Before the referendum that ushered in multiparty politics, drama was the best form of family entertainment on offer in the country, way before gospel shows became the order of the day.
Groups such as Du Chisiza’s Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre, Kwathu Drama Group, Umodzi Drama Group, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre, Upile Drama Group and many others attracted mammoth crowds to places such as the French Cultural Centre, Kudya Leisure Centre, Kamuzu Institute for Youth and numerous community centre halls spread across the country.
Theatre groups were also used in various health and agricultural campaigns during this time, which could be described as the era of theatre.
But save for Kwathu and Namzikambe Arts, which still command sizeable crowds, stage drama is sailing in troubling waters. Few drama groups are active and those that are active have to contend with dwindling numbers of patrons.
Nanzikambe Arts director Chris Nditani said the harsh economic environment is not conduncive for the survival of most drama groups in the country.
“For example a quarter page full colour advert was pegged at about K67 000 (about $159) in 2012 and now it is at K100 000 (about $239), now the question is; how many drama groups can survive under these tough economic conditions?” he asked.
Nditani is, however, optimistic of the future of stage drama, considering that Nanzikambe Arts performances are heavily patronised to the point that the group’s 350 capacity auditorium is yet to be extended to cater for those that stand during their performances.
Kwathu’s Erick Mabedi agrees that the high cost of living has taken its toll on most drama groups, a view shared by another member of the group, Charles Mphoka.
Said Mabedi: “We still command large crowds because our fans respect us. But for many groups, they just exist on paper because it is expensive to book an advert, a venue, pay for transport for a group of 12 artists to perform in Lilongwe and their accommodation.
“Drama is family entertainment and it is not easy for a family of five to part with K700 each in these tough economic times. Right now, we have to convince some patrons why they have to abandon watching a Manchester United/Liverpool match to watch drama. These are some of the challenges that we have to face.”
Mabedi said the closure of most community centres where they used to perform has not helped the cause of stage drama in the country, either.
Mphoka adds that one’s attendance of a drama performance varies from group to group.
“People want value for their money. You have to be really good to convince someone to come to your show because people avoid unnecessary expenditure in these difficult times,” said Mphoka.
He said lack of cultural policy is further pushing Malawian drama into the grave.
Associate professor at Fine and Performing Arts Department at Chancellor College Dr Mufunanji Magalasi said there is no research on whether drama patronage is going down. He, however, said drama might be competing with other forms of entertainment such as those offered by satellite and digital television.
“Instead of watching a drama performance, someone might opt to watch comedy central or some other channel on TV than physically go to a live drama performance. That, in a way, might affect patronage of drama,” he said.
Magalasi said with time, just like in all other art forms, people tend to lose interest in conventional art forms and it is the duty of Malawian dramatists to invent new forms of drama to maintain appeal to their audiences.
“I was in the United Kingdom and I happened to watch their drama performances and I noted that there is also low patronage in conventional drama, but high in new forms of the art such as musicals and others,” he observed.