Flight of the Dragonflies

In the first installment of a three-part series on one of Vietnam’s premiere theatrical troupes, Karen Hewell pulls back the curtain on Dragonfly Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Dangerous Liaisons. Photos by Kyle Phanroy


“To be fair, you don’t have to remove the corset to do it,” Belinda Shorland says, shrugging her shoulders. “It keeps everything… perky.” Her free hand traces a curve of cinched waist in the air.

Aaron Toronto is slung back in his chair, contemplating. His counterpart, Jaime Zuniga, is nodding, a sneaky grin across his face.

“Well, yea, but you’d rather,” Aaron says emphatically. “Otherwise it sort of limits the options.”

The logistics under debate are just one part of what will make Dangerous Liaisons Dragonfly Theatre Company’s most risqué effort to date. Its lusty plotline — set to be unveiled in October — treads uncharted territory, including a stage adaptation of a steamy boudoir exploit between two of its main characters. Right now, the conversation is delving into the mechanics of stage-safe clothing removal.

“Stripping off 17th century clothing is different than taking off a T-shirt,” says Jaime. “You know, ‘Okay, turn around… one, two, three, four…’” he leans forward, pinching at imaginary corset laces. “That’s not sexy.”

The three are veterans of an ensemble that’s established itself as the premiere professional English-language theatre company in Ho Chi Minh City. Jaime and Aaron play dual roles of actor and co-director, while Belinda has been a constant on the Dragonfly stage, starring in all three of the company’s previous productions.

The conversation is light-hearted, jovial even. The three volley ideas while swatting and grabbing at the air in a game of bawdy charades. But even this salacious discussion of burlesque technique is crucial, since every detail — including the corset laces — is deliberate.

“We are trying to create a world, and not just a world that the characters live in, but a world within each character,” says Aaron, interjecting. “So if we want to create a world that [the audience] can feel and touch, then we could talk for a year.”


Every Little Bit Counts

Although not quite adding up to a year, the trio have certainly spent a substantial chunk of the last few months talking about nothing but Dangerous Liaisons. This conversation about corsets and stage romps comes months after choosing Liaisons as the next Dragonfly pursuit. Before this, there were direction meetings, and then production meetings — and all of them carried on for hours.

Some were abstract and were of nothing but colour and theme, and others centred around a character’s internal conflict in the delivery of a single line. Big or small, abstract or specific, each and every detail was treated as key to the success of the opening night.

“Every element of the show is connected. I can’t just say: I’ll do it my way and you do it your way,” Aaron says. “You can tell when [the elements of a show] have been constructed, and that there’s a point to it. [An audience member] can feel when something is random.”

The dedication is evident in the stories both Aaron and Jaime recount: the saga of a costume that was mistakenly sewn with stripes running horizontally instead of vertically; the battle for a key prop whose dimensions threatened its storage backstage; the symbolism behind a set design that transformed from monochromatic to a burst of pastels. For them, nothing is insignificant — perfection is not the goal, but the standard.

It’s part of why Dragonfly has made such an impact on the city in its short career. In 2011, their debut show The Importance of Being Earnest boasted hand-crafted costumes and meticulously constructed backdrops that rivaled their international counterparts in concept and execution. Dragonfly’s productions have subsequently been described as “magical” and “eye-catching” by critics, and with each new show, their audience grows.

But even though Dragonfly continues to make waves on the theatre circuit in Vietnam — appearing on national television, playing sold-out shows and adding dates due to popular demand — they have their sights set on something much bigger.

“We want to be good because we’re good, not because we’re good for Vietnam,” says Jaime. “We want to have an international quality that [can hold its own] on any stage, and have people look at us and say ‘that’s professional theatre’ — here or anywhere.”


Ambitious Liaisons

For Dragonfly, being the premiere professional theatre company in Vietnam simply isn’t enough. Instead, the troupe hopes to soon be dazzling audiences in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. It’s a lofty aspiration, since Dragonfly is up against challenges that are unique. While Dragonfly has defied expectation aesthetically speaking, the resources outside of textiles and paint are limited — that is, the kind of talent they can put on the stage.

“When we think about a production, we already have an idea of what the pool [of actors] looks like,” says Aaron, who admits that most of Dragonfly’s choices for new ventures are based on a core group of actors that have been with the company from the beginning. Part of the issue is casting Vietnamese actors in plays that are written in English — and demand near perfection in delivery.

“The texts we use are not simple English, so [in terms of Vietnamese actors] we need not only someone who is a great actor, but also has a level of English that is near fluency,” says Aaron. “It’s like, if the audience thinks, ‘Oh, I missed that word,’ and it’s a very important word for the scene… we just can’t afford that.”
Add that to the list of everything else, and the qualifications for a cast member are three-fold: a near fluent proficiency in English, a talent for acting and a physicality that matches that of a character they’ll play. Consequently, casting for a production like Dangerous Liaisons is, in a word, problematic.

Undeterred, Dragonfly decided to try something new with Dangerous Liaisons — they held an open casting call. The hope was that, by casting the net wider, they would bring in some fresh new talent. The results were surprising. Both new and familiar faces arrived on the day of auditions, while video interviews rolled in from places like the United States and England. All were enthusiastic and eager to become a part of what Dragonfly was doing.

Since then, the major players in the production — including a full cast with brand new members — have come together. It’s enough to keep Aaron, Jaime and Belinda confident about what Dangerous Liaisons could mean for Dragonfly, and they agree that this could be a turning point. After all, with enough work, this could be the production that puts them in the international spotlight.

“After a lot of trials by fire, [I believe that] we are now producing a show [that] will be able to play well not only here, but in any major city in the world,” says Aaron. He has big hopes and even bigger obligations as both lead actor and co-director for Dangerous Liaisons.

He, like Jaime and Belinda, know that there is only one way to know if that’s been achieved, come on opening night. “Our audience will be the judge of whether that's true or not.”


Then and Now

Dragonfly Theatre Company is the product of a conversation between Aaron Toronto and Jaime Zuniga. Together, they decided that the only way to improve the quality of English-language performing arts in Ho Chi Minh City was to do it themselves. Dragonfly debuted their first production of the classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest in 2011, and shortly after, the award-winning off-Broadway show The Last Five Years — a collaboration with the Ho Chi Minh City Choir and Orchestra. Their following show was an adaptation of the classic children’s book The Little Prince. The script was adapted by Dragonfly’s own Jaime Zuniga and Aaron Toronto, and starred Vietnamese TV and film starlet Nguyen Lan Phuong. Dangerous Liaisons, set to debut in October of 2013, will be the company’s fourth, and promises delicious scandal, salacious gossip and corsets… lots of corsets.


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