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A new breeze

By: Nguy Ha Posted: December-03-2009 in
Nguy Ha

“If I have tourist friends come to visit me, I always have to take them to see the water puppets; that’s all I can do. But they don’t really understand what’s going on. Now I can take them to something like this. It is such a wonderful opportunity for tourists to gain an understanding of Vietnamese culture. The play is hilarious, funny and they can understand what happening, without having someone Vietnamese to explain the concept or what the story about. The story is very basic, very simple, and very comic,” says expatriate Dermot Hegarty says after watching the “Perform to the world 2” performed in English at the Youth Theatre, Ngo Thi Nham, Hanoi.

Visitors and expats alike have for years wanted to enjoy and emerge themselves in local culture, but the language barrier and lack of engagement by Vietnamese cultural and tourism authorities have made it next to impossible – at least if you don’t speak Vietnamese. Instead, foreign visitors have been corralled into visiting the highly visual water puppet performances – yet even they come without any foreign language interpretation, context or in depth introduction. It seems that one is only expected to visit the water puppets just the once, as the performances remain unchanged throughout the year, and the explanations about what is happening on the stage remains equally opaque. Original and unique cultural and performance arts such as tuong (classical drama), cheo (traditional opera) or hat boi (traditional folksong) remain tantalizingly attractive to foreign visitors, yet without any foreign language description or context, the performances remain mysterious, incomprehensible and a matter of idle curiosity, rather than a valid entertainment option. Even the most devoted culture vulture may be put off after an initial visit, as despite the attractive nature of traditional arts; there remains the fundamental language barrier, which means that although body language can convey much, a visit leaves an incomplete impression, with much of the subtlety of Vietnamese culture remaining unlocked.

In an attempt to bridge this linguistic and cultural barrier, the Hanoi Youth Theatre has put together a series of short comedies under the title “Doi cuoi” (Laugh at life), performed entirely in English. The programme includes three mini-comedies, and three mimes that transcend language. The plays mainly focus on issues of daily life such as the relationships between parents and children, a husband and wife, and a boss and one of his employees. All the plays received a reworking, with the script made more comprehensible for a foreign audience. The Youth Theatre, with the help of Apollo Language Centre, after four months of work, eventually held a four night run of the plays which received positive feedback.

Sy Tien, the assistant director, recalls the first night: “In our first show, I was wracked with worry because we’d never done this before. Luckily, the show went well and we were encouraged by audience’s laughter.”

“I still remember a comment of Apollo teacher: ‘At first, we thought we were only bringing English to you. But after the show, we now understand we’ve helped in making Vietnamese culture more accessible to foreigners. That was something we hadn’t considered and we’re happy to have done it,’ His comment made us feel like we’d done the right thing and the approach we’ve adopted will prove successful,” Sy Tien contentedly elaborates.

But the success of the performance did not come without sheer hard work. “Choosing the actors was difficult. Not all of us can speak English that well. Some have only basic English, others have never Some have never communicated with a foreigner before. Now, they have to perform in English, express their character’s emotion in English, which really is a hard job. That’s why we have the slogan: ‘Don’t hide ignorance’, people should ask if they don’t understand. Over four months, we rehearsed like mad. We spoke in English, joked in English, and there was even one actor, who while performing in the Vietnamese language performance of “Doi Cuoi” continuously used “Stop” in English instead of “dung lai” because he was so preoccupied by learning the English script” Tien adds.

Actress Tu Oanh, with 20 years of experience on the stage, acts in ‘Angry Room’ as a customer relations employee introducing a new service for clients. The company she works for provides look-alike robots that can be used by customers to take out their real-life frustrations on.

“Taking part in an English language play meant that I had to overcome a lot of hurdles. I think beyond the language issue there was a psychological barrier. I’ve been an actor for a very long time, and I’m well known. If I failed to act in foreign language play, that failure could have had an impact on career. But, t be honest the challenge the play presents was too good an opportunity to resist, and it’s been worth it.” Oanh believes.

Oanh as well as Tien and the other members of the troupe had an unforgettable experience in preparing for the show. For four months they struggled with the challenge, and everyone attempted to lift their performances in a bid to improve themselves. Luckily, they have an enthusiastic teacher, Claude Becker from Apollo Language Centre. He not only corrected every word, but stressed the importance of each key word in a sentence, but also talked and joked with them so they became increasingly comfortable in English. Slowly and surely English came more naturally, and their translated script became clearer and their acting reflected the translated script increasingly well.

“When I perform in English, it brings back that old feeling of stage fright, something I haven’t felt since I first began acting. After twenty years on the stage, perhaps the familiarity had made me blasé. The enthusiasm, the nerves have all come back, that excitement that is important for me when I perform has returned. I had the feeling of palpitating when stepping to the stage like the first time I acted. For 20 years of acting, some time the regular rhythm makes the feeling callous. The enthusiasm, nervous feeling has now returned, which is very important for me on stage.” Oanh says.

It is a highly enjoyable experience to see a Vietnamese farmer speaking English on stage, and despite the comedic nature of the performances, the portrayal of Vietnamese people and their real-life behaviour. Foreigners can gain a better understanding of society, while at the same time being entertained. However, there are still some issues with the quality of the performance.

“We know that there are some mistakes in terms of, but practice will make perfect. Even when we rehearsed the Vietnamese version of “Doi cuoi”, we only improved after two or three performances.

“The Youth Theatre is entirely responsible for the production, and have had to take care of everything from A to Z. We hope we will get sponsorship to help with the staging and promotion of the show. If we have more funding, we can stage longer, more serious plays, which will hopefully give foreigners a deeper understanding of our culture,” a hopeful Tien says.

The Youth Theater is currently working with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and travel companies on a plan to bring more English stage productions to the public, and perhaps “Doi cuoi” will be the start of a wider trend in opening up Vietnamese performing arts to a foreign audience

Source: The Guide Magazine

Read more articles by Nguy Ha


Puppetry is one of the

Puppetry is one of the features of Vietnam. I also go to the puppet a few times. It is typical and nature truyeng system. From teu comment, boy mane and more\

user avatar Anonymous

Also good for Vietnamese tourists

My wife took all her sisters to Hanoi several years ago, and the water puppets were on our list. Understand that water puppets are totally alien to South Vietnamese, at least those from Hau Giang province below Can Tho. And indeed, there was much carping about "'why are we going to see the water puppets. It must be for children! Maybe it's just to please the Nguoi My." But once we got them seated, and the show started, they really had a good time, cackling away at the punch lines and antics. Even Thi Sau, who normally has a somewhat vinegary disposition, was caught laughing. So the Water Puppet show is a worthwhile cultural experience even for Vietnamese. Especially those who have never really gotten to know their 'Nguoi Bac' (very) distant cousins.


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