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Reinventing Malawian Theatre for a New Generation

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 uplifted you 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, defines 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 create these challenges while their works inspired the community. Jack Musumba.

Jack Musumba: Yeah, yeah.

Fumbani: Welcome to this edition.

Jack: Thank you very much. Thank you.

Fumbani: All right. Yes. I have talked about Jack Musumba, maybe in your opinion, who is Jack Musumba?

Jack: Actually, Jack Musumba is a creative director for Youth Developers Collaboration Theatre, YDC Theatre. Jack Musumba is an actor, a model, a voiceover artist, and also a director. Actually, I am one of the co-founders of Youth Developers Collaboration. We founded YDC Theatre in 2018 together with you Fumbani and the other artist, and up to now YDC Theatre has been one of the prominent theatre group in Malawi. So I can say in short that’s who Jack Musumba is.

Fumbani: All right. So people started knowing Jack Musumba way back before YDC.

Jack: Yeah, yeah.

Fumbani: It has been a long journey. I myself came across your skill way back at secondary school whereby you used to be an actor, then you got an opportunity to travel to Germany to expose your talent while you still a student at secondary school.

So give us the experience of how theatre was at secondary school,

Jack: Okay, Yeah, that’s a very good question. Actually, in Malawi, most of the actors they started drama during secondary school days in the... I am one of them. But the different thing between me and other actors who started drama in secondary school, most of the actors started drama through Association For Teaching English In Malawi.

Fumbani: ATEM?

Jack: ATEM, which is a secondary school drama competition, one of the bigger secondary school drama competition. But I did not study drama through ATEM, at first place. I started drama through a project called, Aware and Fair. This is a project whereby the main agenda of Aware and Fair is to bring together students, is to bring together young people to impart knowledge and making sure that these young people are being connected with other young artists across the world. So I was privileged to be part of Aware and Fair Project, which started in 2012.

So I can say I started drama in September 2012 through Aware and Fair Project, which was meant to develop a production concerning millennium development goals, and we staged a production in 2013. That was in June in Hanover. So I was privileged that my first theatre production, it was an international production, which was titled The Lost Key. And my first time to step on stage, it was not in Malawi. I firstly step on stage in Germany, in Hanover. So it was a very good beginning for me in the journey of theatre that my first time to be on the theatre stage, it was on an international stage. So it was a very wonderful experience.

Fumbani: Yeah, I can see. Okay. So you say ATEM drama festival, most student got inspired after maybe you were in from one. You go and watch some of the actors performing on stage.

“Okay. So these are the actors. They’re go to the competition. Okay, next time I’ll join them.” So, as your school, I know Chichiri Secondary School was vibrant by that time of drama. So what inspired you to join Aware and Fair project to become an actor from nowhere?

Jack: Yeah. Okay. That’s a very good question. Actually, I started drama when I was in form three, but I started getting an inspiration in theatre and drama when I was in form one. When I was in form one, I watched a play called The Lost but Found, which was directed by Frank Mbewe, Frank Naligonje one of the well known youth directors in Malawi who have been directing some secondary school dramas. So when I watched their production, I was very inspired. I was very inspired. I was like, “Oh, this is a very good production.” Because before that time, to me, drama was more of comedy, going on stage with dirty clothes, something like that.

So it was my first time to watch a serious production. It was when I was in form one. So I watched the play. I was like, “Wow, wow. These guys are doing very great. This is a very good production. One day I would love to be like them.” So when I was in form two, I tried to join the drama club, but due to other challenges, time management—I was also into a school’s football. I was a goalkeeper for Chichiri Secondary School—so in order to manage school, football and drama, I did not manage in form two. So in form three, I developed more passion. When the Aware and Fair came, when McArthur Matukuta, one of the directors of Drama in Malawi came to Chichiri Secondary School, I got more inspiration and then I joined Aware and Fair. Eventually I found myself in Germany in 2013 where we developed, we showcased a play titled, The Lost Key.

Fumbani: All right. So Aware and Fair with the Solomonics went to Germany. So you got exposed into this theatrical world on international standard.

Jack: Yes.

Fumbani: So you came back with the team. Then you were part of ceremony, part of the team, and then we started seeing you on faces on several festivals in secondary schools. Of course, it was your last time in secondary school, but you decided to utilize the last opportunity to pop on stage. And there the following year, you didn’t rest, right?

Jack: Yes, that’s very true. That’s very true.

Fumbani: We had Jack from stage. Jack is now a director or the secondary schools. Now, you shifted from being a youngsters on stage in secondary school. Now a youngster teaching young people. What is it like to meet a youngsters while you’re still also under the same level?

Jack: Okay, yeah. Okay. Actually, after Aware and Fair in 2013, then I went until from four.

When I was in form four, I had to utilize the knowledge that I learnt in Aware and Fair because The Lost Key Aware and Fair type of project was not just a type of project whereby you get the script, you memorize, and then you act on stage. No, it was more of theatre training. So we had a lot of time to learn what drama is, what acting is, what is a script writing, what is directing, what are stage demarcations, how can you manage the stage? So we learned a lot of things through Aware and Fair project. When I was in form four, I decided to utilize the knowledge that I learned during Aware and Fair project. And the platforms which are there, it was Association For Teaching English In Malawi, which is ATEM, and the National Youth Festival, LYCO. I found myself acting in LYCO competition. We went to Lilongwe in 2014, I remember we managed to be on position number two.

That was on national level. And we also did ATEM, we did not manage to qualify for national level, but we developed a very good piece. So after 2014, when I wrote MANEB exams, that was not the end of drama for me. Just like many secondary school actors, they do... It’s like after writing MANEB exams. They forget everything that they were doing in terms of drama school. I decided to continue because I had a very good background. I had a very good knowledge concerning drama, a very great inspiration concerning drama. So I continued drama, one through Solomonic Peacocks Theatre Class, as you have said, and we were together.

Fumbani: Yes, yes.

Jack: Solomonic Peacocks Theatre Class, we were leaning a lot of things. Despite Solomonic Peacocks Theatre Class, I can say you are one of the artists who inspired me to jump into directing because although I had the knowledge, I had the skills concerning directing, scripting and the likes.

But to direct a secondary school while you have just finished secondary school was not an easy thing. It was not something that I can just say, “Okay, I’m going into directing.” But it needed people like you. You came to me, that was the time when I was with the Prince Kazembe, Antonio. You came to us and you said, “You guys, you can do these things. I’m going to give you a script and you’re going to direct it.” So I was privileged that the first script that I directed, it was written by Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr.

Fumbani: Thank you very much.

Jack: So I think you wrote, it was not just the script giving, but the inspiration that you gave us that, “Okay, here is a script. I believe in you, you guys can what? Can direct.” And through those words, we believed and we directed the production. And the first play that we directed it was called The Guilty Confession.

Guilty Confession, we directed the production with Our Lady of Wisdom secondary school and we thank God that the production managed to qualify for the regional finals, for association, for Teaching English in Malawi. It was our first time. It was a very good script. We directed it. We managed to produce it. We learned a lot as the first step. So it was a very wonderful experience that when I was directing the production, I was able to use the experience that I learned during Aware and Fair project during ATEM time during the LYCO time. So I had to gather all those knowledge to put it together and impart it in Guilty Confession and see the kind of production that we can produce.

Fumbani: Yeah, okay. I’ll go through the experience as well. I remember when I approached you to direct the production, and I remember I left when I said, “Okay, guys, I think you can do this.” After I watch how you were directing the productions. I was like, “I believe that these fellow youngsters can do something wonderful.” And the team you created also brought unique performances.

Jack: Yeah, Yeah, that’s true.

Fumbani: And we saw Jack directing several performances in secondary schools. So you came from secondary school with a background of staging performances and you state that, “Yeah, most of the youngsters after secondary school, they stopped acting.”

Jack: Yeah, that’s very true.

Fumbani: They stopped pursuing their dreams. Because 90 percent of the people, which we met at the theatre arena right now, they don’t have their background from secondary school, right?

Jack: That’s true. That’s true.

Fumbani: But which simply means if we can remember our days on stage, we’d say, “That guy was a great actor; that girl was a great actress.” Right? So what is your point on this? What’s the reason?

Jack: I think the first point, why many actors have been doing very great during acting competition. Because if I can remember very well, there were some actresses, some actors, when we were to go for ATEM competition, be like, “Eh, there this actors from Stella Maris. There’s this actor from Zingwangwa Secondary School.” And now that we’re in the industry, we ask ourself, “Where is that guy? Where is that girl?” So I think the first point, why many of these great artists who left drama at secondary school level, it’s because of career exploitation by the parents. In Malawi, we don’t take drama as a career, as something that somebody can be making in order to earn a living. So somebody can be saying, “Okay, what do you do in your daily life?” And you say, “I am an actor.” In Malawi, most of the people be like, “No, an actor. You can’t just be an actor and depending on acting, depending on theatre.”

So the main reason why many people who have been doing very great in secondary school days, I think, is career exploitation. The second reason is platform and exposure. Because you and me, we can agree that one of the driving force that made us to be here was the Solomonic Peacocks Theatre Class. It’s because MacArthur Madhugudha of Solomonic Peacocks, he created a platform for us. It’s like he created a bridge so that when students are coming from school, they must cross through that bridge. And from that bridge they must enter into the professional theatre. So because there are those type of platforms that enables young people to enter into professional theatre, that’s why many people leave. We thank God, because right now we have YDC Theatre.

YDC Theatre, we take youngster from secondary school, if a person has got the passion to continue drama, YDC Theatre is a very good platform whereby those youngsters can come and we don’t look for people who have good experience. Because when people come to YDC, we teach them to be experienced actors. We teach them to be professionals. So if they can be a lot of YDC theatres in Malawi, I believe many people will be able to continue their career despite career exploitation.

Fumbani: Okay. Just to add up, that journey of exposure also contributed a lot. Like you said, after you finish secondary schools, you are already exposed and the space, the platform was still there for you to continue space. So after Solomonic, there come YDC. We found that most of the student who got inspired to do more of acting, because YDC has been touring across Malawi in secondary schools, apart from directing student in some pieces of productions.

So youngsters from second school, they go out and say, ‘Okay, if YDC are doing this, while they’re still young, that means if I go out, I’ll find YDC.”

Jack: Yeah, that’s true.

Fumbani: Right?

Jack: That’s true.

Fumbani: And right now, as I can say, there’s several theatre groups coming out, youngsters creating some groups because inspiration from us who got inspired from others, and we’re still putting the very platform. And you have expressed of career exploitation from parents. What about exploitation within the industry itself for the youngsters?

Jack: Yeah. I can say yes, there’s that type of exploitation within the industry itself for young actors. That’s why I say if we may have a lot of YDC theatres in Malawi, it means we can solve part of the problem. Why youngsters stop doing drama. Why am I saying that? It’s because in Malawi, it’s not only YDC Theatre, which is there as a professional theatre.

In Malawi, we don’t take drama as a career, as something that somebody can be making in order to earn a living.

There are a lot of professional theatres who are there in Malawi. But then the problem is when they look at a young actor and a becoming actor, there’s a lot of under ration. You look at somebody who have got a role of experience, who have got a skill or a potential in terms of script writing. Somebody who have got a skill in terms of directing just because that particular person is upcoming. Just because that particular person is young, they underrate. So I should also emphasize on this in Malawi, there’s this culture whereby people who have been in the industry for quite a long time, they have a tendency that’s say, “Drama was there during the time of Du Chisiza.” Or there’s a certain group of people who have been acting for Nanzikambe theatre. So whenever they do things to them, it’s like an actor who did drama with Duji Caesar is a well experienced and a full actor.

If you did not do drama, with Du Chisiza, they don’t take you as a well experienced and a professional actor or an actor who can produce something good on stage. So that has also contributed towards the exploitation of young actors in order for their continuity in this industry. So there are directors out there, there are platforms out there. But for you to be on those platforms, first of all, you must prove to them that you acted with Du Chisiza. Or you were part of Nanzikambe Theatre. If your experience is not in these two things, then they don’t take you seriously. But then Du Chisiza acted during the time of 1980s, 1990s, and some of us were born in late 1990s. And many actors in Malawi that are doing better today, were born in early 2000s. They can’t expect these young actors to be acting with Du Chisiza because they’re very young.

They weren’t there during the time of Du Chisiza, and some of the actors weren’t there during the time of Nanzikambe arts. So this is one of the reason why young actors fail to expose, to fully expose themselves on stage. Because some people, they think they know theatre better than the young actors. But it’s an irony because in Malawi, I always say time and again theatre is in the blood of young people. Theatre’s very dynamic. Theatre changed each and every time, theatre changed. So if somebody’s sticking to the theatre of 1970s, 1980s, it means you are mad. You don’t know what is happening on the ground. So young people in Malawi, when you watch a production written and directed by young people, you’d be able to see that these people, they know what they’re doing. These people, they know theatre.

But when you watch a production which has been written and directed by the so-called veteran actors in Malawi, who acted with Du Chisiza, who are there during the term of Nanzikambe you’ll see that this is trash. To say the truth, you’ll see that this is a trash, because what they’re doing is something that cannot be exposed on international stage to say that, “Okay, this is a Malawian drama.” And the people will be surprised, “Aha, Malawi? In 2002, they’re still doing this type of old drama, old presentation.” It’s something which is very shameful. So young people in Malawi, they know what they’re doing because they have a role of exposure. They have time to go on internet to watch other international theatres. They have time to do research. While the so-called veteran actors, all what did they know is, “Du Chisiza used to do this and we should also do this.” So you see a very great challenge for them.

Fumbani: Okay. It’s like you expressed deeply about these veterans.

So much as you said, people have been saying, “Okay, the veterans need to utilize them.” Some veterans, they’re open to say, “Can I do something with you?” Some they don’t, right? Some they don’t. And even the audience who used to love drama, of course I know it’s very hard to generate audience, but the audience who used to have full house drama, they’re not there, right? They’re not there because it goes with Du Chisiza. So some of them, they’re proud to say, “How Du Chisiza went away with drama.” So yeah, as you said, “Drama goes with time. With generation.” Right, so you have been in the theatre as a youngster, as you are. You’re still young, and on top of that, you still work with young people, right?

Jack: Yes. Yes.

Fumbani: What is inspiration you still have the eager to work with young people?

Jack: As you said, I’m a youngster and I’m still working with young people.

I enjoy when I’m working with people who understands what I want to achieve at the end of the day, rather than working with people who are stick or I can say who are way behind with something else. For example, when I’m working with YDC Theatre, when I’m working with you Fumbani, most of the plays that I’ve directed are productions which has been written by you. These are protections which are not written by veteran writers, but they’re written by you. You are the type of script writer who understands that this is a script. If I give it to Jack to direct it, I shouldn’t expect Jack to direct the script and to produce it the way it is. He should add in his own ideas. He should produce the script according to his vision, which is different to some script writers, to some veteran written script writers.

Because somebody who is a veteran script writer, if he is to give me the script, he would expect me to produce the script according to the vision that he had when he was writing the script. So working on your scripts as one of the young scriptwriters in Malawi, you understand, you are flexible to see that, “Okay, this is a script now we should watch a production on stage. We should let the director to produce the production.” So I love working with young actors. One, because of flexibility when it comes to the creativity, because creativity have got no limit. Some people, they limit creativity. They’re like, “Oh, this can happen on stage. This cannot happen.” This can happen on stage based on their experience. While when I’m working on a production, I’m always want to produce a new production, not something that somebody has already produced.

So young people, they are ready to receive a new thing on stage. When I’m bringing up a new idea, young people are very flexible to receive it. So one, young people are very flexible. Two, humbleness, young people are really humble to receive your directions, to receive your vision. Three, my inspiration to work with young people is to inspire them, is to impact knowledge in them so that when they are growing, they should also be like the beneficiaries like I was when I was at secondary school, when I was growing up or doing directing. I was inspired. I was imparted knowledge. So I have to give back the knowledge that I got from people that were mentoring me when I was in my journey in directing and acting. So this is some of the reasons why I love working with young people.

Fumbani: So there was a theatre class, we are together at Solomonic, now there's Lydia with a project called Flying Girls. So it’s more of creative and hygiene. It’s like a float from the theatre class as well. You had the food from the theatre class, same applies to me and others. So the journey started there, but we didn’t stop.

Jack: Yeah we did not.

Fumbani: We didn’t stop. So we got inspired to create YDC. YDC is there now as YDC is here. You are the creative director.

Jack: Yes. Yes.

Fumbani: Right, you have expressed some of the part of the process you do with the youngsters. So apart from YDC being the youth theatre organization learned by youngsters, how did you manage to penetrate the industry in just a space of a month?

Jack: Okay. We started YDC together in 2018. The main reason that we managed to penetrate into the industry in a space of a month was the creativity part.

When YDC started doing its productions. When we started developing our productions, we developed our first production... If I can remember they were, of course, it was the working ones. But then the production that made people to welcome us well in the industry was Wasted Adjective. When we developed Wasted Adjective, people watched a very different production than the productions that they used to watch. The production they used to watch. So people were seeing a lot of creativity. People were seeing a lot of things in the Wasted Productions, which is YDC’S first play, which we developed in 2018. People loved the production very well because it was a new presentation. It had a lot of theatrical excellence. It had a lot of experimental elements in the production that the people were not expecting to watch that type of production from Malawians. If people had to watch a production like Wasted Adjective, then it was a play maybe from Europe, a production from South Africa.

But for Malawians, like we break the boundaries for Malawian theatre. Because of that, people are able to welcome us in the industry. People are able to see that these young people are here to stay. That’s one of the reason why we managed to penetrate in the industry in a very short period of time. And our way of marketing, we used so much of digital marketing. Like most of the theatres in Malawi, they don’t utilize internet in order to market their content. So YDC, we used so much of internet platforms in order to market ourselves.

Fumbani: All right. So, you penetrated with a powerful presentation at the same time you started receiving international calls. You’ve been invited, you’ve been invited, you’ve been invited, been invited. There were excitement about the youngsters and the other youngsters were also inspired to be part of YDC, to work with YDC and you started in a space festival after festival.

Festival after festival. The creativity. You say it was there, more of the experimental. Okay. You come from Solomonic, you were just a mere actor.

Jack: Yes, yes.

Fumbani: Yes. We are directing secondary schools. That was quite different. But when you took the role as a creative director, the board of trustees from the YDC say, “We are endorsing you as the creative director of YDC.” What of the toughest moment to like to say, “Okay, this is an independent organization. I’m now the creative director. I’m no longer just an actor. Now these youngsters have to believe in me, have to work it out.” What was the secret?

Jack: First to answer? What was the toughest moment? What was the secret to manage taking the role as a creative director for YDC? First, I should be honest, it was not easy. It was not an easy way. When I was endorsed to be the creative director for YDC, actually I was afraid. I was asking myself questions, “How am I going to manage to direct these particular people? How am I going to manage to produce the productions that the Malawians would be able to accept in their appreciate that here is a production. How are we going to make their productions to be unique?” I had a lot of questions without answers, but with time I had answers. With time, I was able to deliver the best to the way the productions were supposed to be produced. Just like any other person when you are in your parents’ house and now that you are staying alone, you have the role as a father.

It cannot be an easy responsibility at the first place. That was the same thing applies to me from Solomonic Peacocks, I was just a child, an actor there depending for you, Fumbani to write a play and Matukuta to direct it. Now, it was YDC, I am the creative director, I need to make sure that the productions which are coming are marring with the standards of the theatre. I have to make sure that the protection that we have selected should be produced to the level best. So my number one challenge was not within the YDC, but it was outside the industry. Because I was asking myself questions as a new theatre production, as a new theatre group, if we are to produce a play today, will the industry going to accept us? That question was a big challenge for me because if the industry’s not going to accept the theatre, it means the problem is the creative director.

Because other responsibilities, other leaders were there. But most all the leaders which are there were on the part of management part, were part of administration and the likes. But when it comes to the creativity, which is the main responsibility of YDC Theatre, then people will be pointing fingers at the creative director. That if this theatre is failing to produce, it’s because of who? The creative director. So one, that was the main challenge, which I had, the toughest moment, which I had. But when we produced the first play and you saw the response of the audience, we saw the response of the veteran actors, we saw the response of the well known directors, writers in Malawi. We were like, “Now we’ve been welcomed.” Then the heart came down to see how best we can continue with what we have started. The second challenge, we are the actors themself.

I am a youngster and the people that I’m directing are also youngsters. So the question should always be there, will they’re going to respect my vision? Will they’re going to respect me as a director? But we did not face so much challenge on this part. Although little by little we had some small, small challenge, but we managed to understand each other whenever we had differences to the extent that I was able to learn from the actors that I was working with, and I hope the actors were also able to learn from me. So with time, the actors were able to know that, “Okay, if a Jack is directing a play, this is what he needs.” So I was also able to know that if I’m working with these actors, this is what I need to do. This is what I don’t have to do. Because it’s different from directing a secondary school student with somebody who is outside the secondary.

So it’s very different altogether.

We can say the main reason why the stakeholders are not pumping money into the industry, first thing we can say is an ignorance from their side.

Fumbani: Yes. Like the respect you say, “Okay, he’s outside. Yeah. He’s not a student. He has exposure and staff.” Even though we have exposure like he experienced, but the student still feels this guy is the one leading us right? And sometimes I remember my first experience to direct a secondary school was not like directing the secondary school was leading the club, leading the club, telling them what to do, “Guys, let’s do this. Let’s do this.” Then I ended up being a director, right? Because they believe, “Okay, he’s outside. He has a better knowledge, so let’s let us believe in him.” So YDC is there. And there’s also you working with youngsters in secondary schools.

Jack: Yes, yes.

Fumbani: What was the journey of you got inspired to keep on working with students in secondary schools, theatre for children and young people?

Jack: Yes, it’s true YDC was there and there was also secondary school projects.

ATEM and National Youth Festival, what inspired me to keep on working with the youth, both in secondary schools and the outside secondary school were the... I can say the compliments, the inspirations, the outcomes of the productions which were coming. For example, most of the plays that I have directed in secondary schools, they have been awarded an award as best directed productions.

So to me it was a great inspiration and it has been a great inspiration because they’re some plays that I was directed and they didn’t make it for the next level or they did qualify for the national level. But to no avail those productions even they failed to qualify they managed to win an award as best directed plays. So that was the greatest inspiration for me to say, “Okay, okay. I failed in this stage. I fail in this stage but on the directing, I’ve managed to produce an award.” So it was a very great inspiration that when I directed the production, the award comes, when I directed the production for YDC, people say, “Wow, we like the presentation. The presentation is good. This player has been well directed.” So that has been a great inspiration for me to continue directing secondary schools and also to direct YDC Theatre productions.

Fumbani: Okay, now YDC theatre for children. So you’re still in the reign of working with young people in both sides, in secondary schools and as in an organization. So currently people were just crying, “Theatre is dead.” Some will say, “No, it’s not dead.” Some will say, “Okay, it’s not dead. Then where is theatre?” I will say, “Every time they will say, ‘Where is theatre?’“ People will mention, “Go and check YDC.” Right? Go and check YDC. Go and check YDC. So I will say, “Go and check YDC.”

They’ll go and check the production from YDC. So if you check production on YDC, they’ll find your name that there is jack in the production, and yet we say, “We’re still struggling to get the audience.” What is the problem with the audience in Malawi more about in the theatre, like way back in the past, you talk of the late Du Chisiza Junior. And I remember by that time theatre for children was not there. So we revamped theatre for children around 2017, 2015, something like that. It was we the youngest, which revamped the interest of young people into theatre. What was the problem way back in the past? To say, “Okay, there was no theatre for children.” But theatre always was everywhere. Now, theatre for young people is everywhere, but the audience is very difficult to generate.

Jack: Okay, First of all, I should say in the past, during the time of Wakhumbata Arts Theatre, I believe there was consistence of performances by Wakhumbata Arts Theatre. They’ll have a production; when they start a tour, they’ll start it in southern part and they’ll end it with the production to the northern part. And the guys were not sleeping each and every day they were making sure that they should develop something for the audience. And the audience knew that we have theatre because each and every month, each and every quota of the year, they were able to watch a play by Wakhumbata Arts Theatre in which nowadays is not the same. The consistence of performances is... It’s like if YDC is to have a show on 15th January, then if YDC is not going to have a show in February, in March, in April. When YDC is giving space to other theatre companies, it means there will be a gap. There will be input of theatre dates in those particular months. So sometimes the audience, they would come to watch a theatre in January and they will expect another play in February.

If they want to see anything in February and March, that’s when they sit down and be like, “Oh, we don’t have theatre in Malawi. Theatre is dead.” So now the first difference is consistence. The second difference is the marketing strategy that is being used today. And during the time of Du Chisiza, during the time of Du Chisiza, the marketing, I can say it was easy because they had one radio station, which is MBC. So if they had to reach out to the people, it was just for them to take an advert, their trailer and put it on MBC. And every Malawian would be able to know that on this date, Wakhumbata would be at French cultural centre.

Fumbani: And by then, we didn’t have any TV station.

Jack: There was no TV station. It means if somebody has to listen to a media house, it was MBC, so it was very easy for Wakhumbata to reach out to people.

While nowadays, it’s not that easy, it’s very difficult to reach out to people. Although, we have different platforms because if you are to take your advert to MBC, it means only people who listen to MBC will be able to know that YDC has got theatre at Jacaranda; YDC has got theatre at the Blantyre Culture Centre. If you take it to Times the same thing. So what is making us not to reach out to many people nowadays, I can see it is also the issues concerning sponsorship in funding. Because I’ve been working with YDC for now, five... It’s n—

Fumbani: Four years?

Jack: For four years. But we haven’t got a proper, or I can say a very good funding for the campaign within Malawi so that we can be doing commercial shows. Because for me, the way we’ve been working for YDC, if we’re to get a sponsor, just to sponsor in terms of marketing, just to sponsor us in terms of marketing, just one sponsorship for one production, that can be a very great breakthrough for YDC.

Because what we like at YDC is to reach out to many audience so that they should know that YDC has got a production on this date. Because for us to make an advert and put it on Times on MBC, on Zodiac, on Mibawa, that requires money. So if somebody can just sponsor us with that little amount of money, I believe we can be having good audience in all the production of YDC.

Fumbani: Okay, so you have dragged back this situation to the stakeholders, like the stakeholders in Malawi, they’re not supporting the industry.

Jack: Yeah, that’s very true.

Fumbani: Because most of the funding projects in Malawi, they are based to say again, “We give you a funding. You go and do theatre for development.” Which is educative apart from the commercial side. But in Malawi, most stakeholders are not pumping money into the creative industry. What do you think is that? What’s the reason?

Jack: Okay, we can say the main reason why the stakeholders are not pumping money into the industry, first thing we can say is an ignorance from their side. Why am I saying ignorance from their side? They expect the theatre group to attract number of people because when a stakeholder is posted you, they need something in retain. What they need is publicity. They will need YDC to publicize their brand. Now if they look like, “Ah, YDC is struggling to have audience, why should we sponsor them? Because they’re struggling to have audience.” But then the thing is, if the stakeholder is to partner with us, what the stakeholder needs is publicity. They want to promote their brand. If they’re to partner with a creative theatre, it means they’re going to have what they want. What we want is them to sponsor us. And what they want is the audience. Audience is there that loves theatre. There a lot of people out there who loves theatre.

But then how can we reach them? That’s when we need the stakeholders. The stakeholders to help us. When they help us, we’re going to reach the audience. When we reach the audience, the stakeholders, they will have what they want, the publicity, the promotion of branding-

Fumbani: The branding is there.

Jack: And likes. So I said it’s ignorance because they don’t know the uniqueness of theatre. They don’t know what theatre can do to the public sector because they would love to sponsor sports because sports have got a lot of followers, a lot of audience, a lot of spectators, than theatre. But then theatre is very unique. Most of the people who love theatre are decent people, well educated people, people who can manage to promote their brands easily than maybe any other entertainment sector.

Fumbani: All right. So you have said the audience generation, we have seen YDC decided to come okay. Sometimes you find a performance for YDC will have a full house. Sometimes have maybe small seats in the theatre show, and you discover those who are watching and say, “How come this powerful performance little theatre, but this is still pump of productions. What’s the secret behind YDC?

Jack: The secret behind YDC is the vision. The vision that we developed in 2018. When we were developing YDC theatre, we did not just develop a theatre group, but we developed a theatre group with a vision, and that vision is still driving us. Actually, our vision is to have our own theatre house in Malawi—the first theatre house. It’ll be owned by YDC because Malawi does not have a theatre place, does not have a theatre auditorium. So I believe one of the solutions towards lack of audience during our shows is because of poor venues.

We don’t have a venue that can accommodate a theatre piece in Malawi.

Fumbani: We can say in a simple way conducively.

Jack: Yeah.

Fumbani: You’re just improvising.

Jack: We’re just improvising. So if we were to have a full theatre house in Malawi, a lot of people will be attracted to be attending theatre shows, and the stakeholders will be there to sponsor theatre production.

So the secret of YDC is not what we are facing today. The secret of YDC is the vision that we are yet to achieve. It’s what we want to bring in Malawi. It’s what to impact Malawians with the type of theatre. Because theatre nowadays, I’ve got a lot of ways of presentation in Malawi. If you were to use theatre rice, we are limited because of resources, because of our venues. So it’s like our creativity is being limited because of resources and the platform of exposure.

So YDC our secret, our energy is in our vision.

Fumbani: So you have that bigger vision of saying, “Okay, let’s keep on doing that. Let’s keep on working.” And those young energetic actors are there to say, “We have a powerful vision, and still each and every year, you are receiving youngsters from secondary schools.

Jack: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. That’s true.

Fumbani: All right. Okay. Why are these youngsters coming to YDC each and every year?

Jack: Okay, These youngsters are coming to YDC first because of existence. In Malawi, if there is a theatre which is active on everyday basis is YDC. Somebody cannot go to a dead theatre. A theatre which is not in existence, that, “Okay, I just want to be a member of this theatre. And there’s nothing which is happening.” So the youngsters, they see what is happening in the industry. They see what is happening on the stage.

We have projects in all the angles of theatre when it comes to theatre for education. We tour in secondary schools with Macbeth. When we are not doing a commercial theatre, it means YDC is doing theatre for education, performing Macbeth, performing poetry, performing all sorts of theatre elements as far as education is concerned. When YDC is not doing theatre for education, it means YDC is on the ground doing theatre for development. If YDC is not doing theatre for development, it means YDC is doing commercial theatre. So people see us in all angles. It’s like when you want to watch a theatre program on the television: You see YDC it was in Phalombe doing this theatre for education; YDC was doing Macbeth; YDC was doing commercial theatre. So when the youngsters decide to join the theatre, they go to YDC because of the existence that we have in Malawi.

We don’t have a venue that can accommodate a theatre piece in Malawi.

Fumbani: So you are there on the ground in all angles. And if I can recall back in 2020, there was a hit of COVID.

Jack: Yes, yes, yes.

Fumbani: And okay, 2020, it was just rumor that COVID is coming and we staged a performance. YDC staged a performance then there is stage and performance in March before the lockdown. So you open the year performance.

Jack: Yes, yes, yes.

Fumbani: You closed during the lockdowns and for March up to November, there was no performance.

Jack: Yes, that’s true.

Fumbani: And it was only YDC that came back in November to stage a performance and another performance in December. And in January you come back and open with another performance as well.

Jack: That’s very true.

Fumbani: It’s like you say, the existence is there, people can still watch them. And any... You also participate in visual performances in August, that was the festival from Zimbabwe.

So you participated. So people are, “Okay, let’s watch YDC on Facebook.” So it’s like you understand how the mainstream theatre is in the industry. Still you are the director who direct most of the productions and the youngsters there who also contribute to the build up of the performance.

Jack: Yeah, that’s very true.

Fumbani: And still on you’re inspiring youngsters. Let’s go back to Macbeth. I know as YDC who love to create Malawian content, classic content. You talk of Operation Mandala, the story of John Chidembwe, you talk of the classic history of Ngwazi. So you decided, “Okay, this time around. Let’s do Macbeth.”

Why Macbeth? Was it other play you can do to showcase in secondary schools?

Jack: Okay, yeah. Yeah. That’s a very good question. That also reminded me on the question that I was asked on the time of interview. You asked me, “Why do you think YDC was well welcomed within a month?”

Okay. One of the answer why we were welcomed is because of the table productions that we were showcasing during those times. YDC was well known by developing local Malawian productions, not just local but historical productions. Because our first play was The work in Ngwazi, and then we developed Wasted Adjectives, then we developed the Operations Mandara in 1993. So people were like, “Oh, these guys are developing stories, very interesting stories that have never been told in Malawi.” Malawi is full for very great stories, very interesting stories. And YDC was there and is there to take those stories, to retell those stories on stage. So why did we come to the point of developing Macbeth? A theatre which is well known by developing local Malawian productions original stories. Why did we develop Macbeth? We developed Macbeth simply because Macbeth is a play which is being taught in secondary schools on O-level of English literature, which is MANEB.

So it is the only one main play that students are learning in Malawi. So for us to reach out to students, we can take our own productions, which are not in their syllabus. So we had to take a production, which is in their syllabus; and the Macbeth was a production, which is in their syllabus. And for us to come to the point of starting working on Macbeth, there was a debate in ourself that do we really have to develop Macbeth?

But if we are not to develop Macbeth, it means we’re not reaching out to the students who are learning Macbeth and we are not helping them because the Macbeth project, which YDC is doing, it’s a very great project. It is helping students to understand the book, to understand the play Macbeth very well because we have seen the testimonies whenever we go to the secondary school, people have been... Students have been testifying, “Oh, so this is what the play was talking about.” We do a certain symbolical stuffing from Macbeth and the students will open their head, “Our teacher taught us this, but the way I’ve seen it on stage now I’m able to what? Now I’m able to understand.” So this is the reason why we chose to work on Macbeth, a play by William Shakespeare.

Fumbani: So Jack, thank you very much for being in this edition and I think you’ve enlightened a lot. Keep on doing a great job working with youngsters. That’s the future for the industry. I hope next time we’ll feature you in another episode. We can talk special for theatre for children. And put more focus what are the problems and see how best we can do it.

And it was privilege to have you here in this edition, and I was happy to say, “Okay, today I’m chatting with Jack not in the auditorium, discussing your production.” So we’re discussing about the mainstream of theatre. What I love about this discussion is the openness of how theatre is going out. So I’ve been discussing several counterpart, just the theatre practitioners, teachers, lectures. They have different views, but you also input other areas of different views. And I’m very, very happy to say I’m uprooting some new information that can change the theatre industry in Malawi. Thank you very much.

Jack: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

Fumbani: 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 podcasts in our feed, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcast” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post rating and write a review on those platforms. This help other people to find us. You can also find the trust of this episode along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Do you have an idea for exciting podcasts, essay or a TV event That theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit the 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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