. And they could tell you each and every character in the production, right? I remember I went on the Facebook page when I was writing Zimachitika. Someone commented, “Ah, the names of…” Okay, this is a kid. He mention a character which was ten years ago, maybe he was listening when young. He used to follow the content, because of the language, he was comfortable. He said, “Let me go to the dictionary and read,” right? So we can even adapt the situation from late drama to our current...

Inno: Exactly, this is where we are missing it, even when people say Malawian theatre... Actually, in college there’s a course, they call it Malawian Theatre, but there’s nothing. They talk about it but they don’t show us. There’s a debate, what is Malawian theatre? Is it something that is done in Chichewa?

Fumbani: So also, if you’re a certain secret, we are curating Malawi International Theatre Festival. For the first time. we have International Theatre Festival in Malawi, will happen in December, so we are curating performances in Malawi. So I happened to meet one of the Chichewa group and say, “Ah, we are not applying,” “Why?” “It’s an international theatre, people from outside will come over and watch with their performance and stuff,” like, Oh, so you’re afraid to apply because they speak English?

Bring your thing to our festival because the sponsor would like to see, because you have the audience, you bring the audience, the sponsor will come over, the sponsor... Bring the audience. Just apply for the festival, we don’t care about the language. And in fact, we put an emphasis: we want people to watch Malawian content. So when you say Malawian content, we’ll start with our language, not only the creative part, but the language itself.

Inno: So I think this colonization thing is killing us, it has killed the university, it has killed us as artists, I think maybe having people not being part of art is good because they maintain that framework. And actually, there was an argument by Professor Magrasi, I think he was doing a study somewhere, then he said... Actually, there is a demarcation, Chichewa drama and English drama. Why this things? Why can’t we mingle all these things? Nothing should be Chichewa drama, this, that. But the moment we elaborate Chichewa drama, it’s like something about lower class.

Fumbani: And even with Chichewa drama, you notice something, when people are presenting Chichewa drama, they say it’s for the poor people.

Inno: Exactly.

Fumbani: Right? When you’re presenting English drama, it’s for the white people.

Inno: Strange stuff.

Fumbani: You see?

Inno: These people are speaking Chichewa in their houses, they enjoy jokes in Chichewa in their houses.

Fumbani: And do you think also the University of Malawi is a problem here?

Inno: Big one.

Fumbani: For example, you said Magalasi was creating something about the difference between Chichewa drama and English drama, there is a problem, but they are not practicing to remove that problem.

Inno: Actually, they labeled it.

Fumbani: And we have a problem, all the papers are coming, we’re just writing papers for the sake of writing papers, right? Of course, we need practice.

Inno: Actually, one thing I remembered from reading one of the articles from Professor Magrasi, he was critiquing what Nanzikambe was doing that time. Nanzikambe at some point was the biggest thing in Malawi, but actually, they were forcing us to consume a Norwegian and—

Fumbani: Style, production, Ibsen plays.

Inno: And then they would come here, they adapt this stuff, they go back there, they bring in the drums there, they go out there, they say, “This is Malawian theatre.” This is one of the things that Professor Magrasi is criticizing: my friends, you’re doing a no thing just with elements of Malawi, don’t call it Malawian. Originate a story from Malawi, create a story from Malawi that you can talk about so many things that have happened in Malawi, bring those stories out and let them relate with what we are doing here. Because the picture there is Malawi is some something like a bush or something like that, bring them life that is happening.

Fumbani: And remember, someone was watching Chipasupasu, adaptation from Animal Farm, I was like, “Man, are you saying this is an adaptation from Animal Farm? Ah, my friend, just remove that thing,” because to me, the names are changed, maybe a bit of the storyline, but the situation in the story is Malawian context. I think what you have done here is also most writing new production, because you can just say, “I was inspired by Animal Farm.”

Inno: Exactly, that’s the way to go.

Fumbani: Yeah, because I wasn’t feeling comfortable to come up with whatever is in the story, right? Mr. Jones, with the stuff, no, this is English, we need to come up with something.

Inno: You have just reminded me, a fresh graduate came to me and said, “Innocent, so you are from Chanco, I know,” I said yes, “So you tell me, you write radio drama in Chichewa, how do you manage that?” This was strange.

Fumbani: I have to be open, I remember I told you my very first experience to write radio drama, people Fumbani knows how to write, so when went at Story Workshop I was like, Chichewa, right? But episode one, episode two, I started enjoying the whole process, you can recall the very first episode I was delaying in submitting the production, but I started enjoying the process, this is mine now, right? Because I was colonized back then, because you started from primary, I was doing English drama, secondary school, English drama, then college, doing English drama up to that time.

Inno: We are missing it, I think... So I taught this person, I said, “Yeah, Chichewa is the way we express ourself.” For example, that question was in Chichewa, but fortunately or unfortunately, I did not study scriptwriting because there is a course in Chanco about scriptwriting, radio drama to be specific. I had not paid fees by the time they were registering for these courses, so I was left out, I said, “Okay, I think it’s part of God’s plan that I should not study this thing.” So when they said they told me at Story Workshop, “You’re going to write radio drama,” I go like, “I never study this.”

But I think that was a good thing because I was still new, it made me discover things on my own, it made me say, “Okay, so I think this is what I can do, what is the gist of this?” So I had to go and see many things. But people who have gone to study for those courses, I don’t know anyone of it who was...

Fumbani: Write something that we can see.

Inno: Maybe Charles Simbi, I don’t know his background, but people who were in that classroom, all of them, not even course, not even a script that they have reviewed.

Fumbani: Or coming to watch your content and say...

Inno: They would even ask you, “How do you write a radio drama?” Today. But the government, as much as it’s investing, university education is very expensive.

Fumbani: Very.

Inno: Actually, at that time, they had raised school fees and one of the lecturers told us, “You guys are complaining, do you know how much it takes to keep one of you here?” By that time she told us to keep one student, it costed one million and if you are on governments sponsorship, they were just paying fifty thousand of which they were not really paid. It was a loan thing, if you are a parrell, you were paying hundred thousand. So if you subtract from the one million, the government was paying a lot of money training you to be a scriptwriter, after that, you just go and do other stuff.

Fumbani: In other ways, even the university, they’re training wrong guys.

Inno: Straight. I think even the qualification to those courses should be checked. We need to check who is registered.

When you are in directing class at Chanco, you’re given a chance to pick a play and direct. Most of us pick plays from outside, I have never seen someone doing a performance in Chichewa during that time.

Fumbani: With no offense, I’ll go back to University of Cape Town. If you want to enroll into theatre as an actor, you have to go through auditions. Can University of Malawi do that?

Inno: Even today, when I had just left college, there was this urgency for me to find a scholarship and study somewhere, I was not successful in that because I didn’t find something that was suiting my passion. There were things I’d go and study, international marketing, international this, international that, I’m going, “Okay, I become an international marketer,” for whose benefit? Because I think my purpose is to create stuff, these drama things. So you can say, “Go do your drama,” I say, “Okay, it’s in line with my passion,” “Go and do film,” ah, it’s in line with my passion, but “Go and do marketing?” Ah, no.

Fumbani: Maybe be theatre marketer.

Inno: But the experience that I got from here was you had to write essays. Actually they do write essays and you have to specify what you’ll be doing after you have graduated, that you don’t see happening at the University of Malawi. You have your six points, you want to go to a college of medicine.

Fumbani: Yeah, because you have six points.

Inno: You have six points.

Fumbani: You cannot go to Chancellor College with your six points. People will say “Aah No”.

Inno: You are qualified to go to Chanco, most of them who will register for Bachelor of Arts, Humanities by that time. I don’t know if it has changed, they say, “Let me go through this course because it’s easy, I should go and enroll for law.”

Fumbani: Yeah, just to make a better grade.

Inno: To be eligible for if they get stuck when they’re left out, these are the kind of people who are wasting government’s money.

Fumbani: But we have a simple channel, Malawi government, through use of education, through teachers association. They have ATEM recognized by the government.

Inno: Exactly.

Fumbani: University of Malawi would’ve been very simple to utilize that channel to harness the artist.

Inno: Exactly.

Fumbani: Right? So you see, you get through those youngsters, you get the data, and after they learn exams, they have credits, “Guys this is your space”, this is your space.

Inno: In 2019, I think Story Workshop wanted to apply for a project, but then the thing was, they needed a writer who had five years experience in writing and this writer was supposed to be training... Not like that one, this one was quite different and it had a lot of money.

Fumbani: Okay.

Inno: I’m telling you, they searched the whole country, they couldn’t find five writers to suit that category, they said, “This boy here, Innocent, can write,” but by that time, I think I already had three years of experience, and they said, “No, what we do, let’s engage Smith Likongwe, and then Smith becomes mentor of Innocent. So on the surface we’ll show Smith, but the actual work be done by this small boy.” And then actually, when they contacted Smith, he said, “So I just want to let you know that I’m giving you my CV, but you should know that I’ve been approached by five organizations. In case you see me working with this organization tomorrow, don’t be surprised.”

Fumbani: All right, Inno, it was a great having a chat with you, and I think maybe we’ll create another episode, maybe in season two to continue the chat, maybe we talk more about the decolonizing theatre industry in Malawi. Yeah, we have a lot of work to discuss, this type of discussion, maybe we spark a lot of stuff in the community or people will say “Okay, I need to change our mindset.” Mmaybe also the student from University of Malawi will also say, “Okay, so this is what is happening on the ground or what is happening in the government system,” yes. All right, thank you.

Inno: Thanks for having me.

Fumbani: Thank you so much for having a show 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 podcasts in our feed, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post 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 disruptive content on howlround.com. Do you have an idea for a exciting podcast, essay, or a TV event that theatre community needs to hear? Reach 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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