Monday, February 3, 2014

Threatre Development in Malawi

...Is progress being made?

Theatre, broadly defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Seventh edition) as the work of writing, producing and acting in plays, is a giant mirror: continually reflecting the dynamic spirit of a nation.

It is a double-edged sword because either its is shaped by political, social, cultural, religious, economic contexts (as people compress their experiences into plays), or shapes political, cultural, social, religious, economic discourse (when big minds pack individual and collective aspirations, hopes and dreams into simple packages of plays.

Whether theatre shapes or is shaped, it still strikes us in varying degrees- driving us into requisite action.

This is the reality English theatre maestro, the late Du Chisiza Jnr., grasped when he thronged the then narrow Isthmus of local theatre-bringing acting to a summit many now struggle to climb-reach. His highly entertaining and educative plays invoked both happiness and sadness in us, introducing us to that other world lived by the minds.

That is the power of theatre: It enables us to live in two real worlds- the mind, and the ground. Most often, the mind-world guides us to the ground, as in cases where we begin to apply hopes raised in plays in real life. Actors and producers have employed this tool successfully in politics.

By talking about a free world in a dictatorship, for instance, they strike a human chord that longs for democracy. A case in point could be Germany, where Johann Herder had advanced the notion of volkgeist(or national soul). By this, he meant a consciousness that produced a particular language in art, culture, particular forms of thinking,customs and traditions.

It did not come as a surprise, therefore, when stirrings of nationalism begun to manifest themselves in activities of the middle classes, the gently, and educated elite- a sure sign that creative writing, just like all forms of writing, can be a powerful means of establishing national identity.

All the playwright does is create thought-provoking lines and make the characters more believable while, at the same time, confronting life’s challenges and problems. That happens when theatre becomes a forum for social critiquing. Some use it to turn into iconoclasts (that is, smashers of accepted ideas and norms).

Power so real that suspicious authorities hate it. That explains why other countries have tried, over the years, to suppress theatre performances, a good case in point being in Victorian England.

The Licensing Act of 1737 restricted the performance of ‘straight plays’ to specific companies (in this case, Covent Garden and Drury Lane), a development so damaging to the future of drama at the time.

It was a disguised blessing.

Theatre did not die. Instead, other forms of theatrical entertainment emerged. These include melo-drama. The phrase means ‘music drama’, but has come to mean a story, play or novel that is full of exciting events and in which the characters and emotions are too exaggerated to be real.

Other new-borns were harlequinade- an amusing character in some traditional (British)
plays, who wears special brightly coloured clothes with a diamond pattern; opera, a dramatic work in which all or most of the words are sung to music; pantomime- a type of play with music, dancing and jokes, that is based on a fairly tale and is usually performed at Christmas; burletta- a name given to a play which included at least
five songs in each act, which satisfied it to be called an opera.

Today, we might call it a musical.

Then, there was burlesque- a parody of the plays that, after the 1737’s Licensing Act which restricted the performance of ‘straight plays’, were authorized by rulers. Harlequinade, adapted from the Italian commedia dell’arte and originally a short drolley at the end of the main play, also became part of the theatre entertainment dish-later evolving into pantomime as we know it today, according to the
Hulton Drama series’ book on ‘The Victorian Scene’.

When the Theatres Act of 1843 at last abolished the situation which had, in essence, prevailed since 1660 (whereby only two theatres, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, were licensed to perform ‘straight’ plays) the other forms of ‘disguise’ theatre did not die; they spiced up performances.

Theatre thus developed, both in terms of quality of plays and infrastructure, and continues to shape people’s perceptions. It also continues to act as a vehicle that takes us to the future unexplored, offering us sweet sensations about worlds we may not be there to see and live.

It is this make-believe sensation that convinced McArthur Matukuta, president of the Theatre Association of Malawi, that here (in theatre) lay the real path towards sustainable social-economic development.

“Theatre can change lives when used effectively as a vehicle for positive living and change,” Matukuta ventures, as if it were the beginning of an old play that is theatre development in Malawi.

Used properly, this art form can become a big employer- filling players’ (actors, play wrights, costume manufacturers, venue owners, producers, among others) pockets with financial resources necessary for self, and national, development.

That is supposed to be the norm, in real sense; not for Malawi.

Players in the (should we say?) industry continue to live hand-to-mouth lives, supplementing what should have been a self-sustaining way of life with petty, piece work.

Matukuta acknowledges that local theatre may not have faced challenges of the magnitude faced in, say, Victorian times, but concedes that Malawi has been facing ideological challenges, challenges that have spilled into a near-disaster.

“We don’t have the infrastructure, lack resources,” he said.

While heaps of one party regimes, self-censorship, prohibitive laws, educational systems centred on ‘serious’ vocations, among others, almost conspired to thwart theatre development in other countries, Malawi has been lucky because even the mighty spirit of the one party regime left theatre largely unscathed.

That is why the likes of Du flourished. What a coincidence that the ‘afternoon’ of the one party regime, between 1993 and 1994, was also the morning of the flower that is theatre: Du rode the back of his theatre ground to propagate political messages. To others, it was just a coincidence; to many, a statement.

A farewell statement to local theatre for all the years spent harmoniously together. At least, there were no major obstacles to its development since independence.

Theatre has walked a fairly paved road, albeit without tangible development.

It is a sad tale for the country’s theatre industry.

“It, really, is a headache for us. For theatre to leave an indelible mark on national development, we need to progress,” said Matukuta.

The country has witnessed a proliferation of theatre groups, many of which explore everyday issues to drive points home. While the lot grazes where Chichewa grass reigns, some have ventured into the valley where the late Du, Gertrude Kamkwatira trod: English plays.

Solomonic Peacocks, Emancipation Theatrical Ensemble, Wanna Do (though lately dormant) make familiar sounds. Of these, some fuse harlequin, pantomime, opera, burlesque, burletta into their acts without knowing it.

While one is about to believe that theatre has been there long enough to develop a local touch, it is disheartening to note that most of our actors, play wrights and producers churn out novice products, observes theatre-goer Jonathan Banda.

“It’s clear that some of our actors, actresses and producers are in theatre for money; otherwise, their efforts leave a lot to be desired. Literally,” said Banda.

Of course, there are plays that are more remembered for their sparkling witty dialogue than literally works, but people sometimes go far with their criticism, said Matukuta.

He says theatre in Malawi has not always been about slow development; there were successes far between, albeit scattered and remote. This explains why his association has adopted a philosophical approach.

Successes, once scattered, are difficult to consolidate So Matukuta and fellow executive members have embarked on a national capacity building tour in a bid to tune and prepare the mind for success.

Matukuta feels that the best way out is through capacity building. A form of ‘deal-with-the-mind, infrastructure-later’ strategy. Between June and July this year (something he says will continue through out 2010), Matukuta has been busy crisscrossing the country on this tour of the ‘mind’.

“We are taking theatre to the grass-roots level. We have already been to Karonga, Kasungu, Nkhotakota, Zomba. We are targeting all the three regions. We are also happy that the Department of Culture’s Strategic Plan, established a couple of years ago, provides for the establishment of infrastructure for theatre performances,” said

The plan also envisages the establishment of a multi-purpose cultural centre.

Matukuta said Malawians should also be happy with progress made in bringing the reality of an amphitheatre to Karonga.

“Things look promising. However, challenges such as scarcity of venues and high publicity costs (advertisements) threaten progress,” said Matukuta.

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