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Making Theatre as a Multi-Hyphenate in Malawi

Fumbani Innot Phiri. Jr.: Welcome to Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free open platform for theatremakers worldwide, in partnership with Advanc[ing] Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating a liberated space that uplift, heal, and encourage 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.

All right. Pleasant Theodore Banda, welcome to this episode. Who is Pleasant Banda?

Pleasant Theodore Banda: Okay. Basically in short tense, Pleasant Theodore Banda is generally an artist. I would choose to say that I’m an artist. But to tell you most of the fields I’m specialized in, I’m an actor, a scriptwriter, and an artistic director.

Fumbani: All right. Artistic director, actor, playwright. In today’s episode we will talk more about theatre for young people. You are one of the young directors in Malawi. You once won an award as the best emerging director, and also your group also won an award in best emerging theatre. Look at the group, comprised by the youth, and you’re doing theatre for young people. What inspired you to venture into theatre and also focusing on very young people?

Pleasant: Let me start from what inspired me to venture into theatre. I think I’ve always been an artist deep down, because before I started getting attracted to theatre, it was the movies which attracted me most. So, I grew up in a house whereby my family, my parents chose to buy Nigerian movies. When we were watching I was seeing a lot of loopholes, a lot of bad acting... I’m not saying that there is bad acting in Nigeria, but then the movies I was exposed to had a lot of things whereby I would question, “Would a person do that in real life? What if it was me? I think if it was me I would do it this way and this other way.”

So, I began to question a lot of movies, and when I was growing up exposing myself to other movies now. Like American movies, British movies, movies all across the world. Then I would still appreciate and want to be someone who is a TV personality, or a movie actor. Going to secondary school, I went to Umbwi Secondary School, where in form three, that was in 2009, I then joined the drama club.

I wasn’t so influential back then. I was given minor roles, went to ATEM. We didn’t do much while in ATEM, and because I was also given minor roles, I wasn’t well exposed, and people didn’t really notice me. But I think the dream never really died. When I was done with my secondary school, for the first time, because I wrote my MSCE two times.

When I wrote my MSCE for the first time, I went outside. In Area 23 there’s a Catholic center, a youth center, which is called Don Bosco. I went there, then I met some art enthusiasts in that drama club. We were all young people trying to pursue our artistic journey. There, that’s where now the passion grew, because I was exposed to a lot of creative people.

I always mention this guy, Fwigo Muira Dikaura. He was one of the people who instilled that passion in me. So, the passion mainly grew at Don Bosco, because we did a lot of great plays, and I was able to appreciate art in different dimensions, because I was exposed to art of different countries, as we had a Malawian director, an Austrian director, and a Korean director.

I was able to understand how they do in their nations. That passion grew because I wanted to now explore theatre. Now I’m diverting from movie. Now I’m going into theatre this time around because of the people I’ve met, the people I’ve been exposed to. That’s basically that, I can say. The rest is history.

Fumbani: It’s quite intriguing. You started with an element of trying to be in part of the movie industry. Then in the process you diverted to go into theatrical industry, whereby it’s quite intriguing of this generation to see someone moving from movie industry, going into theatre, because right now I think more actors from theatre industry go into the movie industry because of the technology, and because of how the theatre industry is, and how the theatre industry is being run as a business, compared to movies.

Now, you get that space, you get that opportunity and people know Pleasant as a great actor in theatrical element in Malawi. You got that opportunity. What are the challenging moment for you to get that space as... People can say, “This is Theodore Banda, an actor from Malawi.” What was the challenge within?

Pleasant: I’m not sure if you got your question right. But if you mean the transition from me wanting to be a movie actor, then now I’ve changed the path into the theatrical industry?

Fumbani: No. I was just saying it’s quite intriguing to see someone transitioning from film into theatre, which now is the opposite. Now, my question was, now people know Theodore Banda in theatre industry as the great actor, as a director. What was the challenge for you to reach that point?

Pleasant: The challenge was always there, and the challenges were many, because my family couldn’t understand how I had turn my passions. It’s not actually only from movie to theatrical sequence, but it was also from football. I was a very good football player, and turning that into moving away from the pitch to the theatre, it was also something which my family couldn’t understand. And also, they saw that when I was giving my time to soccer, at least I was giving minimal time to soccer than the other things of life development. But they realized that when I started theatre, the greater part of my day to theatre. So, they started getting worried now, “This boy, is he going to pursue his academic—"

Fumbani: Dreams and stuff.

Pleasant: “Dreams and stuff?” What I have said, they didn’t just know the passion I had for acting because it was just in my heart, but it was always there. So, the challenges came from family, because I met a resistance from family telling me not to do this, not to go to acting, it would disturb my education and stuff. But I still stuck to what I wanted. Another challenge was, because I was facing resistance at home, and then there was not much money coming from the theatre—

Fumbani: The industry.

Pleasant: Industry, and we’re still struggling now, even though today is better, I would say. I think as we talk, we should also look into that, how the development has been. But then, you’re being yelled at home that, “What are you doing? What benefit are you getting from this?” And you go there and you not find much money, I think I have survived till today, because I was quick to tell myself that, “Okay. Let me not focus on money. Let me focus on developing the skill.”

I think that’s also what helped me to stay in the theatre industry for long than other actors, because for me I saw the theatre industry as the best, whereby I can develop my art, and whereby we can all develop Malawi, even the film industry. I saw that we can develop Malawi film industry from the theatre industry, because I knew that even the movies which were coming from Malawi weren’t that moving for me to think of being in a movie, they were of low quality.

I told myself, “No. I shouldn’t rush into going into the movie industry. Let me work on my art. And also, when I’m going into the movie industry, let it be that I’m going there with a bang.” Whereby I want to be involved in quality projects and stuff. So, for me it was more of building myself.

I told myself, “Okay. I will maybe move and touch the movie industry when I know that I am now an actor who understands the art, the craft itself.” So, of all those years that I’ve been in the theatre industry, I wasn’t confident enough that I’m now fit to go into the movie industry, even though people were moving me, telling me, “You are such a good actor. Why don’t we see you in Malawian movies? You can make a difference.” But I was still saying, “No. I should still work on my art. I should still understand the craft.”

But then, going with time, even though I have started doing movies, but I don’t want to abandon theatre because I know that theatre is fun one. I love theatre from the core. Theatre is fun and theatre is challenging enough than a movie to me. Theatre is more challenging because you get instant reactions from the audience, and there is no cut during the performance. It has to be you giving it your all, you being in the game. If you lose it, everybody realizes that you have lost it. I like such challenges. So that’s why I keep on doing theatre.

Also, with my passion to develop the art industry in Malawi, I also developed this view of trying to instill what I’ve learnt, what I know, into other youths, so that I always tell the people that I work with, the youth that are just getting into the theatre industry, the movie industry, that I spent much of my years, because I have spent maybe more than twelve years in the theatre industry.

So, I spent much of my years in the theatre industry, so that I can teach someone in a week what I’ve learnt. I’ve been able to do that, I’ve been able to come up with a production with amateurs and do it in a period of less than two weeks, and those guys go to perform. Everybody would say like, “Wow.” And when they hear that these are just amateurs, they get amazed and they don’t believe it.

Fumbani: Simply like, you understand the concept of theatre, and understand the concept of how you’re going to express to your audience?

Pleasant: Yeah.

Fumbani: That has been in you. I’ve watched some performances from your organization, it’s quite well. But let me go back on the issues of, you mentioned one of the challenge is your family support and stuff. A lot of theatrical artists, or people who do art, most of them they have this very same similar challenge, whereby it’s either the parents give them the support in instance whereby to go and support watching their performances, or maybe financial support to pursue your career in the art industry, or else telling you what to do about your act.

It’s like, “Okay. Don’t do art. Do this. It will bring food on the table. Don’t do film. Do this. It will bring food on your table.” If you want to do film, some of them might even desist you, “No. You cannot be part of the family, because you end up nothing at the end.” Because they saw art as something else, which is just useless. It’s just a waste of time. Maybe it’s just to do for fun. Why is it that most of the families react to art like that?

Pleasant: I think it somehow has to do with how the colonial masters programmed our ancestors, I should say, our nation, Malawian people. I think they programmed us in a way that we should only look at those with white-collar jobs as the one who have been successful.

Fumbani: True.

Pleasant: I think it does have that background, that colonial effect. Maybe our parents don’t know yet, but it’s that, that they have doubts that if you don’t pursue a—

Fumbani: A white-collar…

Pleasant: A career to any white-collar job, then you’re not assured of your future. From the parents it doesn’t come from a bad place, it comes from a good place for them thinking that it’s only the white-collar jobs that can make you survive. I think I being from a family whereby all parents had white-collar jobs, I was able to understand this. It was my parents thinking good of me, of my future, how is my future going to be? I think it only had— because they don’t stop me now.

Fumbani: Because you fought many battles.

Pleasant: I fought, and I showed them that... They now know that art can pay, because recently I’ve done some jobs, and sometime back I was privileged to be given an academic scholarship by an organization, just because the organization wanted to keep me as an actor in their organization and to do their projects. Like community outreach, theatre for development. So, my parents were like, “Oh. So someone can pay your college fees just because you are an actor?”

The art industry is growing; the film industry is growing in Malawi. Now, more than ever, it needs people from other fields.

Fumbani: It was a surprise.

Pleasant: It was a surprise to them. So, just because they saw that they started feeling now that, “Oh. I think there is something in this.” So, they started giving me a chance. Up until they now saw that I could bring some money. Like, I go to hotels, sleep for a week in hotels just because I’m an actor, just because I’m going for an art workshop, or something, or I’m going to a certain shooting of a movie, or I’m going to perform at a certain hotel. They are now confident that I’m now assured of my future just because of art.

It’s this thing that parents are not thinking outside the box. They don’t think outside the box. They’re only thinking that, everybody has to be a lawyer, everybody has to be a doctor, everybody has to be an accountant to have a bright future, for them to have an assurance that they have instilled a good future in their children.

Fumbani: In their child. And you, you’re an actor , a well paid right now in Malawi, one of the youngest. Yet you also have a background of accounting.

Pleasant: Yeah.

Fumbani: Do you feel comfortable practicing accounting? Do you feel comfortable?

Pleasant: I feel comfortable. Of course, they didn’t choose accounting for me. I chose it for myself. Of course, we have a lot of accountants in our family. I also chose accounting. By then I was like, “Okay. My parents think I will not have an assured future. Let me just do this accounting course so that”— I’m not yet done with the course, but “so that I show them...”

It was me trying to challenge them. Telling them that, “It’s not just because I’m an actor then I wouldn’t be able. Maybe I’m trying to find a simple getaway to life.”

Fumbani: Or you’re running away from hard courses.

Pleasant: I’m running away from hard courses. No, it wasn’t that. So, I wanted to show them that, “Okay. I will do this accounting course. I will finish it, and I’ll give you the certificate.” That was it for me. Actually, I challenged myself, because I’ve always been bright. My parents have always known that I’m bright at school, I’m good at school. But they thought maybe I’m tired with school, or I just don’t want to pursue the formal education and stuff. The courses they had pictured for me, my mom always thought that... She wanted me to be a medical practitioner.

Fumbani: To follow the footsteps.

Pleasant: Not the footsteps, to follow my auntie’s footsteps, because I was raised by my aunt, whom I also call mom. She is a medical practitioner. She is a nurse. My mom wanted me to follow her footsteps. My mom, she works with the post office. She was the postmistress somewhere in Koma.

So, she wanted me to be a medical practitioner. My aunt as well wanted me also to follow in her footsteps to be a doctor of some sorts because they have both seen that I was bright at school. So, they was, “I think this person is the perfect person to follow the medical field.” But I didn’t like the medical field.

My dad is late. My late dad was an accountant. So, I was inspired at some point in my age... I got an inspiration from him, “Let me be an accountant. Let me pursue accounting.” But when art came in it was like a different turn altogether. So, when I was having this friction with my family, when I got that scholarship, I thought, “Okay. I think now I shouldn’t pursue art. I should pursue accounting. I will keep on reading about art, knowing on my own, teaching myself about art, but it shouldn’t be through a formal school. Let me do accounting through the formal school.”

As I told you, it was me trying to take the certificate, the diploma or the degree, to give it to them that, “Now I’m done. Let me do my own now. I don’t want anybody now coming into my business and saying, “Why didn’t you pursue this?” I’m an accountant, but I don’t want to be practicing.” But then it has also taken a different turn because the art industry is growing; the film industry is growing in Malawi. Now, more than ever, it needs people from other fields.

Fumbani: Yeah. To support it.

Pleasant: To support it. Accountants, marketers, and the sorts. I’ve started thinking now, “I’m an artist. I’m an actor. Why not I should just go into the theatre industry, the movie industry now, and also work as an accountant there?” To God be the glory, I think I’ve worked on several films as production manager, and my accounting expertise have really helped me to deliver such jobs. For example, there is a short film called “Tsanzo,” which was funded by the Tobacco Harm Reduction Organization. I happened to be the production manager/accountant for the film project.

Fumbani: For the project.

Pleasant: Yeah. So, I’ve now started thinking in those lines, that my accounting knowledge will now help me also in the film industry, in the theatre industry, so that as we are uplifting it, we should use our own.

Fumbani: Maybe when you’re using your own, that person who understands the language—

Pleasant: Who understand the language—

Fumbani: Itself. Now, Pleasant, you walked through all those challenges, and you have overcome them, but before that, still in the process of overcoming the challenges, you found yourself at Rise Arts Theatre, whereby you find your fellow youth creating some performances. You find your fellow youth struggling to uplift the theatre industry, in an area whereby theatre wasn’t there.

Generally, an area theatre wasn’t there, generally for a city where theatre was regarded as nothing. So, you were in the same process of revamping theatre in your area, revamping theatre in the capital city of Malawi, and your name is part of it. What was your inspiration to say, “Okay. I will stand with this guy, and we’ll be one of prominent theatre in Malawi.” What happened? What was the experience? What was the explore?

Pleasant: I love the fact that you have mentioned that from the city whereby theatre is no really much vibrant. And from an area whereby theatre is not really known, from Area 25 precisely, Lilongwe, Area 25. With young people who are facing challenges, to make it out there in the theatre sequence, I’ve been one of those people before. I haven’t made it to the extent that I want to, but at least people look up to me now.

I have a lot of people who look up to Pleasant as a person and Pleasant as an artist. So, I think I’ve always been a person who faces challenges head on. I’m not a person who wants to find it easy in life, but I want to fight for what I have. I want to fight for what I want to be and what I want to achieve. And I’ve always been a person who doesn’t usually give up even when the going gets tough.

Let me take you back to how I found myself at Rise Arts. I was at Don Bosco as I said. I had to move, because there were challenges I was facing in my personal life. I was drinking beer a lot at a certain point in time. So, my family thought that the influence which is making me to drink beer too much it was because of the environment I was into, in Area 23 that is. So, I was supposed to move from Area 23, to now be based in Area 25.

So, in Area 23, as I said, there were a lot of theatres. That side, around Area 23, there are a lot of theatres. I think it’s a place whereby theatre has been a little bit vibrant in Lilongwe. There was Nsonkha Manja side, Rising Choreos, I think it was also from that side.

Fumbani: That side. Yeah.

Pleasant: There was several theatres—Don Bosco, Umoja. There were a lot of theatres back then, but coming to 25, there was no theatre that I heard of. I think later in the years is when I heard that there was Mala, but then I didn’t know that Mala was in existence back then. But then, being a person who has now started loving arts, I’m trying to turn a new leaf whereby I should stop drinking alcohol, I needed to give more of my time to arts, but to no avail. I couldn’t find a theatre I could work with.

And also, I couldn’t find an inspiration to start my own theatre on my own, because I didn’t know where to start from. So, in my turning a new leaf scenario, I had to also go back to write my MSCE exams again. I had stayed for two years after writing my first MSCE exams at Umbwi Secondary School. So, I went to Mayani Secondary School now, form three.

I did form three, and when we were about to go into form four, it has to be form four. In the first term of form four, there was a drama group, a drama club, whereby they were doing those dramas which are not well professionally done, professionally executed. I used to call them the fathers and mothers of theatre, whereby someone would just shout in the middle of them, “My wife, come here. Let us discuss.” Then the wife comes. Like from nowhere, issues are just coming up. So, me being a person who has a background of professional theatre, I had to call them, those very same people. I said, “I’m a theatre practitioner. I’m a theatre guy. I want people to work with, but not the type of theatre you are doing. I want to change you into a theatre which everybody, even when you go into international stages, people will admire.”

At this point, I wasn’t a director. I was just an actor at Don Bosco, but now I’ve started having that edge to direct and to write a script. I was a good writer writing short stories. I didn’t write a script for a stage performance before.

Fumbani: As a script for a stage performance.

Pleasant: But I challenged myself, and I convinced these people that I’m an expert in all these, just to give them that high.

Fumbani: Just to convince them, there is hope.

Pleasant: There is hope. So, they agreed. Now, the challenge was on me now that I have to produce a script—

Fumbani: I need to direct them—

Pleasant: I need to direct them. I didn’t have a phone to call somebody to give me a format of a script. I just said, “Okay.” Because in the government secondary schools, you know how it is, you are restricted to have a phone. I don’t know why in this era they’re doing that. They’re still restricting kids’ to access to internet.

Fumbani: The era of technology.

Pleasant: I don’t know why are they still doing that, but that’s that. That’s the scenario in Malawi. So, I had to find things on my own, no internet, no a person to call to send me, or no person to ask around. So, I just wrote a very rough script—person lines, person lines. After seeing the script we are seeing back then at Don Bosco, I used the very same picture I saw at Don Bosco of a script, and I developed a script.

I developed the script. I gave the guys. The guys were saying, “Yeah. This is a good story, but for us to memorize these lines. I said, “It is possible. Read the script several times.” I was now emulating the things I was being taught when I was at Don Bosco. Read the script several times, you will memorize them easily. So, they went there, started reading it... To me, I had already memorized the lines of the role I took, because I also took a role in the play, and it was the main role as well.

They memorized, then we get to the time of rehearsals. We started rehearsing. We rehearsed for almost two weeks. Then we stopped. We meet, we discuss on how we’re going to develop our club. By this time the administration didn’t know about this club. It was just a club whereby the students have just created it.

So, we rehearsed. There was now an event, which was organized by Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Society, they call it CAPSO, a school club for the church. So we asked for a slot, so we went to perform. So, because it was a gospel event, many teachers come to patronize, because it’s a gospel event.

Nobody told me to be a leader, but maybe I was just born as this person who doesn’t allow things to go astray while I’m there.

Fumbani: Quite an interesting story. I didn’t know the background, how you connected to come to Rise. What I just realized, there is someone in a theatre group where you established with Wanangwa, with Wiseman, there is someone who is controlling the group. And I was like, “Wow.”

Seeing you growing into somebody who can manage a theatre organization, very powerful. And seeing yo,u a guy, whereby you could leave the team to manage the group, and do other projects, then came back and work together. And seeing you, now in theatre association of Malawi as one of the youngsters in the association. We are together in this association, and for the first time we have youngsters controlling the association. We’ll talk about the association later.

Now, I want to focus much on how you run Rise as a theatre, the challenges of young people, and how you managed to convince other young people, because there is a bit of transition to see as... Some they go outside the issues of family challenges, the issues of finances and stuff, but I’m still seeing Rise surviving with productions and performances. Can you give us an explore of how you started managing Rise as theatre—without Wanangwa, without Wiseman, without me—and it was uplifted?

Pleasant: When I was about to go to Rise, there were two theatres which wanted me to be part of them. There was Elephants. I don’t know if it’s still in existence now, but there was the Elephants Theatre, and there was the Rise Theatre. So, right after the competition at my friend’s church, Marumbo’s church, I went to my village for a family gathering. So, I came back in the last days of December that year. I think it was 2015. 2015 if it wasn’t ‘14. Between these years.

Fumbani: It should be ‘15.

Pleasant: It should be ‘15, yeah. It was in December in the ‘15. Lizard worked on a project, and they had a show. Elephants had worked on a project and they had a show as well. So, the shows were the same weekend. The other one on a Sunday, the other one on a Saturday. Rise had a show on Saturday. Elephants had a show on a Sunday. Marumbo had already started going to both these theatres. So, he was in both these productions.

No, he was in a production with Elephants, but he was just working in the backgrounds in the production with Rise Arts. So, I came back from Nkoragora like two days before from the family gathering. I decide, “Okay. For me to make a big decision,” because for me, it wasn’t about the money. It was about me shaping my skill, like molding my skill. Like trying to understand art well.

For me to make a good decision on which theatre I should go to, I should first visit both these theatres, see their shows, and see where will add value to me. So, I went to Rise. It was quite a good performance. I don’t forget that performance, because that play is still a legendary play for Rise up till now, Lost But Found.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Pleasant: By God’s grace we performed that play also in Zimbabwe, and me being part of the cast, and I think I should say the main actor.

Fumbani: Nice.

Pleasant: But this time around I wasn’t part of Rise, I was watching the play, other people performing, and it was such a good performance. I was like, “Wow. This is it. Okay. But then, I shouldn’t judge first, let me go to Elephants and see how Elephants will perform.” Unfortunately, when I went to Elephants, I think Rise had already taken my heart, and with the performers under par, which Elephants performed, I said, “No. Elephants won’t add any value for me.”

Though I was promised to be paid at Elephants. I was to be paid at Elephants. After this show, Marumbo was actually paid. It was 5,000 kwacha. He was given 5,000 kwacha to make him stay, because they wanted to attract him to keep on staying at Elephants, because he gave them value. For me, it was me giving value, and them also giving value.

So, I told Marumbo, “Okay. You have been given 5,000 kwacha, but then the performance wasn’t that good for me. Who was directing that play?” Marumbo gave me this look that he’s not even a good theatre practitioner. He’s not even an expert. So, I was like, “I’ll go for the expertise. I’ll go where the skill is.” So, I went to Rise.

I went to Rise. Unfortunately, the time I was going to Rise, Inuoki, Gwenyama, they were also saying their goodbyes, that their last production was this one, they would not proceed with Rise Arts, because they were going to revamp their theatre. They had a theatre before, Chosen Ones. They were going to revamp their theatre. It’s like, I go into Rise, and then all of a sudden, all the talent which was on stage—

Fumbani: The manpower.

Pleasant: The manpower had already started going out. So I said, “Okay. If I go out as well. It won’t look good. Let me stay.” I stayed, because I’m a guy who loves challenges, and also I had seen girls... Because one of the challenges in the theatre industry back then, it was girls. It was so scarce to find girls who are really good at acting.

So, me seeing the girls which were in Rise, which were still staying after Inogi and Wenyama had left. I was like, “Okay. There is me, there is these girls, there is Wanangwa,” Wanangwa was still there. And there is the likes of Fumbani and Wiseman who were constantly being mentioned, who would still come. I think I should stay here.

The good thing was, the day I was going to join Rise, it was also the day whereby this long-term brother of mine—who has been a good friend, and who is also a good actor, Jigomo Kevin Obwana, also joined— and we have some facial resemblance. So, people thought that we are brothers we have come to join there, but we didn’t know each other back then, but we were all called to join Rise by the same person, Wanangwa.

So, we joined Rise, we started learning things, we started the production. I think the first production we did, it was me who wrote it, it was Doing From the Past. Now me writing the second play now. It was very quite a good play. I loved it from the get-go— the time I thought of the concept, the story itself. And when I presented the story, people loved it, and they said, “Okay. Go ahead with writing this story, we’re going to work on this.”

So, we worked on that. We did a show. It was a very good show. I was hopping directing here and there, but it was mostly directed by Charles Mpehula and Wanangwa. We did a very good show. Now Wanangwa also is saying, “Okay. Guys, I found a job. I’ll be moving a lot. So, I’m going.” Wanangwa is also going.

So, that leaves me; Zikomo; Faith; the Kadamaja sisters—there is Gloria Kadamaja, Sheri Kadamaja and Pempeo Kadamaja; and Steven Kamphinda, who was not even good at acting, but he tried to beef up the team; Charles Mpehula, who was good, but he was too comic for some roles. So, we started doing it.

Nobody told me to be a leader, but maybe I was just born as this person who doesn’t allow things to go astray while I’m there. So, I took up the leadership mantle in actions: “Guys, let’s do this.” It was like that, “Guys, let’s do this.” Then people were like, “Okay. Pleasant, you have been taking lead of this group. You are leading the group actually.” And many actors started coming in.

The group now had almost maybe fifteen actors. There was Emmanuel… I’ve forgotten the surname. But we had now a claim of actors, good actors. We started working. So, the people were like, “Pleasant, you have led the group for a long time. Why don’t we officially make you our leader?” So, I was given the leadership mantle officially now by the teammates.

We went to the organization’s management and told them, “Now, currently, this is the person who is leading us.” There was a time whereby now Fumbani had to come back, you had to come back. We had a project. So, on that project we decided, “Okay. We’re going to do our first play.” The play I told you that I was watching before, Lost But Found, on this one, because it suited the theme of the-

Fumbani: Of the project.

Pleasant: The project. And the donors who were coming, the MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation. There was I think Sir Aaron John’s Jr., if you remember.

Fumbani: Yeah. I remember.

Pleasant: There is a white guys come to the organization to review the project. The project was going to an end. So, they came to review the project. But then, we perform and with the likes of Fumbani. Now, I’ve met Fumbani in person. Our minds just actually clicked. You know how it was.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Pleasant: Clicked right away. I think the concept of great minds think alike. I would like to boast that way. So, we clicked. We came up with the production, we changed the little things here and there. And the production was just wow, up to the extent that the white guys, Aaron John Jr. actually said that, “We have gone to different parts of Africa, but we think that here is where our project is being implemented in a strategic and creative way, and it’s actually working.” They actually gave the organization an extension to the funding. The funding was ending, but they gave them an extension to the funding—

Fumbani: Because theatre summarized everything.

Pleasant: Theatre summarized everything. The power of theatre was manifested. So, from that day, the organization saw our value. They actually gave... I think it was 70 percent of the guys who were in the cast, the scholarship which I talked about now, that they were paying our school fees. I had led in my MSCE exams. This time around I scored eighteen points.

I was waiting for the time whereby maybe I would be called to one of the public universities. Unfortunately, I wasn’t called because we had a quota system. That’s another story. Now, my only choice was to go into the public colleges. So, these guys started paying my school fees. My parents were relieved of my tuition fees.

Now, it was a headache at home that me and my sisters now will be all needing fees from the same pocket. Now I had excused myself. So, they were like, “Oh, this is a good relief.” Now, this is the very same theatre they despised. They started loving it. They now started telling me, “Oh, you should go to theatre.”

Even when I spent a week at home without going to theatre, they would ask, “Why didn’t you go to Rise?” I think now the leadership mantle was now propelled at home now that, “You’re a leader at Rise, go there.” So, I did more up until the time in... Is it in 2018, 2019 when we went to Zimbabwe.

Fumbani: That was 2019.

Pleasant: 2019. We received a call from—

Fumbani: Chipawo.

Pleasant: Chipawo, for us to be at the Star Festival. It was also a challenge, because we were supposed to handle our own transport funds, but we came together. We were two theatres which were called-

Fumbani: From Lilongwe.

Pleasant: From Lilongwe, and one theatre, YDC theatre. Knowing that it won’t be strategic for me to just work alone, or for Rise to just work alone in isolation, knowing that there is also another theatre which is going there, and we’re both supposed to find transport to Zimbabwe, and we also have to find passports, it was a challenge, finding passports for over sixteen people. Passports are expensive in Malawi, it has to be known. That has to go on record. Also, it was expensive to take sixteen people to Zimbabwe to and from.

Fumbani: Sure.

Pleasant: And provide food for them during the trip, because the Chipawo was providing home transportation and food and accommodation in Zimbabwe. But this was a good exposure to us. We needed this trip, so much that we wanted to see how other countries, because there were a lot of countries.

Fumbani: And on top of that, despite that, you needed exposure in other countries. You would be on the mark for representing your nation.

We shouldn’t put much pressure on the artists. I think theatre groups have to find marketing managers who actually know their job.

Pleasant: Yeah. We’re representing our nation. Also, the cultural exchange itself. The experience of the cultural exchange itself, the bantos getting to know each other. This was my first international trip. You get it?

Fumbani: Yeah.

Pleasant: This was my first international, and it was the first for many of us in the cast. I think there was only one person who had traveled outside. It was Faiza Chita, and she knows a lot of languages. I think she was also the one who helped in talking to people on our way to Zimbabwe. That week, I called my counterpart; The Chosen One’s guy was actually a longtime friend... I have also mentioned him, Enoch Lunyeto Nyirenda. We sat down. We discussed on the plans of us working together on trip.

We worked together. We started mobilizing fans, going to organizations, facing rejections here and there, some other people giving us money. But at the end of the day we were able to raise the funds to make passports for people to go to Zimbabwe.

Fumbani: And at the end of the day you managed to go to Zimbabwe.

Pleasant: To go to Zimbabwe with seventeen people.

Fumbani: I remember it was a surprise for other theatre groups who are well known, and they asked, “Who are these?”

Pleasant: Yeah. “Who are these?”

Fumbani: And I remember, when I posted a news article written by Sam Banda in a social media group, a certain group said, “Who are these? And how did they manage to go there?”

Pleasant: “Who are these? How did they manage to go to Zimbabwe?”

Fumbani: I reminded them I sent an application for people to apply, and some of you, you applied.

Pleasant: We applied actually.

Fumbani: Some of you didn’t want to apply. Some of you you applied, they didn’t pick you.

Pleasant: They weren’t picked because they didn’t meet the criteria.

Fumbani: Now Rise has been built.

Pleasant: Yeah.

Fumbani: It’s there.

Pleasant: Now Rise is a name now in Malawi. Rise has gone to Zimbabwe. We had one tactic: we’re going to Zimbabwe, not to just watch other people doing great jobs, but we’re going to Zimbabwe to put out an international performance, a rememberable performance. So, how are we going to do this? We have to do a show back home at a place we have never done a show before, a high standard place, whereby the elite go there to do all their shows, and the elite go there to watch.

Me and Enoch were the only ones who have ever gone there to watch a play, and it was us after gathering a lot of money, saving to actually go watch a play. Now, we want to attempt to go do a play there. We had to meet a standard, a very high standard we have never met before. Now, this is us before going to Zimbabwe, to just build that international standard. So, we went there, head on, faced the owners of the—

Fumbani: Of the space.

Pleasant: Space. We have a play. It’s a good play. We know it’s a good play. That play was written by you. It’s a good play.

Fumbani: Yeah. Thank you.

Pleasant: We have good actors. We can pull this, and we can entertain your audience, but we don’t have money to pay you for the venue. All we have is the talent. They said, “Come for auditions,” because they don’t go below standard. Madsoc Theatre was the place. They don’t go below standard. It’s either you meet their standard or go home and sleep.

So, we went there and auditioned, and we had told them, “In our play we have a narrator.” I had told them that. So, they were like, “But this narrating play is dead gone. Why don’t you just make it as soft as it can, no narrator, just tell the story?” I was like, “Why don’t you see our story first and how the narrator comes in? The narrator is a crucial part.”

They were like, “Okay. Let us see.” We went there, I was the narrator. The play was originally developed that it would have three narrators, but because of time, and because of how broad the lines were, we didn’t have a choice, but I was to take all the narrators. So, I took all the narrators. I went through all the narrators and made them one narrator, and I narrated the story of... The script was Operation Manda.

So, we went there, we performed, we auditioned, they were happy. Then we went straightforward to the show. We performed in front of white guys, a mixture of... This was the first time for some of the guys to perform—

Fumbani: International audience, I can say.

Pleasant: Yeah. I had already performed on an international audience by that time. So, we did that. We had a good show. Then we were good to go to Zimbabwe. Going to Zimbabwe we performed. People loved us, we made connections, some connections are still there. People still want us to go to Zimbabwe and perform.

Fumbani: Yeah. You utilized the opportunities, the exposure. And after that, I have seen several artists from your group being featured in several movies, save other projects, because of the only one time exposure, you utilized it. What you’ve explained has just summarized some other problems we have in the film industry. Today’s podcast is generally different from others, because you have put a detailed, how people struggle to come up with theatre group and managing the theatre groups in Malawi. Generally, how do you see the industry in Malawi? What are the problems? How can we mitigate them?

Pleasant: The theatre industry in Malawi, we have great theatres, but fans, one thing. Apart from the fans, there is also this problem whereby, I have just noted it, because I was involved in a certain projected called Baba Lala. It made noise in Malawi. It made noise. It had sold out shows. I was part of the cast. It was a good play. For me, it was a very good play. I know a piece of art is not always 100 percent. People say this and that, but for me it was a very good play with a good cast, which tackled a lot of issues—

Fumbani: Currently happening in Malawi.

Pleasant: Currently happening. Political issues, life, how life is, how each Malawian sees, how we play a part in corruption, everyone plays a part in corruption. But it was a very unique project because it showed me what we’re missing in theatre industry. For me, I’ll go straight to say, apart from the fans, it is also theatre groups which have a problem in marketing their theatre.

Fumbani: The content.

Pleasant: You go to a theatre, sure. You find that their audience is filled with thespians. No other normal audience, normal people, normal citizens of Malawi. Thespians. At the end of the day, all you get is analyzing the play—

Fumbani: The critiques about about the production.

Pleasant: Critiques about the production. Not people saying, “We are happy.” But these are group productions. But just because it was filled with thespians, thespians will always find a problem.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Pleasant: They are people who think deep about things. But if we had sold our shows out there, like how the Baba Lala show was, the Baba Lala had critiques. Critiques talked about maybe the negatives about the production, how the production didn’t do well, but then they were overpowered by people, the citizens of Malawi, because citizens of Malawi, they enjoyed it without looking at the artistic—

Fumbani: Problems—

Pleasant: Part of it. Without looking deep, they were only seeing how good the actors were, how good the story is, how the story tackles the issues of politics and the current issues, how the story makes them reflect on themselves to change. So, it’s the marketing strategies.

Fumbani: So, in a simple way you have summarized that the industry itself needs to work with the artists themselves. The artists themselves need to work on how best they can sell their content, how best they can market their productions, and we can be there.

Pleasant: Not the artists. We shouldn’t put much pressure on the artists. I think theatre groups have to find marketing managers who actually know their job. Baba Lala had good marketing managers, who actually know their job. So, they know where to place. I think for ages now, we haven’t seen much of a theatre production making such noise Baba Lala made. We have seen sold out shows, but with the same set. YDC has made some attempts to also bring in some new audience, but these are just few—

Fumbani: Audience.

Pleasant: Theatres who have made. So, I see that the much problem in the theatre industry in Malawi is not the expertise. We have come to an extent whereby people are killing it, people are doing massive shows, but those shows are not patronized by... We’re not building a theatergoing culture in the normal people. The only people who are going to theatre shows are the artists themselves. So, if we break this and let people know about our shows, I think these problems will be history.

Fumbani: The problem will be history if we follow all the rules that Pleasant has described it. That’s how critical the theatre is in Malawi. Pleasant, thank you very much for your time. I think the conversation will still go in, and maybe we might jump into another episode. But thank you very much for the episode.

Pleasant: Cool. Cool. Cool. Thank you very much for having me.

Fumbani: You’re welcome.

Pleasant: Sure. It’s always good to talk about theatre.

Fumbani: Yes. Thank you.

Thank you so much for having a chew 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 podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes.

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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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