For many foreign visitors to Hanoi, performance art seems limited to the water puppet theatre and perhaps a live cover band in one of the Old Quarter’s many dive bars. A similar thing could be said of Saigon. However, both Vietnam’s capital and its southern sister have proud traditions of highly developed theatre, dance and music, which are experiencing something of a revival.
As in many countries around the world, young people are often discouraged from pursuing a career in the arts, yet there are several venues, theatre schools and performance groups offering encouragement for young thespians.
Atelier De Theater De Hanoi
ATH is a performance art school founded by Marianne Seguin and Quentin Delorance. Together with a handful of teachers, they instruct over 150 drama students, ranging in age from four years old to adults. The school was founded with the aim of revitalizing Vietnamese theatre.
“Vietnamese theatre is struggling to get an audience; everyone just wants to see movies,” explains Marianne. “The purpose is also to save performing arts, by teaching it and giving it to people, rather than showing it to people. We want to encourage kids, especially, to ask themselves questions, to agree or disagree; to make them have some kind of reflection. We work a lot in groups. But we want everyone’s opinion to be listened to and respected.” According to Quentin, teaching theatre has benefits far beyond the stage and should play a much bigger role in the Vietnamese education system.
“In France and in French Canada, everyone in school does improv competitions,” he says. “I think it’s really good for kids to learn that. In improv or drama, the team/group mentality is the same as in sport; if someone is bad in your group, the whole team goes down. But if you all get up and work together, it’s because of all the team working together. By using the tools of drama, you can teach rapport and how to be fair to each other.”
Atelier de Theater de Hanoi is at 12/2 Dang Thai Mai, Tay Ho, Hanoi. For more info, go to facebook.com/ateliertheatredehanoi
PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE ROTTEN GRAPES
The Rotten Grapes
Another performance group that firmly believes in the benefits of improvisational theatre is the Rotten Grapes. Teacher and co-organizer Brian Nathan explains how this comedy group is bringing people together.
“Our members come from all walks of life,” he says. “Vietnam, America, France, England, South Africa and Germany just to name a few. We have members who are students in universities, business people and even people who work at embassies. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you do. At the end of the day we are all in this together.”
Founder of the Rotten Grapes, Long Le, was inspired to start the first comedy school in Vietnam by comedy shows he watched on TV as a child. His calling to make people laugh and his desire to connect with people of different cultures has been the driving force behind the groups regular workshops and performances.
“We offer public speaking, screenwriting and improv comedy for beginners,” he says. “We also have comedy shows at least twice a month.”
PHOTO PROVIDED BY HITS HANOI
The Hanoi International Theatre Society has been active for almost 15 years and has become a much-loved institution in Hanoi. HITS is a non-profit organization run by volunteers, who come together to produce and perform a show twice a year. As a community theatre group they are actively involved in raising money to support local charities.
“There is a lot of support, from the grass- roots level to sponsorships from embassies and companies,” says HITS member Lois Davis. “We are a non-profit association, so we donate a large portion of any profits to charitable organisations in Hanoi. We have supported several, usually focusing on children.”
Besides raising money for charity, the members of HITS are firm believers in the inherent benefits of theatre: “Performing arts offer so much to society. From telling our traditional stories through dance, song, or puppets; from a busker giving us a smile, to the most prestigious theatre company, they all allow us to escape for a brief time.”
The theatre group is comprised of 12 to 15 active members and their performances attract audiences both young and old. Their latest show was based on The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter and included activities for children, but they also perform more adult-focused theatre, such as murder mysteries and classic Broadway musicals.
For more info, go to facebook.com/hits.hanoi
PHOTO BY ADAM ASTLEY
Dragonfly Theatre Co.
Dragonfly Theatre was founded in 2010 as a way of bringing thrilling, inspirational theatre to Saigon.
“At Dragonfly, we specialise in making professional, Western-influenced theatre in Ho Chi Minh City,” says co-founder, Aaron Toronto. “We aim to make shows that entertain, challenge and inspire.”
The theatre does at least two performances per year, depending on what their members and board are interested in.
“See our website for [our] eclectic range of past performances,” says another co-founder, Bee Smith. “Ticket prices depend on the cost of production, but are generally about VND400,000.”
All Dragonfly shows are determined based on what the group feels passionate about, both in terms of choice of repertoire and the way they present it.
“That generally means taking work by well-known and classic writers, and presenting it in a thrilling, emotionally compelling way,” says Aaron. “We’ve set The Little Prince to the music of Radiohead and placed an actual tree in the middle of the stage in Waiting for Godot.”
Anyone can join the group, no matter their qualifications or experience, though Dragonfly does aim to maintain a certain level of performance. For Bee, working with the theatre company is all about the relationship of actors with the audience.
“We want to make them laugh, cry, get nervous or fearful, or discover something about themselves or their lives through our performances,” she says. “I also enjoy the challenge of pushing myself to do these things.”
For more info, go to facebook.com/dragonflyvietnam
PHOTO PROVIDED BY SAIGON PLAYERS
Saigon Players was established in 2003 as a small group of foreigners who enjoyed theatre. Today, they have five active members on the steering committee, and around 20 actors, some of whom are regulars and some of whom join the players as their schedule permits. As a non-profit community theatre group, they work to uphold theatre arts while also giving to charity.
“All the proceeds from our performances go towards a charity that the members choose,” says current chair of the steering committee, Jennifer Dizon Turner. The Players are well known for their original comedy sketches and their raunchy Rocky Horror Nights, along with murder- mystery dinner-theatre shows or British- style pantomimes in December and more serious plays each year after the Tet holiday.
“We entertain the public through live performances of well-known plays as well as original comedy sketches,” says Jennifer. “We try to have a variety of performances to reach a wider audience.” Their repertoire has included visual and performing arts festivals, audience participations shows, club nights, script nights, improv sessions and actors’ workshops.
To Jennifer, the performing arts offer something really valuable to society but many Saigon parents unfortunately do not understand or acknowledge this.
“It has, at times, saddened me to see promising and even gifted students give up on the arts because of family pressure to pursue higher education in business or banking,” she says. “Parents still think that pursuing the performing arts is equivalent to not having a serious job.”
An initiative rather than a theatre group, SocioMuso provides opportunities in the performing arts for young people. Founder Matthew Gardener set up the company in the summer of 2014.
“My wife and I moved to Vietnam [at that time],” he says. “I thought it was the perfect opportunity to utilise my experience and knowledge, and give young people a creative outlet.”
To Matthew, theatre, music, dance and other performing arts are an important part of any school curriculum.
“I have witnessed the transformation in children’s personalities and confidence through performing arts classes,” he says. “I think it’s great to remind parents that while academic subjects are important for a child’s future, performing arts are equally beneficial in helping them grow as people.”
SocioMuso coordinates a range of programmes for kids via Saigon’s international schools and other organisations, from after-school clubs and summer holiday programmes to private piano and singing lessons and, of course, theatre programmes.
“We specialise in musical theatre, an art form that combines singing, dancing and acting to tell the audience a story,” says Matthew. “We help students build their performance skills in all three disciplines and we usually work towards performances at the end of each programme.”
But while the SocioMuso team focus on creating exciting, top-quality performances with their students, they feel that the process of getting to the performance is much more important than the performance itself.
“We believe that musical theatre helps students develop so many important personal skills which they can use in any future career,” says Matthew. “Confidence, creativity, communication, self-discipline and respect for others.”