Every moment, ranging from the storyline to the costume, should essentially be a tiny pearl of good, coordinated taste.
Indeed, while stage-acting is supposed to be the dish the entire acting meal builds toward, every aspect in the production stage should be treated as vital.
However, this seems not to be the case in local theatre circles. As if bearing testimony to the fact that the country’s theatre industry is going through its gawky moment of adolescence, costume issues seem to be swept under the carpet, a reminder, yet again, that costume is not on the list of Malawi’s most pressing national challenges!
Consequently, supported neither by precedent nor creative improvisation, costume preferences continue to hinge on trial and error in Malawi’s theatre industry. So used is the audience to the apparent neglect of professional costume that it often does not show any hint of discontentment, save for the fact that lips of audience members seem to tremble with the ecstasy of anticipated laughter.
So long as the production crew dishes out a disciplined performance, it is as if the mind of the Malawian theatre-lover is stacked against costume designers on one hand while local production crews, on the other hand, seem not to be in the mood to lose themselves in costume issues.
But, in an ideal situation, is this normal?
University of Malawi (Unima) Drama lecturer, Smith Likongwe, says costume plays a crucial role in professional theatre.
“In professional theatre circles, there are special costume designers and costume makers. These are often hired part–time to fit specific productions so that they may also be available to other theatre companies. Another option in professional circles is the existence of agencies with costumes for hire.
“These agencies are often attached to theatre houses and may be owned by specific theatre companies. This is where relevant costumes are rented out for the duration of a run of a production, say, one month. There are specially designed costumes that are often required such as men’s suits, police, doctors and nurses uniforms and others,” observes Likongwe.
Seasoned actor, Mkwachi Mhango, echoes Likongwe’s sentiments.
Mkwachi, who has starred for Nanzikambe Arts and performed in countries such as Britain, says costume is an integral part of theatre worldwide, but Malawi seems not ready to embrace the specialist costume designer’s role.
“With my experience in the United Kingdom, I can say that our friends understand that costume plays a critical role in performing arts. Before production, they do check on costume and damaged costume is promptly replaced. You have costume specialists. So serious are they that you even have two or three sets of costume. Performers also have professional tailors who take all the measurements in the course of the production to ensure that the costume meets an individual performer’s specifications,” says Mkwachi.
Mkwachi adds: “Actually, production crews include the Technical Manager, who is responsible for issues such as sound; Costume Manager, who is in charge of costume; Stage Manager, who oversees costume arrangements on stage and works hand in hand with the costume manager, among others. The objective is to ensure a coordinated and professional production.”
However, Mkwachi observes that this is not the case in Malawi. He says local media practitioners have played a key role in perpetuating perceptions that costume is peripheral in theatrical performances.
“In Malawi, media practitioners think that theatre is kuvala zigamba [spotting rags], hence most people overlook the role of costume and I think the Zigamba [rags’ costume] mentality has played a part in this. Why should we always portray poverty in our productions? Does life in Malawi revolve around poverty?” wonders Mkwachi.
“Again, issues of costume, wardrobe, and stage management are not taken seriously in Malawi. Outside the country, everyone [including costume designers] understand their part but, in Malawi, most people don’t engage designers,” adds Mkwachi.
This is a challenge that has not escaped the attention of Solomonic Peacocks’ director, McArthur Matukuta.
“We need to have costume designers but this is not the case at the moment. We need people with the technical know-how but there is a gap at the moment. The positive thing about specialist costume designers is that they know where to get the materials, and how to get them. Every production requires tailor-made costume materials and that’s where they become handy,” says Matukuta.
Matukuta attributes current challenges to the lack of institutions specialising in the provision of education services on costume while meeting the demand for costume materials.
Indeed, there have been suggestions that lack of specialist costume specialists [individuals and institutions] in Malawi has also negatively affected the film industry. For example, award winning filmmaker Shemu Joyah is said to have compromised on costume in his award-winning film despite hiring costume experts from Zimbabwe.
“The problem is that there is no institution that provides education on costume. In Malawi, decisions on costume are made by the director of the production. So, we are not doing very well in this regard,” says Matukuta.
Searching for the costume designer’s place
Meanwhile, experts have expressed different views on the issue of the costume specialist’s place in local theatre.
Likongwe suggests, for instance, that, in order to survive, the costume specialists should not deposit their egg in the solitary nest of theatre.
Observes Likongwe: “The costume designer may not yet have a place in Malawian theatre unless they have other non-theatre related design-work to do. This is simply because the field is not big at the moment and the general economic situation in the country is not good enough. We should, however, be going in the direction where costume designers find a place in the theatre industry.“In Malawi there may not be costume specialists but there are certainly people that have been hired to design and make costumes at appropriate times. This is in rare cases though. Most groups just look for what is available within their physical and economic reach.”
He adds that, on their part, institutions of higher learning such as Chancellor College— a constituent college of Unima—incorporate aspects of costume.
“In drama programmes, we deal with costume design in the Directing courses. [But] There is no stand-alone course on costume design. We would have to work with colleagues from the Fine Art section of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts or work with the Department of Human Ecology.
“For example, I recently had one of my classes design masks that have been used in two of our most recent productions namely Tax Abortion and M’matsakamula. Th
“I am simply saying that the theatre industry is big and it needs other artisans like sculptors, painters, make-up artists, carpenters, tailors, electricians and others. So, yes, we cover the issue of costume design at Chancellor College. It is not outside the realm of theatre although it may be outside the scope of the actor.”
On his part, Mkwachi advises theatre groups to emulate the example of Nanzikambe Arts, which could be said to be the leading theatre group when it comes to spotting costume.
“Nanzikambe Arts might have benefitted from staging adaptations because costume issues are taken seriously there. At Nanzikambe, without which some of us would not have cultivated the knowledge we have, there are shelves of costumes while in other groups actors are just told their part and told to find the appropriate costume.
“Nanzikambe even has theatre money. This is not real money but plastic money which looks like the real Kwacha. We have special chemicals that are used on the stage when, in Malawi, actors use chalk, which is very dangerous. Chalk is bad”.
Mkwachi says this means prioritising costume is not a far-fetched dream for Malawi.
Matukuta cannot agree less.
“The industry needs costume specialists. Otherwise, our productions will remain compromised, costume-wise, because it’s very difficult [for laypersons] to decide on issues of costume. The costume institution should be a stand-alone organisation and should not be attached to any group. Such institutions are always stand-alone entities, after all,” says Matukuta.
Success will, however, largely depend on how theatre groups carry themselves. Sometimes, it could be argued, there is a lack of sympathy for the ‘troubled’ theatre groups due to the actors’ pretention that everything is okay in their usual unduly boisterous fashion.