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Theatre Academics

A Conversation with Roselyn Madalo Dzanja

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

I am your host, Fumban Innot Phiri Jr., a producer, actor, director, playwright, and of course, a freelance journalist.

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

In today’s episode, I’m with Roselyn Madalo Dzanja. She is a theatre practitioner, academician. She’s currently teaching drama at Central High International School and the University of Malawi. She holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities, majoring in drama, and she’s also completing her master’s degree in theatre and media communication in development. Roselyn has acted for International Alliance of University Theatre, Theatre for a Change, Theatrics Intervention, and Madsoc Theatre. In 2019, she won National Theatre Award as the best actress. Roselyn—

Roselyn Madalo Dzanja : Thank you. Thank you.

Fumban: But the name, Madalo is something like—

Roselyn: And please use it as freely as you can.

Fumban: Okay. All right. Thank you very much. Okay, welcome. Can you tell the listeners who is Madalo? I mean Roselyn?

Roselyn: Who is Madalo? So Roselyn Madalo Dzanja, well, she is a teacher currently teaching drama at Central High International School, and she’s a part-time lecturer at the University of Malawi, teaching acting and African theatre.

Fumban: Oh, wow. So—

Roselyn: She’s also a daughter.

Fumban: Oh. So in this episode, we are lucky to have a teacher here. And also a lecturer. So listeners, Roselyn is here, we’ll have an explore of young talented actress in Malawi, in theatre, and a teacher—an inspiration for young girls who is doing drama at secondary schools. Okay.

So the journey of you in theatre. You went to University of Malawi. What was the experience like before you joined the professional theatre?

Roselyn: University of Malawi. Firstly, I did not know I could study drama in Malawi. So imagine the joy when I heard I could actually study drama. So I got into University of Malawi. It was very challenging. I think out there when I was doing ATEM in secondary school. I just thought, “You know what, it’s just getting on the stage and then you’re done with it.” But then getting to learn the theories, getting to learn the different styles of acting. That was very interesting for me. I was always ready to get up in the morning and get into my drama class. I wish I just studied drama completely. But yeah, so the journey was very interesting, very fun, very eye opening. Up until today, I don’t think my degree was enough. I want to learn more. I feel like there’s so much out there that has not been unpacked for the Malawian young people. So I want to learn more. I think that’s why I’m still stuck in school.

Fumban: Okay. That’s why you’re doing master’s.

Roselyn: That’s why I went to do my masters. Now I think I’m thinking second master’s, maybe?

Fumban: Okay. Oh, for Malawian theatre?

Roselyn: Yes.

Fumban: Alright. Okay. So after college you went out; you joined professional theatre. We saw you on stage, but of course, been sometime, haven’t see you on stage—

Roselyn: I haven’t been on stage for some time.

Fumban: Now they journey into professional theatre. After college theatre, in Malawi, people they can say, “There’s no job for theatre.” How did you manage to do theatre, outside college?

Roselyn: Outside college? Well, yes, that was a challenge. That was a challenge. Imagine your daughter has graduated and you’re telling them... And she’s telling you, “I want to do theatre.” In Malawi, that doesn’t work.

Fumban: In a simple language, I want to do drama.

Roselyn: I want to do drama. In Malawi, that’s quite challenging. So firstly, I think my biggest challenge was convincing my parents, to that I really want to do this. This is what I was born for. This is what I studied. This is what I want to do. I think once I got into the hang of my parents, it was hard. I started with working for Madsoc Theatre. I learned the professional rehearsals, spent the whole day in rehearsal. And then after Madsoc Theatre, I did some work with Theatre for a Change. That was, but after I took a short break from the stage. And then Theatre for a Change. I was an actress for Theatre for a Change. And then I started teaching drama, toddlers. I was teaching at First Steps Play School. So I was teaching toddlers drama and dance. And from then, Theatrics Intervention kind of grabbed me.

I think I met, Isaac from Theatrics, when I was with Theatre for Change. He was also with Theatre for a Change and showed me, “Come do this with us,” and we... But I think that was the “it” moment for me, because I was in Mchinji, doing plays in communities and then, we’re doing plays for NGOs, such as Water Aid. And then we did our own production with That’s Not Sex, talking about gender-based violence. And I think That’s Not Sex was the “it” moment for me because that was the first time my dad came to watch a performance.

Fumban: Oh wow.

Roselyn: Yes. He kept to pick me up, but then the show was not done and he watched the performance, and I never heard him complain about stage anymore. So I feel like that was the day that it captured his life. And then I got a consultancy with NFYD, Network for Youth Development. And then I went to Norway. And then, Chanco found me. Chanco said, “We trained you. Come back, and then start teaching.” So that has been the journey. And then I was acting with Umunthu, while I was in Zomba, until 2019 I did my last performance. It’s not Umunthu’s last performance, that was my last stage appearance in 2019. I started doing my master’s then, and school got in the way. And that’s why there was silence. But yeah, that has been the journey.

Fumban: Yeah. We can’t wait to see you on stage.

Roselyn: I can’t wait to be back on stage.

Fumban: Okay. We’ll give you an opportunity.

All right. I’ll go back. We talked about a performance, That’s Not Sex.

Roselyn: Yes.

Fumban: Can you give us a brief about the performance? And you being an actress, a female theatre practitioner, how did you manage to withstand the society? How language is with females and being actress, right?

Roselyn: Oh, wow. That’s Not Sex. Firstly, I did not put the poster on my status for a while.

Fumban: Why?

Roselyn: Firstly, I am born again. I’m a Christian. And That’s Not Sex is firstly, people do not think we’re talking about gender-based violence. And I feel like for me, I was in a battle of what will society think? And then I had a discussion with, is it Loveness? Is his name Loveness? A journalist from one of the radio stations in the Lilongwe. And that discussion opened my eyes, and I said, you know, “What Am I ashamed of?” This is my profession. I call a spade a spade as an actress. So that’s when I started posting. But I don’t think society welcomed it, as I expected. But after that performance, I think my church kind of started inviting me, come do performances for church, so I started doing performances for the church as well. But I feel like maybe, it was more of an inner battle, than it was an outside battle for me. Because my mom had accepted, my dad had accepted. So That’s Not Sex was very, I think that’s why it’s one of my most memorable performances. It brought a transition into my life.

Fumban: And you said, the society didn’t welcome it. Was it because of the language or the understanding of the production, the theoretical concept?

Roselyn: Firstly, if we’re going to talk about, That’s Not Sex, just sex is a taboo in our culture. You don’t say that word loud. So that was the first thing. The second thing was, a girl doing drama, going out there performing, you are viewed immoral in our culture. And that’s why we find most men in Malawi who are more on the stage than women, because you have viewed as your immoral. You’re just out there, you’re loose. Sometimes, for me, I think there some people who are personally come to attack me and say, “You’re not married because of your profession.” And I go like, “Wow. Okay.”

So I think it’s how we have viewed women in the arts, for so long in our culture, that has gotten to tell me, that’s how I’m viewed. For me, because I’m out there and I’m not ashamed to talk about my profession, I feel like people can’t come see to my face anymore. I think they’re done. They’re like, “Eish, let her be.” But I have met several girls who have actually told me this is how I’m being viewed, and it’s concerning. And some have actually quit the profession.

Fumban: Yeah, for sure.

Roselyn: But yeah. I guess it’s how society will view that’s in it. But you just need to accept inward.

Fumban: Yeah. So you’re still in the industry.

Roselyn: Yes.

Fumban: And what are your ways on... Or I can say, how can we mitigate this stereotype of thinking, Okay, this was an actress. No, no, no, no, no. I can marry this one. I think this was an actress. No, no. Right?

Roselyn: Firstly, I think for girls, women who want to do this profession, it’s in us to just accept. If we also start accepting and saying, “This is how people view us,” then we will definitely leave the profession. Trust me. But it’s for us to accept, it’s not who I am. I will play a bad character on stage, but I’m not bad. I will play a prostitute on stage, a sex worker—sorry for my language—a sex worker on stage, but I’m not a sex worker. I am who I know I am. So it’s in us, as actresses to first say that, I am just a character when I’m on stage. Off stage, I’m a totally different person. I’m a God believing daughter. I am a patient person. Am I being patient on stage? But it’s different out there. So it starts with us.

I think, I would firstly start encouraging girls to just brush it off. Claim it: “I am an actress. I can do this.” And then just go and hold it. They will talk, they stop. And when they stop and they’ll start watching and seeing what exactly is keeping you there. I think my parents would really be nice to hold this podcast. They could say, how did you deal with it? But yeah, marriage and all those things that society expects from us, they will come. Somebody is out there who accept you as you are. So you just have to be you. Don’t pretend.

Fumban: Okay. Is this the same scenario happening, while you’re still at college?

Roselyn: The same scenario of?

Fumban: Whereby, okay, you’re at college, you’re doing drama, you’re spending a lot of time in the hall, and being a girl for that matter.

Roselyn: Chanco is a whole different world. University of Malawi, it’s a different world on its own. I think that’s it. When we’re in university, you’re just living, you’re just living life, nobody cares. I don’t know if they cared, but really nobody really came to me and sort of made it an issue that I was doing drama. In fact, people loved it. Chanco is a world where they love drama. I think they’ve been baptized in drama. They know it’s a course. You have people coming on stage, they expect to see on stage. Chanco is very welcoming. I think that’s a difference of the industry and being on the campus is that when you’re in University of Malawi, everybody’s there to come and watch the performance. Out here, you get the job, you need to push people to come and accept you and come watch your performances. So I really never felt it in the university. I didn’t.

Fumban: Okay. So I think that’s another experience that keep you moving. So you could feel, okay, I was at college, we didn’t have this situation. Then, yeah, let me move. Let me move.

Roselyn: I mean, it’s the same people who in college, who are out here.

Fumban: Yeah. Out here. Are watching you. Okay. Okay. So your experience as an actress, the very first days in professional theatre, you have experienced those situations. And yet in the theatre industry, we still lack some professional theatre actresses, right? Professional writers. And theatre in Malawi is dominated by men. In your views, what are the problems? What is the main reason for this?

Roselyn: We get tired, I guess. I don’t know. I had the same conversation yesterday over... We’ve been having the same conversation, I think, over the time I’ve been working with Central High with the arts teachers… is that, the arts profession, once we leave school, it’s dominated by men. I don’t know what’s happening. Maybe it’s you men, when we marry you, you start telling us, “No, sit down. Don’t do this.” I don’t know what’s happening. I’m yet to find out. I’m yet to find out. From my experience is that, as a woman... I’m just going to be honest, as a woman, when we get out there, when we start experiencing the world, there are too many forces coming in. I need to make it in the world. I need to make money. I need to find a husband and settle down. I need to please my parents in some way. I wake up, I clean the house, I do this, I do that. I do go to work. I come back and then I have to go for rehearsal.

Eventually, that’s a process that gets tiring. Especially, for those who have partners, they have partners who don’t understand the time that rehearsal requires from us. Because rehearsal requires us to be present. From emotionally, physically, we have to be present in rehearsal. And sometimes when you’re coming from a home that doesn’t understand that you have to be emotionally and physically available somewhere, and they drain you at home, you can’t go in rehearsal drained. So for some women, I feel like they just go like, “You know what, then let me just stay at home.” Some girls go like, “Let just stay at home, and just be a good daughter and be done with it, than for me to go to rehearsal, then the director is shouting at you, because you can’t get thing. I’m not emotionally here.” But really, I can say, I don’t know. Maybe I should get married—

Fumban: Not marriage, as say.

Roselyn: —And see what happens. But for some women, I guess, it’s not marriage. If it’s not families, then it’s just themselves. Low self-esteem. As you grow up, your body is changing. I usually say, our professional, you are even wrong for being the way you look. You’re looking for... Sometimes people are looking for this actor. They’re looking for a model to be an actor, and you’re looking like not a model. And that becomes a problem. Now you go to another audition, they’re looking for a little girl, you look like me. Definitely, you won’t get it. So the more you audition it’s like, “I’m not fitting in for any role,” and then you just give up. So we easily give up, because we’re not fitting in for some certain roles. We feel like we’re being judged. And also, trust me, when we grow up, we just become very cautious of what people say about us. And drama is very brutal, eish. Drama is very brutal. “You’re not talking right.” Like, this is how a talk. And all those criticisms you get, because we’re very cautious, I feel like that gets into us as well.

Sometimes when you’re coming from a home that doesn’t understand that you have to be emotionally and physically available somewhere, and they drain you at home, you can’t go in rehearsal drained.

Fumban: Right. Now, we need to see female directors. Female writers.

Roselyn: Yes. We need to see female directors.

Fumban: What is happening? Because, in the past we can say we used to have, Gertrude Kamkwatira, who was outstanding. Competing with men in the industry.

Roselyn: Very. Gertrude was an exception. I still remember one of her speeches she did when she got on an award, and I was a little girl. Yeah, Gertrude was outstanding. I don’t know. Again, we are dominated by men. I don’t know what’s happening. We do need... I can be a director; I’m a good director. I guess we need to go out there and tell girls we can do this.

Fumban: We can do that.

Roselyn: We can do this. We’ll fail, but then we’ll need to stand up. We’ll fail. We need to stand up. It gets tiring. Sometimes the good housewife looks nice.

Fumban: I think maybe it’s also how the nature of theatre in Malawi is. You need to man up, to be a director, to all the actors without resources and create a production, all that. So if it’ll be the vice versa, maybe, okay, and now I’m a female director, not let me call all those guys.

Roselyn: Let me find space. And also because men in Malawi... Now let me push the blame to men. You barely listen to women.

Fumban: Oh?

Roselyn: Yes. Yes. I have worked with men before. And I do know sometimes, there were days I felt I’m giving in my opinion, but they don’t want to take it because I’m female. There was a case in one of my rehearsals, where I said something as a female, and it wasn’t listened to. Another person, a man came to say it, and they heard it. Right?

Fumban: The very same thing?

Roselyn: Very same thing. And I was like, “Huh. I just said the same thing.” But I also feel like the reluctance of men to listen to female, to the female voice, is there. We can’t say it’s not there. Men sometimes feel like, no being taught by a woman. So that’s why maybe female directors are a few.

When it comes to writing, writing is hard.

Fumban: Yeah. Writing is hard.

Roselyn: Writing is hard. Writing needs you, again, to dedicate your whole mind. To be lost in it. I don’t know why, but writing is.... Writing needs somebody who has—

Fumban: But we have more female short story writers.

Roselyn: Than we have play makers.

Fumban: Yeah.

Roselyn: Maybe we explain ourselves in our short stories. I don’t know.

Fumban: I don’t know. Even Gertrude Kamkwatira used to do give and take lines. Here’s the storyline. You be the character… Character A, Character B. These are the lines of the production—

Roselyn: Why should I tell you what to say? Why should I tell you what to say? Even me teaching high school, one thing that I think I’ve struggled with is when creating my own plays. By the way, I had a brilliant student last year, who I just gave them the storyline, and she came back with a beautiful script. It’s a she. So I think, for me that was very promising. But sometimes I do struggle with telling people what to say. Because I feel like you can say it better. I know what I want you to say, but I feel like you can find a way to say it better. So maybe that’s there with writing plays is that I’d rather write a story, and we develop from that story. Writing plays becomes challenging. You know Smith Likongwe; I think Smith, needs to sit down with us women and tell us how to do it.

Fumban: And even you as well. Maybe starting from the primary schools, secondary schools, those girls need to get inspiration.

Roselyn: Yes.

Fumban: Right?

Roselyn: Yes.

Fumban: Because if the experience I’ve been doing drama in ATEM, NASFEST, all those competitions are dominated by male directors.

Roselyn: True. That is true.

Fumban: So I think it’s high time, you who are up there, to inspire them—

Roselyn: To inspire the kids. I think that’s why I’m in teaching now. I looked, I sat down, and I said, “What’s missing?” What’s missing in our theatre industry in Malawi? And, two things that I found. Training. We don’t have training. So most of the people who are practicing arts today in Malawi, we jump into it because of passion. As I said, I was surprised when I learned I could study drama in the university. I was surprised, and I was excited. It was the first subject that I applied for, that I took. The first course that I said, “I’m taking this course.” But we don’t have training. And also we don’t understand of theatre as a business as well. So we just drive through passion. So we don’t have the training from a young age, and now also training to understand that, fine, we have this passion, but how do I make money from it?

How do I grow this? How do I still stay relevant forty years from now? Why is Gertrude Kamkwatira, still relevant today? Why is, Du Chisiza still relevant today? What would make me relevant ten, twenty, thirty years? I never saw any of Du Chisiza’s plays. I have read them. I have studied them. I’ve had assignments about them. Very interesting plays. But why is he still relevant today? Yes. Because he was one of Malawi’s first theatre practitioners. But what else? There were other practitioners I think at that time, but why is his standing still? Why aren’t his actors coming out? So that element of what makes me a business, what makes me a brand as an actor was theatre company, or as a director, we haven’t been taught that. So academics, we can’t run away from academia. I mean, engineers have academics. Carpenters have academics. But we as artists, I think we have fallen short on the academia part.

Fumban: Yeah. I think on that point we have University of Malawi, which offers drama. Do you think it’s enough?

Roselyn: No, it’s not. It’s not, because it’s just four years.

Fumban: Yeah.

Roselyn: Now, I want to look at this. You and me, let’s sit down and look at this one. When did you start learning mathematics?

Fumban: Standard one?

Roselyn: Yes. You’ve had mathematics all the way, all the way. And as you grow into your engineering, into your what, you’re advancing your mathematics level. You’re branching into a certain direction, but you’re advancing. So you’ve learned equations, formulas, and all the like. That stay. That still... If I ask you a certain sums right now, you are going to solve because you have those formulas, right? And those formulas have advanced and helped engineers. And biology. Doctors have learnt biology from a very young age, and they’re advancing. We just don’t expect them to start reading biology in college.

That will have been very impossible. They have a grassroot.

So actors, directors, theatre practitioners need that grassroot. So if we start teaching drama from a young age, the content is too much for university. My students in University of Malawi, sent me a question today, that I’ve looked at and I said, “Ah ah. How did I miss this course?” The content is too much. Even as a lecturer, when I look at the content, it’s too much. And four years is too little. So we need to take that training from a young age, and they should grow with it, little by little. What is the basics that they need to learn? And then we start introducing the more complicated, more complex things. And then when they get into the university, it’s like the certain group would definitely make it into the university and study drama. And then that group will borrow from the knowledge that they’ve had from the young age, and then grow it and get advanced.

Fumban: And it’ll be easy to explore.

Roselyn: It’ll be easy to explore. But now we’re expecting them to learn Malawian theatre, European theatre, American theatre, African theatre. How many countries are in Africa? I’ve been teaching African theatre for four years; I haven’t done other countries.

Fumban: It’s obvious.

Roselyn: Right? I’m still looking at the same limited information. But Africa is big. It’s big.

Fumban: And there’s whole one country with vast—

Roselyn: Various. Yes. And so it’s not enough. University of Malawi is not enough. They’re doing a great job. Right now, they have introduced this Sula program that they’re training actors, and I think they’re doing a three year program now. They’re doing a lot. They’re trying their best. But I feel like education, the education system of Malawi needs to introduce this. Now, I hear they’re introducing it. Rumor has been there.

Fumban: Yeah. Of course. Smith, said, he wrote a book for secondary schools. I don’t know about primary schools. Maybe we need to wait and see. But if—

Roselyn: We need to push.

Fumban: Yeah. Push.

Roselyn: We need to push.

Fumban: That’s the language. We need to push.

Roselyn: We need to push. Somebody asked me why I would prefer teaching high school than university. I said, because I will still meet the students when they come to the university. So I want them to have at least some basic information. But I would also love if they would have it from the young age. So that way, we would grow...

Fumban: And I think that’s why Smith, like I said, with me, we are championing theatre for children and young people. Whereby we don’t have that platform to teach young people, theatre, we can utilize the association to engage young people into theatre. At least they would get inspired. They can watch, they can learn. And they’ll know what to do with drama when they grow up. And if they don’t want to pursue the college, they will be our audience. Yeah. We are generating an audience.

Roselyn: At least they’ll have the appreciation. The Cambridge syllabus has an element where they talk about writing for theatre, where you can criticize, they learn how to criticize. So they might not necessarily be practitioners, but they can be drama critics. And we grow through critics. Yeah. They can be good writers and good critics, good journalists, culture journalists. But it starts from a young age, and we can’t run away from that. But in Malawi, we are expecting them to just get to college and... And then now when they get to college, I’m already expecting you to know what certain things are.

Fumban: And back at college, there are a lot of practitioners graduating each and every, but few of you—

Roselyn: Are practicing.

Fumban: You’re lucky, you’re teaching drama, right? But we have some who are teachers, but they’re not teaching drama, they’re teaching social studies.

Roselyn: That’s true.

Fumban: What is happening? And we need you in the industry, and the industry is full of Indigenous performers.

Roselyn: Money. Money. I’m not going to lie; I have made a living from drama. I’ve struggled to make that living. Even when I was teaching. I started teaching, what? And I’ve been teaching for four or five years now. I’ve struggled to make that living. Again, that’s when I’m saying, we need to understand that this is also a business. How do we make money? You need to be able to sit down and be honest with yourself, as how do I make money from this? That element is missing. So we know there’re certain professionals where, when you graduate, you’ll definitely get money.

And when you graduate, let’s be honest with each other. When people are graduate from school, you have your parents who are expecting they’re done. They’re done. They’re done with you. Don’t beg them for airtime. Don’t beg them for transport money. They can do the first four, five months. But then after that, can you be on your own? Yeah. That is, if you’re coming from a good stable family. But if you’re coming from a family that’s financially challenged, when you graduate everybody’s looking at you. Now you bring bread at home. Now you do that. Now all that pressure, and looking at the industry in Malawi, that’s not making you money, you are like, can I just get employed? Can I just do this?

So maybe that has contributed into it, that the industry itself, it’s not vibrant. If you come to performances, it’s quite disappointing. If you come to performances, you find three, four audience members. And that’s what? If you’re changing 1,000 Kwacha, that’s 4,000 Kwacha. Your cast needs to be paid; the venue needs to be paid for. And by end of the day you have nothing. So you just go like, “You know what, let me just become a teacher.” Let me just go work in a bank and make ends meet.

Yeah. So it’s the financial challenge of it. So maybe, again, I’ll come back. We need to realize that this is an industry, this is a business, this has to grow. We need to market it.

Fumban: And I think we need to say, about audience generation.

Roselyn: Yes.

Fumban: Okay. I’ll go back to Gertrude. Gertrude, used to have audience. We used to have Du Chisiza. After Du Chisiza, there was a good transition of audience generation between, Okumbata and Wannadoo. Two different theatre groups. Of course, Gertrude was with Du Chisiza, but still you could see... Saw that performances of Gertrude Kamkwatira can was there, and the audience was there, and stuff. Yes. During Gertrude we have donor syndrome by that time, but Gertrude was not part of that, still. What do you think... What can be your suggestion? How can we curb this element?

Roselyn: Marketing. My dad is a marketer, so I’ll come back at marketing. One thing I borrowed from... My decision on my undergrad was on marketing theatre. And one thing I borrowed was, your product. And my mom used to watch Du Chisiza. She talks about Du Chisiza. And I asked her the other day, “Why don’t you go and watch plays?” She told me, “Ah, childish productions.” So your product, let’s look at the five Ps of marketing: your product. What product are you bringing out on the market? I’m not going to pay my money to watch trash. Even your donor, they’ll fund you now, but if you’re producing trash, if you’re not doing the work, they’ll not fund you again.

Fumban: Yeah, for sure.

Roselyn: Yeah? So what is your product? The quality of your product matters. How much rehearse? Put more time into rehearsal. Put more time into creating a performance that is, wow. It’s not just a matter of getting there, as long as the audience comes. No. The audience should come, watch, when they leave, when you’re calling again, they should bring somebody. They should convince somebody. Because the only people who can bring audience is your audience. They will write about you. The post on Facebook. “Had a great time seeing, Innot on stage. It was a very wonderful performance.” Now that makes people go, “Who’s this guy? Let me go and watch.” So your product is what’s going to bring more audience members. So we need to think about this. As we practitioners, when we’re creating our product, how do we make it better? Understand who your audience is. What audience am I targeting? What age group? What do they like? Produce productions that are for them, so that they can invite other people.

And your pricing. Your pricing tells about your product anyway. For example, if you say, here’s a dress, trousers, because maybe I’m going to you as a man. This trousers is 5,000 Kwacha. That trouser is 40,000 Kwacha. You have already judged on quality, right?

Fumban: Yeah.

Roselyn: You have already judged on quality. It means if this product is being sold 40,000 Kwacha, it means it’s good. It means the trousers will last me years. This one, skeptic. I’ll buy this because maybe my pockets will allow me, but if I had the money, I will buy the forty grand one. Because I want to buy a trousers today, and I don’t want to buy next money to go and buy a trousers. I want to watch a production today, and still want to come back for more. So if this production is costing 5,000 Kwacha, and this 1000 Kwacha, I’d rather go at the 5,000 Kwacha one, you know why? Because that’s worth my money. They’re already telling me that’s worth the money. But then if I pay you my 5,000 Kwacha and you give me trash, I’m not coming again. I’ll go and watch the 1000 Kwacha, or I’ll not watch at all. Because if that is trash, then what does 1000 Kwacha carry?

Fumban: And I had an experience whereby, we were struggling to have audience… So I was curating theatre in Mandela. So we used to have relative audience for good performances. So there was this other day, luckily the hall was full, by the production was trash.

Roselyn: And then we lost audience.

Fumban: I was like, “Wow, I’m going to lose the audience.”

Roselyn: Exactly.

Fumban: You see? So issue of how we generate the audience, and on top of that, despite we have the good product, is how we tell our stories. How we interact our audience. You could see... I’ll go back to movies. We have a lot of international movies, but you go to local video shows, we can say, local cinemas. They have translated all the content, and they loved all those content. But when we go back, we want to produce Malawi movies, or theatre, we are sticking to English. Don’t you think is contributing to the audience?

Roselyn: Yeah. You’re telling us that, your audience is elite. When you start creating movies in English, you’re telling us your take audiences not Malawians. That’s what you’re telling us. I love South Africans. I’m learning stuff from South Africans. It’s unfortunate, I’m teaching in a high school, or fortunate because then I’m getting money. But for a theatre practitioner it’s unfortunate because sometimes I just want these kids to do a Chichewa play, because I’m thinking, can you tell a Malawian story? But also, Central High for me is that, it’s not... It’s a very diverse society. So I can’t really stick to Malawi. But yeah, when you’re creating content, when you’re creating your produce, again coming back to the Ps in marketing. When you talk about your audience, if you’re creating for a Malawian audience, can we have movies in Tumbuka?

Fumban: Yes.

Roselyn: We have the musician now. The Tumbuka rapper.

Fumban: Rappers. Yeah. And they’re trending.

Roselyn: Chawanangwa has trended. Chawanangwa has trended because of Tumbuka. Because he’s unique. He’s talking to his Malawian audience. Can we have theatre productions in Tumbuka? Recently we had Bwabwalala. I’ll tell you why that sold. Bwabwalala sold because of the Tumbuka.

Fumban: Yeah. And the title itself.

Roselyn: The title itself. It captivated people. Sometimes I feel like the tongue in, Du Chisiza and Gertrude Kamkwatira advertisements, I still have picture those advertisements in my head, when I listen to them on the radio, is that, it’s the tongue. Even though sometimes they spoke in English, the tongue was—

Fumban: It drive you back home.

Roselyn: This is Malawian English. We have Malawian English and it drives you back home. And I think Malawians need content that... I’m here to watch, Fatsani as you found me. Malawians, are looking for something that talks about home. Because if the play is already... Your story is already in English film, I don’t really know much about film. But if your story is already in English, now the question is, okay, is it mine? Is it going to speak to me? It might, because we are exposed to education and the like. But what about, do you want it to be shown in video shows in Malawi? Across Malawi?

My audience in, Mchinji, for example, does not know English. My audience here in Machinjiri, not everybody knows English. Apart from those, who have done, or who gone to school, but there’s certain level of audience that does not know English. I’m creating cartoons. For example, if I was to create cartoons, why would I create a cartoon in English? A local Malawian child will get up to standard five and not know how to speak English. They’ll be watching TV at home, but they’ll struggle with English. So why don’t I create Chichewa content?

I’m sorry if I’m going to sound harsh, but why do I want to please somebody who’s not in Malawi?

Fumban: Yes.

Roselyn: They should struggle. They should beg for subtitles and say, “Can you have English subtitles?” Not a Malawian saying, “Can you have Chichewa subtitles?” It doesn’t make sense. So I think also, when we’re creating our things, we are not creating with the Malawian audience in mind. We are creating with a Eurocentric audience in mind.

Fumban: And I think the education sector contributed to that. Malawian drama originated from ATEM Drama Festival. You talk of Du Chisiza; you talk of Du Chisiza. So ATEM was basically there to promote English. So each and every production worked the whole production, English. So since 1960 something to date, English production in secondary schools. So that affected the generation of playwright, actors. If I’m an actor, I need to do an English production, then I’ll be famous. But let’s talk about Izeki and Jakobo. Let’s talk about Winiko. Kwathu Drama group. You say when Kwathu Drama group has a show, audience, full house.

Roselyn: Because you know, they’re going to speak to Chichewa.

Fumban: Yes. You’re going to hear, you’re going to laugh. You see.

Roselyn: And the content is going to be about me.

Fumban: Yes. So it’s all about where we’re coming from. We need to change that one.

Roselyn: We do. Maybe we should start a Chichewa competition. Chichewa drama competition. That would be a great idea also. Because now, when we also look at ATEM, and you’ve talked about ATEM. Is that, which schools are participating now?

Fumban: The very same schools.

Roselyn: It’s the same schools. Do you have Chichiri Secondary School performing now? I don’t know.

Fumban: I remember, I had experience, my first time to direct a school from the ghetto, Bangwe Secondary School. I gave them the script, it took the whole two months, for them to memorize the script. And the good thing it was that, the actors were, wow. They were comfortable to do in Chichewa. Then, I say, I’ll write the whole script in Chichewa, then you do it in Chichewa, then we’ll just fix yourself in English. Because they were comfortable in Chichewa, they were performing comfortable in Chichewa, and they performed wonders at the nation finals. They were champions.

When you start creating movies in English, you’re telling us your take audiences not Malawians. That’s what you’re telling us.

Roselyn: Exactly. Yes. Education is not ours. I’m really sorry. I’m here pursuing my master’s and I’m saying education is not ours. The whole idea of education I feel like has come a point where it’s trying to mentally colonize us. Because when we start looking at it, is I usually tell... I teach African theatres, I’m saying. And usually tell... So, one of my first topics is, Gule Wamkulu. I teach, Gule Wamkulu. And every time, I keep telling my students, I said, they’re came, they told us it’s archaic. Our traditions are archaic. Our beliefs are archaic, it’s backwardness. And that we believe that even in our education system, that speaking Chichewa, is backwardness. That’s why we find people laughing at people who are failing to speak English. Because we believe that if they don’t know how to speak English, they’re backward. They do not know life, they’re uncivilized.

And that’s what the education system has done. It’s there to... It has been there to corrupt our minds. I don’t know if there’s a way we can change that. It’s been there for years. I don’t know if we can change that, but at least we can bring back our culture. The option of people dropping Chichewa, I hear, it’s in secondary. I had that option. I dropped it.

Fumban: I dropped it.

Roselyn: Forgive me. But that shouldn’t be an option. That shouldn’t be an option. They should learn Chichewa. Malawian students should learn to Chichewa. If you’re going to learn in Malawi, learn to Chichewa, as a language. Maybe that will be motivating. We can have the other languages, as core subjects, where you can choose, Okay, I don’t want to learn Tumbuka or whatnot. But bringing in our languages would actually enhance it. And that way, even bringing in a competition like that, will actually make it more interesting. Chichewa is hard; that was probably, that’s why we dropped it. Chichewa grammar is hard. But I feel the education system, yes, we can blame it. Let’s blame it. Let’s blame it.

Fumban: Yeah. We can blame it.

Roselyn: We can blame it.

Fumban: It’s not ours.

Roselyn: It’s not. It’s not there for us. The education system is not there for me, as a Malawian. Because now that the education system, I think it’s up until I got to college and started reading and critically looking at stuff, is when I understood that I’m meant to believe certain things that are not supposed to be. I’m meant to believe in funding. I’m meant to believe that Malawi is underdeveloped.

Fumban: And you mentioned funding. In 2000, going upwards, we used to call a golden generation, but based on donor syndrome. And that killed the theatre industry. Because way back people just... Actors go stage to perform using passion, rehearsing with passion. Then the donors came in, they used to fund everything. Rehearsals, extracting allowances, everything. And all the actors during that time didn’t have that passion. You could see the birth of—

Roselyn: They came for money. They came to rehearsal to get money.

Fumban: You see the birth of Nazikambe. I will tell you, in 2011, 2012, after the Norwegian Embassy went out, the French Embassy went out, funding stop.

Roselyn: The French Culture Centre also died.

Fumban: Yes. And theatre organizations who were based on donors, they were nowhere to be seen, up to now. So I think, next episode we need to talk about how can we decolonize our theatre industry. I can say the arts industry, as well.

Roselyn: That would be a great topic. I think I also need to go and read on that. Yes, that would be great. I would say, in as much as funding is good, donors have a purpose that they’re driving. So that’s why we lose our stories, because they’re driving a purpose. And once you start accepting that, is that you drive their purpose. And also because of this funding, we don’t want to work hard as Malawians. I’ve argued with people like that, that we’re used to receiving. We don’t want to work hard. One thing that makes theatre practitioners cry a lot is that it needs work. I’m not going to lie. In Malawi, you need to work. You need to work, find a rehearsal space that needs you to work, work, work, work, work. Find money for that rehearsal space. A performance space, work, work, work, work, work, work, find the performance space, pay your actors and the like.

And we don’t want that, because we’re not used. We want to be given, “Here’s money, do a production.” You do wacky production, but as long as you got the money, it’s done. So that’s the problem of donors is that, we’ve become lazy. I’m not saying it’s not good. I know people who are using donor-funded... Who are donor-funded projects, who are doing great projects. Acting in communities to drive certain initiatives. But what about art for art’s sake? Art for the sake of just doing art. For the sake of telling our stories. Why don’t I create something first, and then if you like it, you can fund it. But I have to want to have the passion to want to create my own story, to want to tell my own stories.

I usually tell my students that I don’t want to give a scripted play. When we start getting to Cambridge exams, yes, you will do scripted plays. But for now, I want you to be able to tell your own stories. So I usually give them something, give them an African proverb, and say create a story from this. Tell your story. What are you guys going through on campus? Tell a story. What is going through your minds? Last year, they had a very beautiful production about the inner battles that they have. Because we just had to sit and talked, and they said, Yeah, this is what we’re going through. And I said, well, so let’s create this with story. And they’re like...

And it was a beautiful piece, that even parents cried when they watched the performance. And it’s because how powerful the story is. In as much as donor funding is nice, but we need to be ready as artists to tell our stories on our own, without influences. Just because I want to tell me as a story of a girl in Malawi growing up, I would like to one day tell a story of me pursuing a drama and career in acting, because I feel like, eh, I’ve struggled.

But if I bring in donors now, they’ll tell me what to put in my story. So that’s the problem. So maybe we should sit down and see, and have a talk on how exactly we can run away from this. The donors are nice, but if we keep depending on it, we’ll be in debt. Right now we are already in 600,000 Kwacha debt, apparently, that I didn’t know.

Fumban: You see.

Roselyn: Now as an artist, I don’t even want to be in debt anymore.

Fumban: You need to find money.

Roselyn: I need to start making money to pay off that 600,000 Kwacha now, so that I don’t—

Fumban: And I remember one friend of mine wrote a script. It’s a musical script. Based on my own storyline and stuff. Then as they were about to stage it, and the funders came in. Can give you money, we want your story to have some American-centric. Like, okay. Then the whole production changed. And maybe you can remember the title, Hip Hop Pela. Hip Hop Pela. So it changed everything. But you see after the performance, you could see you about four or five audience, a lot of them being artist, from the five. So it’s like, if at all we have created the production the way the society is, would’ve been perfect. And more Malawian audience would have flocked to the show watch, and like, let’s go and watch.

Roselyn: Yeah. It’s our story.

Fumban: Yes.

Roselyn: Yeah.

Fumban: Okay. Roselyn, it was nice having you.

Roselyn: It was nice. I enjoy talking about drama. Thanks for having this chat.

Fumban: Okay. We’ll have you in the next episode as well. I think there’s more to extract—

Roselyn: For me.

Fumban: Yes. More of this conversation will spark some fire about theatre industry in Malawi, basically. Yeah. So thank you very much.

Roselyn: Thank you. Thank you for coming and having a chat. And opening my mind. Sometimes when you’re alone, you don’t really see things. When you start talking about them, it’s when you’re like, ah, okay. That’s what’s happening. Yes, but thank you for the eye-opening chat.

Fumban: Yeah. You’re welcome. Thank you.

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

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

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Thoughts from the curator

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

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre


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