Audience Behavior in the West and Africa

When I performed at Theater Konstanz in Germany and in Galway, Ireland the audience behavior was as Kate has described. The audience sat quietly throughout the whole performance of Tales of a Migrant. There were a few short, controlled laughs in certain moments. There was, however, heavy clapping at the end of the show. We had just performed the play in Malawi before the European tour, and it had attracted huge comments, laughter and clapping during the performance. This behavior of Malawian audiences is akin to what Kate has read about English audiences in Shakespeare’s day, when his company performed in outdoor spaces. Kate’s theory is that things changed when theater moved inside and evening performances became possible with the advent of stage lighting. With the focus so much on the stage and the audience in darkness, people felt that they were not really an active part of the experience, and there just to watch. Over time, they became much quieter and passive.

Participation is not an option in Malawi.

Thokozani Kapiri, a Malawian theater Practitioner and academic who performed Tales of a Migrant with me, spoke to me about why why most theater going audiences in Africa are participatory. Kapiri holds the view that artistic performance has a special effect of audience interaction in southern Africa. A performance, even of theater, is organically generated as an interactive form of art where performers and spectators interact with one another in a two-way communication system without any written code of conduct. He points out that it is similar to oral literature in which the storyteller shares a story the audience already knows. In such a situation, the audience sings songs and joins in telling the story. That tradition, he says, has stayed on, even with the emergence of conventional Western forms of theater that use the proscenium stage. The Western theater in Africa, he said, has had to accept this element inherent in performance forms of art in Africa. “Participation is not an option in Malawi, he said, “and no actor should be perturbed but rather embrace that as a major part of viewing performance among African audiences.”

In 2016, British theater director and academic Amy Bonsall worked with Mzuzu University and Nanzikambe Arts actors all from Malawi in a Chichewa version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was translated by Malawian writer Onjezani Kenani. The play was staged at Mzuzu University and in the central region of Malawi, in a rural community at Chief Mankhamba headquarters. The play received standing ovations and clapping during the performance. During the performance at the chief’s headquarters, one could hear chiefs relating the behavior of Juliet to many other girls who don’t obey their fathers. Amy had previously taken a similar version of the play to Stratford-upon-Avon with Bilimankhwe Arts. I was privileged to be in the cast in both Britain and Malawi. The differences in audience behavior were remarkable. In Britain, it was all quiet with a controlled laughter here and there and heavy applause at the end of the show. Those performing for the first time in Europe were a bit disturbed with the quietness, despite being informed about performance behavior in the Western world.

When I told a few student actors from the United States at Virginia Tech about audience behavior in Malawi as explained in this essay, I got mixed responses. Some felt that audience behavior in Africa would confuse them a bit in certain moments, while others felt that they would really enjoy performing to such an audience.

As I said earlier, I am not giving directions on what to do. Rather, my aim is to collect examples and generate thoughts on cross-cultural theater collaborations. There has been little research and little writing on culturally-specific audience behavior, and schools and many training institutions focus little on audience behavior. Perhaps this is why sometimes you have good directors and performers thrown off balance when working in an unfamiliar audience environments.

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