Traditional stage performance is taking a battering. Photos by Dominic Blewett


A recent article in the Viet Nam News expressed a concern that has long been affecting the performance arts in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
“With various kinds of TV music shows,” ran the piece, “audiences can stay at home and watch their favourite songs on television instead of going out for live concerts.”


Such a problem has been affecting a range of musical genres and figures within the industry. Well-known pop singer Dam Vinh Hung, for example, continues to self-fund his live shows at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, while theatres such as the Non La Theatre, which stages traditional music such as ca tru and tuong, lost VND200 million each month last year. Hanoi’s Hong Ha Theatre often has more performers than audience while the music hall-style phong tra venues in Saigon have undergone a similar battering.


Which all suggests that live performance is losing out to the far-reaching prowess of television. Indeed, the fact that 2,000 TV serials are planned to be made this year in Vietnam as opposed to just 300 four years ago, suggests it’s through this medium that you’ll really be able to search out your audience.


Doom and Musical Gloom


Without a dedicated Arts Council or large volumes of funds available to boost music and the arts, on first evaluation performance in Vietnam is at the behest of the market. Advertising revenue from television helps fund the largest slice of the artistic pie — TV. And that artistic pie adjusts itself for audience ratings and viewer demographics. All meaning that with the revenue stream going into television, live performance can no longer compete.


Or can it? In other areas performance is coming into its own. Take, for example, the recent MTV Exit concert in Hanoi. Headlined by Simple Plan, the show at My Dinh stadium brought in an audience of 40,000. It also helped to spread an anti-human trafficking message — except for the CAMA Festival, few concerts in this country have assisted such a cause.


April’s SoundFest in Ho Chi Minh City also managed to pull in the masses. Headlined by Big Bang and Taio Cruz, 30,000 screaming teenagers and young Vietnamese played witness to what at that point was Vietnam’s largest ever musical event. It has now been bettered.


And then there are all the smaller shows organised by the likes of RockFanClub or those hosted at venues like Hanoi Rock City or the Van Ho Exhibition Centre, which all suggests that people are still loving it live. And that’s despite iconic venues such as Vasco’s in Ho Chi Minh City throwing in the towel and putting an end to regular live music — they are turning themselves into a lounge bar.


Don’t Blame it on the Box


Hence, the problem isn’t so much TV stealing the audience from theatres or music venues. Rather, the nature of going to concerts has changed, as has the market. It’s become something for young people to do, an experience very much enjoyed by the country’s youth. Which means that traditional forms of music and opera either need to search out a new audience or find another way to compete.


But if you think that means artistic performance is being given the boot, don’t. Take, for example, the water puppet shows that have long delighted tourists. And then there is the Vietnam Drama Theatre and the Youth Theatre. In an attempt to minimise costs and yet have the ability to increase audience sizes, the two are merging to become the Vietnam National Drama Theatre. They will be housed in a purpose-built 7,000-seater, 1,200sqm venue in Hanoi’s My Dinh.


Which is the kind of response that’s required. Changing times mean changing interests and audiences. Fail to adapt and you will become a distant memory, a bit like most of the dotcoms that didn’t deal with the fallout at the turn of the millennium.

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