She launched Nanzikambe Arts in 2003, staged a couple of plays with the theatre outfit and, thereafter, left for UK. Now, after being away for more than six years, she is back on the Malawi theatre scene with yet another production. In this interview, Arts Editor TEMWANI MGUNDA engages KATE STAFFORD on her latest play and other related issues.
You are currently rehearsing with Nanzikambe Arts a play based on Jack Mapanje's recently published memoirs titled 'And The Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night'. What made you opt for Mapanje's memoirs and turn them into a play and what do you intend to achieve by staging this production?
An interesting question! I have been working with Jack Mapanje for some time now – I first met him here in Malawi when he came to do some poetry readings at the invitation of the British Council. I was enthralled by his readings; his poetry seemed so angry and alive. He himself was strangely lacking in bitterness, an entertaining man with such intelligence and humour I was hooked.
When I arrived back in the UK from Malawi in 2005, I contacted him and began a long process of collaboration. This started with my show in London, 'After Mikuyu', in 2006. I brought six actors from Malawi: Brave Mnyayi, Thlupego Chisiza, Olive Kabanga, Basimenye Mwalwanda (now Nhlema), Mbumba Mbewe and Angella Ching'amba, and they worked with three highly skilled British performers and a physical theatre director to produce a short piece exploring Jack's poetry. This was a sell out, and resulted in my company Bilimankhwe Arts commissioning Professor Mapanje to write a new play, which he is still working on.
When his memoir came out, I was contacted by James Gibbs, an old friend and colleague of Jack's from Chancellor College, who suggested I adapt it for the stage. He was right of course – this book is perfect for a stage adaptation, and has all the elements needed for theatre. In addition to that, this is an extremely good time for Malawians to reflect on their recent history; it will also help Malawians to put the future and the present into its rightful context and prevent a recurrence of what happened during the one-party era. There has been no 'truth and reconcilliation' here since the fall of that regime – those responsible for keeping it going in its last days are still around, still powerful and have not been brought to account.
As for what I intend to achieve – I am hoping to spark a lively debate!
When is the play expected to be launched and what should the audience expect? Is the play going to tour Malawi?
The play will be launched during the first weekend in March. There will be performances on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of March at the Nanzikambe Theatre Space in Blantyre's township of Naperi. As for future performances – I'm not sure where Nanzikambe is expecting to take the play within Malawi, but we have been invited by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to perform in the UK at the end of July. The event is a day during the poetry festival in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which is Shakespeare's birthplace. It is being curetted by Amnesty International, who played a big role in publicising Jack Mapanje's imprisonment without trial, and they have invited him to speak about his memoir, along with some other famous artists. Our performance will form the second half of the evening.
This play will be lively, humorous, tragic, moving and entertaining - there is music, poetry and drama. So the audience can expect a roller-coaster experience!
It appears you have great passion for Malawi theatre. How do you compare the standards of drama in Malawi from where you come from in the UK?
Of course, I have been away from Malawi for the past few years, so I'm not directly aware of how theatre is developing. But I can say that there is a great passion for theatre and there are artists trying hard to produce high-quality work. There are many similarities to the UK, in that artists struggle to find the funds necessary to produce theatre. The difference is that in the UK there is a national Arts Council who are given funding by government and whose job it is to support arts organisations in their work. Here there is no public funding so the struggle is greater.
I believe that the government could really help to develop the arts in Malawi by allowing the ex-FCC [French Cultural Centre] to be used by Arts Organisations. They could easily offer a lease on the buildings at 'peppercorn' rent and invite tenders from organisations who feel they have the capacity to run a National Arts Facility. Having a performance space, rehearsal facility, offices and visual arts gallery all under one roof would go a long way towards developing the arts in Malawi. Of course, I realise that there is no money in Malawi for anything at the moment – but this would cost the government nothing, and would make an immense difference to arts and culture.
I understand you are the one who established Nanzikambe Arts. Tell me briefly what made you come up with the idea of launching the theatre group and what are its achievements so far?
I formed Nanzikambe Arts in 2003 with a production of 'The African Hamlet' which I directed, starring Emmanuel Maliro, late Samuel Brown Kuseka and Baba Twaya Sanudi, among others. I started it with a small grant from St Andrew's International High School; the British Council supported us by providing posters and transport so that we could tour to Lilongwe.
In those days it was hand-to-mouth as we had no funding. The idea was sparked by the head of drama at the High School who phoned Story Workshop, where I was working at the time. She was looking for a show for her students to review. To cut a long story short, Smith Likongwe found me some actors, and that's how it started. We continued with 'African Macbeth', funded by the British Council, which toured Malawi and went to Harare where it was a sell out at HIFA [Harare International Festival for the Arts]. The rest, as they say, is history!
My intention [for founding Nanzikambe Arts] was that the organisation should be Malawian-led, and sustainable long after I had left the country. Thankfully, I can say that this is now the case; Chris Nditani [current Managing Director for the group] is doing a wonderful job of leading the organisation into the future, and it is growing all the time. The extremely able and talented senior management team and board members are all Malawian and the organisation has never been stronger.
As for the achievements of the organisation to date, I will direct you to Chris [Nditani], who is far more qualified than I to discuss that subject – after all, I have been living in the UK for more than six years now!
And you presently own and operate Bilimankhwe Arts in UK. What is it all about? Is it a sister theatre outfit to Malawi's Nanzikambe Arts considering both have vernacular names that mean chameleon in English?
That's right. I set up Bilimankhwe Arts as a sister organisation to Nanzikambe Arts, which is why I am now back collaborating with my brother chameleons. I also operate a youth theatre in the UK, and have collaborated with another inter-cultural theatre company based in London, Border Crossings, helping them to organise a production of a Ghanaian play featuring members of the National Theatre of Ghana.
Finally, who is Kate Stafford?
What a big question! I am just an artist, the same as my fellows at Nanzikambe Arts. I have a passion for theatre and love both making it and watching it.