Theatre remains one of the popular sectors of arts which is widely used as medium for promoting both social and economic development. Dramatists use theatre to entertain and, at the same time, to make ends meet through gate collections from performances.
Aside that, theatre is a powerful tool for advocating change. Both government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been known to use theatre to advocate for change on issues of national importance. For example, dramatics were heavily used by both politicians and NGOs in 2014 to convince voters to take part in the Malawi’s first tripartite elections.
However, despite their busy schedules in 2014, there has been a notable decline in the industry, with low performances, including the release of plays, particularly by English drama groups.
Kwathu Drama Group is the country’s popular theatre group which has been enjoying massive patronage and publicity for many decades. But, founding member Eric Mabedi, otherwise popularly known as Jacobo, admits the slump.
Mabedi said: “As for Kwathu Drama Group, I must admit that 2015 was not a very active year for us both in terms of stage and play production. We only released one play Aneneli as compared to 2014 when we staged four plays. It has really been a great challenge for us to maintain the bar that we set in 2014.”
He said this was compounded by the illness of his colleague John Nyanga aka Izeki, among other impediments that contributed to the group’s inactiveness.
He said: “As you are aware that both my colleague Izeki and myeslef fell sick late last year and late this year so this contributed negatively to our performance in 2015. But our fans should not lose heart because next year we are coming bigger and better.”
Apart from staging performances at platforms such as Blantyre Arts Festival (BAF), a majority of drama groups, including solo dramatists, were nowhere to be seen on stage last year.
The likes of Nanzikambe Arts, Solomonic Peacocks, Thlupego Chisiza and his Lions Theatre and Max DC used to make headlines in theatrical circles.
But 2015 seemed to be a bad year for them if their non-performances are anything to go by.
But Solomonic Peacocks director MacArthur Matukuta attributes the situation to long-standing challenges that haunt the theatre industry in Malawi.
He said: “There was no new or emerging problem, but the usual challenges that are there. It’s a song that we have been singing for years on end and it has now just become a prolonged chorus. There are no proper and affordable venues out there. People nowadays associate themselves with decent things. So, clinging to dilapidated venues such as the Blantyre Cultural Centre does not do us any good.”
According to Matukuta, the lack of finances to put up a good drama performance, with the expectation of good returns, is another serious challenge faced by many drama groups.
He said: “To put up a performance is an expensive venture, which is why we have been pleading with companies to shoulder the costs like what they do with other drama groups.”
Mphundu Mjumira of Nanzikambe Arts echoes Matukuta’s sentiments, saying venues are a big let down when it comes to drama.
He said: “For Nanzikambe Arts, it has been a real challenge since we moved out of Naperi where we used to have our own venue. Despite this, 2015 has been a fruitful year in which we have contributed a lot to society. For example, we worked with the Burns Unit at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital to raise awareness and trying to reduce deaths caused by fire accidents through theatre performances.”
According to Mjumira, Nanzikambe produced three plays in 2015, including bringing to life George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, with which they toured Europe and will continue performing this year.
However, Chancellor College associate professor of drama Mufunanji Magalasi says drama has slumped due to a number of factors, including high production and marketing.
Magalasi said: “There are two possibilities: one, that drama groups are preoccupied with theatre for development [TFD], which is easier money than performing for gate takings. And, two, there is no invigoration of theatre activities. Theatre has gone on the slump, due to high production and marketing costs.”