Championing Theatre for Development in Malawian Villages

Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr.: Welcome to Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, in partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts space, creating a liberated space that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world. I am your host, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr., a producer, actor, director, prayer, and of course, a freelance journalist.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre, I interview established theatre artists from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in a modern world, define the problem, and find a better solution to sustain us in the generation of motion pictures. In this podcast, I lead the discussion with established performers, directors, writers who are exploring ways to greet these challenges while their works inspired the community.

In today’s episode, I’m with Vitumbiko Gwambaike Zgambo. Vitu Gwambaike Zgambo is a young theatre practitioner and holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities, majoring in drama. He’s competing his master’s degree in Theatre, Media Communication, and Development at University of Malawi. Vito starts his theatrical journey before joining the University of Malawi in 2012. He has been involved in several Umunthu performances as an actor and director. He has been on the ground championing the work of community civil awareness, and through theatre for development and working with Indigenousness and theatre practitioners.

International Alliance for Umunthu Theatre is a group of skilled theatre practitioners, actors, actresses, directors, and playwrights with expertise in state drama, theatre for development and participatory theatre and film. The Alliance for Umunthu Theatre, founded in 2006, thriving with the application of Umunthu lens as philosophy to interrogate and respond to social challenges human faces in their day-to-day lives. Umunthu committed to promote the Umunthu philosopher, promoting good healthy human rights and democracy by reducing inequalities, quality education, and promoting gender equality, and empowerment of the youth. Umunthu continues investigate new ways of storytelling and change-making through the arts. International Alliance for Umunthu Theatre is also involved in theatre for advocacy, filmmaking, and capacity building in the arts.

Welcome to this edition. Okay, first of all, who is Vitu?

Vitu Gwambaike Zgambo: Vitumbiko Gwambaike Zgambo is the last born son for Hamilton and Jess Zgambo. I’m coming from Mwazisi, Rumphi, but I was born and raised in Area 25, Lilongwe, yeah.

Fumbani: All right, so Vitumbiko Gwambaike is from the northern part of Malawi. Now people know Vitumbiko as a theatre artist. What’s the background of your theatre mainstream before you joined the academic center in Chancellor College?

Vitu: For me, unlike other theatre practitioners, I didn’t have a background of acting. I was introduced to theatre I think when I was waiting for my MSCE results. So, that’s when I was introduced to theatre, Nyamithambo with some friends, Wiseman and Fumbani. So, then I went to Chancellor College. That’s where my passion for theatre grew because I joined Chanco Traveling Theatre. So that’s where everything bloom.

Fumbani: Okay. So, there was a last edition. I was discussing with Inno Katz, and I was privy to mention your name because it is you, Wiseman Kazamira which studied theatre as with passion, not necessarily because of school, and you were the lucky one to be selected at Chancellor College to do drama. And through that we are getting some exploration. For example, me alone, I know theatre for development because of you. Now, you joined Chanco Travelling Theatre because you were at Chanco Travelling Theatre. What was the exploration like, the journey within the center of drama at Chanco Travelling Theatre?

Vitu: First of all, I would say I was not selected to do drama. I was selected to do humanities. So, drama was just part of one of the courses in the humanities faculty. So because of that background I had with drama, after… Well, when I got to Chancellor College, after I noted that I was selected to do humanities, in which drama was one of the subject; then I decided that I would do drama. So, I major into drama.

So, for Chanco Travelling Theatre, I think I was first to introduce to Chanco Travelling Theatre after my first year. So, after doing our last performance, last… end of year performance, Bright Chayachaya and Kelly, and the other guys spotted me. So, they invited me to go and join Chanco Travelling Theatre, so that’s where I went to Chanco Travelling Theatre.

So, basically for Chanco Travelling Theatre, it was more of stage drama. It was in more of a theatre for development. I think there was a certain project, I think it was sponsored by UNAIDS, where it was more of theatre for development, sort of. But for Chanco Travelling Theatre, most of it was straight drama.

Fumbani: Okay, it was straight drama. Yes. And way back we used to know Chanco Travelling Theatre as one of the theatregoers in Malawi, used to travel around Malawi doing some performances. And you were privileged to be one of the leaders in then at Chanco Travelling Theatre. What was your leadership and how did you manage to lead your fellow student, that time?

Vitu: So, for Chanco Travelling Theatre… I think one of the thing with Chanco Travelling Theatre is, I think, we didn’t do much considering the people, my previous people, my previous colleagues. And for me, we did much of straight drama. We could go out but not as required as Chanco Travelling Theatre, the traveling. I remember someone joked about it saying it’s now Chanco Basket Theatre because we don’t travel a lot.

Fumbani: All right.

Vitu: Yeah. But we did our part. We make it live. We had our performance and most of our performance were conducted on campus. And whenever there was a poster about Chanco Travelling Theatre, people knew that we were going to watch a good play.

Fumbani: There going to be fire.

Vitu: Yeah.

Fumbani: All right, okay. Now, through Chanco Travelling Theatre, you went out of the college, you started exploring theatre for development. You were a part of Mood Theatre, I can say. But right now, if we talk about Vitumbiko, it’s in the mainstream of theatre for development. You’re everywhere, each and every week it’s either you’re training some people to do theatre for development, it’s either you are participating in theatre for development itself. So, what inspired you to be in the mainstream of theatre for development?

Vitu: All right, so I was first introduced to theatre for development when I was in a second year. So, in the second year for drama students, if you are taking drama, there is a course for theatre for development in the second year. So, I was first for introduced to theatre for development through that course. But to be on the ground or on the theatre of development, it’s first, when I… Clayhome, there’s this organization, Clayhome. in Zomba, usually they were taking students—especially humanities and education students—who be their theatre for development troupe members. So I was luckily selected to be part of the troupe members. So, I was introduced to the practical, more practical theatre for development with Clayhome.

But I think it is Shelifa Brua, Dr. Shelifa Brua, she’s a lecturer at Chanco, teaching drama. It is through her where I learned a lot about theatre for development. So, Shelifa used to take us and my colleague when she has a project, so she used to take us. I remember the first project we had with her was in Phalombe, then we went to… I think if not Phalombe, it is in Pemba. I’m not sure, if not Phalombe, yeah, I think it was in Pemba, if not Ndirande. So, Shelifa really introduced me to theatre for development. She taught me a lot. I have lived a lot through Shelifa. So, actually she’s my idol, in terms of theatre for development. Yeah, she’s so good at it.

Theatre for development is still mainstream theatre, and it’s just that people don’t know that it’s happened. But if you go to the communities, you find a lot of organization are now into theatre for development.

Fumbani: Now, so you were introduced into theatre for development and you didn’t stop. And from there we could see you several projects comparing with others because I was expecting to see Gwamba into the mainstream theatre and we were talking about the passion that we started before you joined University of Malawi Chancellor College. We were hoping that we will see Gwamba in most of the production. Of course, it was about two years ago, we saw you in the last mainstream production, Sometimes in July. That was the last performance we saw you on stage. But if we are going to watch Gwamba, we need to follow you wherever you’re going to the community. You’re going to do theatre for development.

What is happening? Are you feeling something like there’s a gap between commercial shows and theatre for development, or you’re comfortable doing theatre for development?

Vitu: For now, I’m comfortable doing theatre for development. I miss stage, I think I’ll come back to—

Fumbani: Commercial shows.

Vitu: Yeah, soon. I think we are waiting on… again, we are waiting on this long leave of… So, I think I’ll come back on stage, as you call mainstream theatre, which I don’t think is true because theatre for development is still mainstream theatre, and it’s just that people don’t know that it’s happened. But if you go to the communities, you find a lot of organization are now into theatre for development. So, for now, I can say I’m full time into theatre for development. I do consultancy with a lot of organizations. Actually even my work, I work… My workplace is, I’m employed as a theatre for development practitioner. So yeah, for now it’s about community theatre.

Fumbani: Now, so you pointed, you say people should know that theatre for development is also mainstream theatre. People paint it theatre for devolvement because without money or funding, people cannot do theatre for development. Theatre for development is being done unless there is a call for an organization to conduct theatre for development, and there is a funding which is comparing to mainstream theatre, commercial theatre, you can design it without funding and you proper making some marketing stuff and stuff. What do you think?

Vitu: I think that’s a lie because for me, I have trained… I can give you an example, I have trained… There’s a certain drama club in Phalombe. I trained that drama club in 2016. Yeah, in 2016. So, after our project, the drama club still remain intact. Even now if you go to Phalombe, you find them. They are still doing drama. The project came. They find them; they’ll leave them. But they still continuing doing drama without even money from donors. So, if people, like the drama clubs, are equipped with the skills, theatre for development skills, they still continue doing the performances.

In regards, for example, that one, it was issued to do with, I think it was about… the project was funded by World Food program. So, it was more food diversity. It was also issue to do with hygiene, water and hygiene. But if you go there now, you’ll find they do plays like theatre for development plays on cholera, even the COVID-19. Yeah, I went there. Listen, I find them, they’re still doing plays without sponsors. So, it’s not about issues to do with sponsors. For you, the guys for mainstream, you only depend on… You cannot say that you don’t depend on donors.

Fumbani: We depend on the get collections.

Vitu: Get collection. It’s money, too. But if you go into the villages, like into… deep into the villages, you’ll find people doing theatre for development. There have been twenty groups, theatre for development. You’ll find them doing the theatre for development for free, just to help their communities. So, I think it’s about passion, yeah.

Even you in the mainstream, if you have passion, because I don’t think you get a lot of money in the mainstream. It’s just about passion. Yeah, it’s about passion. If you have passion, you go on stage, you do your plays. Exactly, that is what happened to the local community, local community drama club. They’re doing the plays without even having sponsors.

Fumbani: So, you have trained several actors and actresses into theatre for development. And also, you have collaborated with some CBOs in the community, community drama groups. What was the experience like? How did you manage to come up with those clubs, or interact with those clubs, and comparing to those ones who already have the experience and you want to impact skills of theatre in development?

Vitu: I think it depends in a way because when you go to the community, the community members—unlike people who you are saying that—they have already have skills in theatre. Like the town people, I can say… Unlike the people in the village, the people in the village, they are so eager to learn. When you go there, they see someone coming from outside want to teach them something. So, they are so eager to learn, unlike people from this town, because they think they already know theatre. So, they thought theatre for development, it’s just something which they already know. But if you see them doing it, it’s trash actually. They don’t know a lot of things about theatre for development. But because of their ego, they act like they know anything. But if you go to the villages, people expect us. So, they want to learn. If you go there, they want to learn from us. As such, I can say, deep in the community, the drama clubs, they perform a bit more better than the drama clubs like from the town people. In terms of theatre for development, I can say so.

If I go to a community, I try my best to blend in so that the community member should feel like I’m one of them.

Fumbani: Okay, so it has been very successful for you to train a lot of youngsters into theatre for development. And most of the communities, they’re doing theatre for development and basically they already have the audience there, comparing to what we call commercial theatre. Now, do you think theatre for development has a space in promoting theatre in Malawi?

Vitu: Yes, it does. As you have said, in the communities, in the local communities, it’s rare to have a state performance where people can pay. It’s so rare, I don’t think it happens. Even you, you are in the mainstream theatre, you only depend in towns. So, those people in the village, if they want to see a performance, it’s either, there is a comedy, there’s certain activities. People are doing comedy or theatre for development.

So to them, theatre, it’s theatre for development because that’s what they see. So, it’s true theatre for development, it really pushes theatre in the community. So, I think we should not disregard that it’s not promoting theatre, but it is actually promoting theatre in the communities.

Fumbani: Actually, it’s the only type of theatre which is surviving in Malawi. Yes, as you can say, most of the theatre groups even in… Yeah, those ones in town, they’re depending to do theatre for development somewhere. And they are also applying for fund to do community theatre because community theatre, even organization, there’s already audience. There’s already the mass for you to disseminate the information to the community. And let me be open here, almost each and every theatre here in town is expecting to receive fund from a certain donor to do community theatre.

Now, what are the steps for you to do theatre for development, to do maybe different to others? What’s the secret ingredient do you put in how to create that performance to championing those community?

Vitu: I think first of all, is to do with rapport. How do you present to yourself to the drama club members or the community or… you are training? If I go to a community, I try my best to blend in so that the community member should feel like I’m one of them. So, if you go, you build a good rapport with them, it’s easy because training people, it’s more like… Okay, if you are giving them attitude, they’ll give you attitude. So, when you are training people who have that ego or attitude, I think it’s making hard for yourself. It’s just making things hard for yourself. So, I think my best apologies, I think I have a good rapport, because I have made a lot of friends in the community. Even if now, if I can just go—

Fumbani: And stay at the local—

Vitu: And stay at the local community, people who welcome me, because of that, a good rapport. So, I think that’s my secret. I make sure when I’m training people, I should bring that rapport to them, so that we should mingle and do the training. It works easy if you are, you have built a good rapport with the people.

Fumbani: And another lesson from theatre for development is automatically, it has a lot of audience because it’s in a native language. Do you think if you can borrow that leaf from community theatre performances into mainstream commercial shows, to use most of our shows using our native language? Do you think we can revamp the audience we lose sometimes back? We can generate more audience?

Vitu: Yes, most of this straight plays you do, mostly they are in English, but… Okay, few directors I can say really brings out emotions into actors during these straight plays. Emotions play great part in theatre. So, it’s easy to bring emotion when you are doing in Chichewa. For example, Chanco Travelling Theatre, Chanco Travelling Theatre used to do English plays, only English play. They changed and started doing Chichewa play after they experienced… after their experience in Mbalachanda, I think, so during their first theatre for development performance. So, they thought, “Ah, I think we are losing it. I think we can go back to Chichewa.” And I think if I’m not mistaken, their first play was Mchira wa Buluzi.

Fumbani: Yeah, Mchira wa Buluzi, yeah.

Vitu: Yeah, that was their first Chichewa production.

Fumbani: In fact, Mchira wa Buluzi was written in English—

Vitu: In English, yeah.

Fumbani: Then translated in Chichewa.

Vitu: That was their first Chichewa production. Zindaba, I think Zindaba Chisiza told me when I was doing my undergraduate, he told me that it is difficult to bring out emotions in English, in English plays. I agree because in Chichewa, it flows naturally, it flows naturally. I think Chichewa plays are good, are good, and it flows natural. I think you should watch Zindaba perform Zindaba plays. He doesn’t do plays… in most ways, he doesn’t do plays in—

Fumbani: Most of the English productions, most of the actors, they do mechanic acting. They borrow the idea how the director works, how the director talks—

Vitu: that’s it actually.

Fumbani: Because the English is like… it squeeze their frequency.

Vitu: Yeah, their abilities.

Fumbani: Vocal code and stuff. And the Chichewa plays, I think they’ll be the one every Malawian would like to watch.

Vitu: Yeah, English limits your loveability. It limits your loveability. If you’re doing a Chichewa play, you’ll be more flexible. Have you noted that most of the English plays, most of the actors, the way they’re taught, their voices, even the alteration of words are all the same?

Fumbani: Yeah.

Vitu: Even if they’re taking different ones, they’re all the same because they fall in a certain style. But in Chichewa, everyone here will be flexible to talk the way they want to talk.

Fumbani: Yeah, for sure, for sure.

Drama, it really, especially in the so-called mainstream theatre, it really doesn’t give you a lot of money. It’s few people who are surviving.

Now, jumping from there, the language itself is very important and you use language to disseminate information, and the very same time, the very same language also assist you for communication and the behavior change. And theatre for development, you deal with issues of education. You deal with issues of behavior, communication. And this issues of behavior change, does it play a lot of part in how you deliver the message, the audience?

Vitu: Okay. So, basically theatre for development, it’s a… as you have said, it’s more want to change the behavior or the community on a certain issue. So, first of all, I think we make sure that the people or the audience realize that there is a problem. After realizing that there is a problem, they should see themself in a mirror, that I think we are doing wrong. “Okay, I was doing wrong, so what I can do to change the situation?” So, that’s when they start deliberating. The audience will start deliberating and coming up with a solution to change their attitudes basically, on a certain issue. So, I think the discussion during the performance, it’s what really drive the people to change.

Fumbani: Right, okay. In some few steps, can you try to assist me? I as a mainstream director, from commercial shows, I’ve done theatre for development, but not like you. You are mostly into it.

People says most of the interactions or students who graduate from University of Malawi who are doing drama, 99 percent, they’re not doing drama right now. Why are you?

Vitu: Okay, I should start answering the first question. I think yes, it’s true. A lot of people who did drama, they’re not doing drama. Actually, for now, they’re not doing drama. I think it’s an issue to do with money. Drama, it really, especially in the so-called mainstream theatre, it really doesn’t give you a lot of money. It’s few people who are surviving. It’s few. Very few people who are surviving, benefiting from stage drama and feeding their family. So, when you are… After graduating, you have a lot of responsibility. People from your home started saying, “Hey, so are you earning?”

Fumbani: You are done with school.

Vitu: You are done with schools where they’re expecting you to help them, to help your siblings to go to school. So, you have to choose. It’s either money, you can go to the bank and have a lot of money, or you being on stage still sticking to the theatre, but it did not give you money. So even you, where are you going to choose? You go for the money. So yeah, people are not in theatre because of money issues. If theatre could start bringing out money, I think we have a lot of graduate in mainstream theatre.

As for me, I think one of the issue, one the reason I’m still in theatre, I think it’s about issue of passion. And I can’t lie, at least it’s giving me something. Yeah, it’s still giving me something.

Fumbani: It’s like you have your own channels or creating money.

Vitu: Yeah. I used theatre to pay rent, for drinks, and other things. So yeah, for me, I think I still get money using theatre for development, so yeah.

Fumbani: All right, okay. So, what do you think is the problem, why theatre is not generating money? Or it’s generating the least amount of money? Because when you say least amount of money, it’s like you are surviving because of theatre. I am surviving because of theatre. It’s because of passion we have and we are able to survive in this stream. What do you think is the problem, Malawi theatre is failing to generate the audience? It’s failing to generate money?

Vitu: I think it’s a issue to do with modernization in a way. One of the reason is to do with modernization. Nowadays, we have TVs, radios, TVs—especially TVs. People play their TV. They stay home and watch TVs. When they think of them going out to a performance, they’ll just watch it. So, they’ll just think, “Maybe we should watch a CD.”

So, I think it’s issue with modernization and another issue. It’s a lot of production. At least now, I can see more advertising. People are doing adverts for their performance, which is good. At least people should know that there is a performance somewhere.

So, I think we should do more good plays. Let’s convince the people that they should be coming to our performances. Yeah, because for me, if I’ve got a performance and I saw the performance I rate it as wark, I will not go to another performance, I’ll just… I’ll choose to be home and watch football or other things. So, I think it’s also an issue to do with… People are doing quality plays. I’m not saying people are not doing quality productions. People are doing quality production. If you go to watch some of the plays, that are being toured in Malawi, you see that people are doing quality plays. But I think we need to strive more to do more performances, quality performances, yeah.

Fumbani: Yeah, okay. Currently you’re doing masters, majoring in drama, I can say. And what do you think the institution can also work it out, find the main problem and trying to modernize the theatre, or trying to focus how theatre can survive in a modern world?

Vitu: I think what Chancellor College is doing now, their Sula project, I think it’s very good because for the Sula, those people who go to the Sula training, they are people who have passion in that. So, if we train those guys, because most of those guys are the one who are active in theatre performing, so I think we should continue doing that. Let’s train more people who have passionate in theatre so that they can do the performance, quality performances. Yeah, so I think that’s one good thing that Chanco has done, to make sure that theatre or the other art forms, are still performing.

Fumbani: Yeah, and I was part of the Sula. I was also invited to be one of trainers as expert from the industry. What I loved was how they incorporated the expert from the industry to be part of the training, to train those Indigenous. Like you said, you must have went to the community and you find guys with passion to do drama and they’re still doing drama in the community, disseminate information without or with funding. And is that not a good point for the institution like University of Malawi, apart from the Sula project, introduce a full-time program for two years, like a diploma, for these Indigenous artists who has the passion, not necessarily they should qualify coming from the secondary schools, but with the passion to train them for two years to get a diploma?

Maybe with this mindset, it can also contribute a lot to the community because we are having a gap. For example, how you find an Indigenous artist who knows how… who has the talent. He needs a skill from you. You went there and give them the skill for theatre for development. What if a lot of them, they’re trained in that way in Malawi? Are we not going to have more of quality performances? Chichewa quality performances, I can say.

Vitu: I think that it’s an issue to do with the institution, basically, because I think every institution, it has their standard. Okay, if you are going to go to Chanco, they have their standard there. For example, if you want them to offer you a diploma, there’s diploma questions, I think. They have their standard, which is basically the MSCE. I think it’ll be difficult for them to adapt, let’s say, to take people for two years without MSCE. I don’t think it would be possible soon, but I think the training, those… Okay, the training, they can just at least have maybe a month training, so people should go…. I think people can learn a lot within a month. So, it should be continuous. Maybe for someone, they can go this year and go another year, they can be refreshed and given new ideas in terms of theatre. So, I think continuing with the training programs, I think it’ll be better for now because the way I know that college… it will be flexible to go train someone for two years without an MSCE, I think it’ll be very difficult.

Fumbani: Right. Vitumbiko Gwambaike, it was nice having you in this program.

Vitu: Thank you.

Fumbani: Dear listeners, until next time, goodbye.

Thank you so much for having a chew with us. This has been another episode of Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre. I was your host, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr. If you’re looking forward to connect with me, you can email me at [email protected]

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