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What Is the Way Forward for Theatre in Malawi, During and After the Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic is definitely changing the way we do theatre in Malawi, and I speculate that it is having the same effect around the world.

How do we usually do theatre in Malawi, you ask? It might take a full book to respond to such a question but one way to answer is to say theatre in Malawi is always mobile. We tour. It is very unlikely that a theatre group will stage the same play at the same venue more than three times over consecutive days. Usually the production happens once, and then the group travels to a different district or city and stages the performance there, which is not the way it is done in Europe. I’ve performed with Bilimankhwe Arts in UK, Junges Theater Göttingen in Germany, and Theater Konstanz in Germany. In all cases we performed the same play for over a month in one venue. Also, in Malawi, stage performances are done mostly on weekends. Rarely do groups stage a show during weekdays.

The other thing is that when we talk about theatre in Malawi, most people understand it to be live drama performance, where an audience and the performers are at the same venue. If a performance is done through digital media, people would call that a film or video. And here, people love live theatre more than they do films or videos, the reason being best summed up by Ken Chinkango, a theatregoer I spoke to:

The actors that do live theatre, show greater skill, they must train not to make a mistake because the audience can sometimes recognize a mistake, they have no time for second takes as in film. Watching them live, they must be serious every second when they are on stage because they act once, unlike in film where the actors have a chance to redo a scene, read the lines again, make mistakes, and where technology also assists them here and there. Live drama performers are more skilled.

It is difficult to get funding to do a live stage drama in Malawi. In most cases, people engage in some sort of businesses to fund their own productions or have a non-theatre job with other organizations and do drama using their salaries. Live drama performances depend very much on gate collections—commonly known as “box office” in the Western world. One exception that attracts funding is theatre for development, which engages audiences to take part in a loosely structured performance with the aim of assisting them to diagnose and find specific solutions to problems in their communities. In general, these theatres depend on the live presence of an audience.

Image of group of people marching in streets in Malawi

Nanzikambe Arts in a Theatre for development performance. Photo courtesy of Nanzikambe.

Effects of the Pandemic on Theatre

COVID-19 was welcomed with a deathly fear in Malawi. Televisions, newspapers, and social media were awash with images of people losing their lives to this deadly disease—to the extent that when only two cases were reported in the country on 2 April 2020, the resolve was to close primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, and universities completely. Entertainment came to a standstill. People were told to work from home without knowledge of how they would be doing that since it was a sudden announcement. During this time, I was rehearsing a play, written by a Mzuzu University lecturer Misheck Banda, titled Final Faith-Fools. I was the director. The play required that I work with various arts groups because it involved dance, drama, and drumming. Actors agreed unanimously to stop rehearsals immediately for fear of getting infected despite there being no cases of COVID-19 in the region. There was a lot of misinformation circulating, which made people more afraid. For about four months, nothing was done regarding theatre. There was no solution.

The impact of the pandemic’s first wave was seen to be mild in Malawi. It happened during a time when Malawi was going to the polls, which led to a lot of misinformation by politicians. Opposition parties were telling people that there was no such a thing as COVID-19—that it was just a gimmick by the then-government to stay in power for longer. They said that government wanted a lockdown so as to extend the polling day to an indefinite date in the future. Many people believed that because the number of cases in Malawi was very low, and some of the individuals who passed away were known to have asthma, high blood pressure, and other underlying conditions. People took to the street to oppose the lockdown.

Can Malawian artists continue to stage live drama performances and theatre for development interventions in the way they typically do theatre, moving from one venue to another?

Artists took advantage of this opening to stage some shows, but audience turnout in cities and towns was in overall not great. In rural communities, though, turnout was good for theatre for development productions because many people believed COVID-19 was nonexistent, since the first wave had affected mostly those in the towns. However, the second wave of the pandemic, which started in Malawi in January 2021, had a larger impact, since even notable politicians and chiefs succumbed to the disease. There is now greater adherence to wearing of masks and frequent handwashing with soap and water. However, when it comes to theatre, the question now is: Can Malawian artists continue to stage live drama performances and theatre for development interventions in the way they typically do theatre, moving from one venue to another?

Twice, Chancellor College students were unable to bring their theatre for development production to Mzuzu University because of certain COVID-19 preventive measures put in place by government at the time. (This was a school project that involved students and new graduates from the university, and it was to be watched and engaged with by Mzuzu University theatre for development communication students.) Cheneko Arts of Mzuzu failed to stage their production in Lilongwe because the venue was closed due to the same reason. For two semesters, Mzuzu University Theatre Arts Group has not been able to rehearse a single play. The same has been the case for several theatre groups.

Image of two men standing in front of a banner rehearsing outdoors. They are huddled close to each other and one is pointing into the distance, while the other looks in the same direction.

An image from Migrant Arts rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Club.

This is impacting the livelihood of artists in the country to the extent that they sent a request to the government to bail them out through some sort of a relief package. A fund has been created, which artists can apply for so they can do theatre for development interventions for the government. However it is not enough to fund all artists and it does not cover live stage drama.


Theatre Performances During the Pandemic

In August 2020, Fumbani Phiri, a renowned Malawian actor, did a virtual performance—a show that involved six actors. It was done in a studio and livestreamed via Facebook. Other theatremakers and theatregoers commented that probably it’s time for theatre to go virtual, while others still argued that even though performing virtually can be live, that new form would be more like film because actors and audiences wouldn’t be in the same venue and the feeling would definitely not be the same. Tadja NKhonjera of Dikamawoko Arts also went virtual in 2021 with a poetry recital show, which was watched by theatregoers in the cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe, and Mzuzu, as it was heavily publicized and people had been entertainment-starved. However, Nkhonjera had no plan for how to making people pay to watch his show, so it was free. There is no system available at the moment to preventing people who haven’t paid for a ticket from watching a livestreamed performance online. It could be because there has been a reliance on Facebook to be able to do livestreamed shows, or that theatremakers in Malawi have not yet explored much on how best to do livestreamed shows.

I tried to act in a virtual show as well, but I felt my energy was low. I have never had a chance to train as an actor on camera. For many years, I have performed on stage and there is an energy that a stage performer gets from the audience. When performing on stage, actors adjust the way they act based on audience feedback, which comes in a form of laughter, clapping, or, if the acting is not convincing, noise. It is not the same when doing a performance virtually.

We need to network with theatremakers from other parts of the world to see how they are doing when it comes to online shows.

Some theatremakers and theatregoers thought that those who have been acting in films would be in a better position to perform live drama virtually. Migrant Arts tried this out. Along the way, it was discovered that the film actors are used to referring back to their script, and many could not memorize long lines at once and some had difficulties performing live drama as they are not used to the exaggerated acting of stage performers. The film actors suggested it would be better to record the performance so they would have a chance to edit and then post the recorded performance online. But if it is done like that, will it still be live theatre? Will it still have the same appeal as a live theatre performance? Many theatregoers in Mzuzu said that if done in such a way, the performance ceases to be live theatre. It becomes a film.

In February 2021, Migrant Arts collaborated with Mzuzu University Theatre Arts Group on a performance that would be livestreamed via Facebook. During rehearsals, Thokozani Kapiri and I—the actors—felt that the audience needed to be there—at least twenty people, wearing masks, who could stay two meters apart. The presence of the audience members, though few, made it possible for us to have the energy to perform the play with passion. However, along the way during the performance, a technical collaborator indicated that the performance was no longer streaming because the internet went down. This is a very common problem in Malawi. The show ended up just being watched by the few audience members who were present at the venue, and to compensate those who were watching it live, the recorded part was later uploaded to YouTube and the link shared. A bank account had been shared during advertisements of the show where audiences could deposit money. It still was not easy to tell whether all of the people who had the chance to watch it online had indeed donated. There was gate money collected from the few who came physically.

An image of an out door theatre with cars circling the stage.

Drive-in pandemic theatre model, designed by Emanuele Sinisi. Photo courtesy of Gigio Giraldo.

My Take on the Way Forward

In view of the experiences theatremakers in Malawi have been through during the pandemic, it is clear that if there is no scientific solution to the pandemic, we Malawian theatremakers will have to change our ways of doing live theatre shows. We need to network with theatremakers from other parts of the world to see how they are doing when it comes to online shows. This will involve discussions on ticketing and what efficient platforms to use for presenting the shows.

I believe, though, that there is a need for open-air performances. Theatremakers must adapt to doing shows in open-air spaces, which may mean holding one show at the same space for a month and during weekdays, allowing only a few people to attend at a time. It would also be good for stage actors to have some training on how to perform on camera—a combination of stage acting and acting on camera would do stage actors good. The trainings would not necessarily be academic, requiring the teacher to have certain qualification, but could come in a form of workshops that could be done by actors or academics with experience and knowledge.

Last summer, Nancy Franco, a theatremaker and former World Theatre Map ambassador from Colombia, responded to my inquiry on how to safely make and present theatre in these times of the pandemic. She got me connected to Gigio Giraldo, a Colombian theatremaker who showed me photos of a proposal made by Emanuele Sinisi, an Italian set designer, based on the usage of cars: people would drive to the theatre performance and stay in their cars to watch. I tried it out on 27 April 2021 with an impromptu ten-minute poetry recital performance at Club 31 in Mzuzu, where I asked those who came to the club by car to stay in their cars. It seemed to work, however the limitation is that this doesn’t give a chance to audience members without a car, who travel by bus or other public transport. We have yet to explore further on this kind of setup.

All the same, this is not the only way out. I’d love to hear further ideas from theatremakers around the world on how to cope with the pandemic in the world of theatre. If you have any suggestions or thoughts to share, comment below.

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