Mon, Jun 11, 2018 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Famous Hanoi puppeteers struggle to attract locals

EXPORT QUALITY:A Canadian director this year featured Vietnamese water puppetry in his rendering of Stravinsky’s ‘Nightingale,’ but at home, mostly tourists come to shows


Water puppeteers perform at the Thang Long theater in Hanoi on May 15.

Photo: AFP

In a darkened theater in central Hanoi, a wooden dragon emerges from a pool to the sound of cymbals crashing in a traditional water puppet show that lures hundreds of tourists daily, but is largely shunned by locals.

Backstage behind a thin bamboo screen, about 20 puppeteers slosh around waist-deep in rubber overalls wielding the marionettes with long rods.

“The puppets are pretty heavy... and the water also creates resistance, but our years of training and experience helps us control them,” said puppeteer Nguyen Thu Hoai, who swapped her galoshes for flip-flops between sold-out shows.

Like many of her colleagues, Hoai graduated from the Hanoi College of Theater and Cinema.

Some of the puppets weigh as much as 10kg and the largest ones, such as a 1m tall fairy, require four people to manipulate.

The shows at Hanoi’s Thang Long theater have become a staple on the well-trodden tourist circuit and draw thousands every week, including many first-time viewers.

“I’ve never seen a puppet show that way with the water,” US tourist Caroline Thomoff said after a show. “I could really see people fishing, dancing and all the different performances that happened.”

The centuries-old art form emerged in the country’s northern rice paddies, where it served as entertainment for farmers.

The earliest record of performances is on a 12th-century stele that still stands at a pagoda in northern Ha Nam Province, but historians have said that water puppetry likely originated even earlier.

The shows traditionally featured age-old fables and mythical lore, such as the famous Hanoi parable about a Vietnamese king’s treasured sword that was used to fight off Chinese invaders.

The tropes have not changed much, and neither have the hand-carved wooden figures of animals, boats, farmers or fish painted in brilliant golds, reds and greens, Thang Long Theater director Chu Luong said.

“When our children and later generations see performances they will be just like the original versions,” he said.

Despite their ancient roots — or perhaps because of them — the shows draw little attention from local Vietnamese viewers, especially millennials. More than half of Vietnam’s 93 million residents are under 30 and they often prefer their entertainment in digital form.

“There are new types of entertainment now, electronic devices and the Internet, so apart from festivals, we can’t perform all the time because people don’t watch a lot,” said Pham Dinh Viem, a third-generation puppet carver from a craft village in Thai Binh province.

Like other puppet craftsmen in the village, Viem does not earn enough to support his family making the marionettes, so he picks up work on the side as a manual laborer, but he perseveres, hopeful that the next generation might pick up a passion he said runs in his blood.

Yet as interest wanes at home, there are signs that water puppetry might be gaining traction abroad.

Canadian director Robert Lepage returned to Toronto, Canada, this year with an adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale in which the orchestra pit was transformed into a pool of water for singer-puppeteers commanding marionettes.

Such innovative approaches might be the secret to reviving the centuries-old tradition among locals, Viem said.

“If the script and the performance don’t change, it’s impossible to serve the audience in the long-term,” he said.

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