Sixteen artists from the Viet Nam National Puppetry Theatre returned for a two-month tour to Slovakia and Austria. The tour celebrated the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Viet Nam and Austria. Theatre director Ngo Thanh Thuy talks with Culture Vulture about the performances and the theatre's development.
It was the first time your artists had performed in Slovakia and Austria. Were the performances successful?
Yes, we had a great success. In Slovakia, we gave four performances in the capital, Bratislava, at Kuchajda Lake. We attracted tourists, the Vietnamese community and children. They clapped their hands and shouted encouragement during the whole performances. The artists saluted them several times at the ends of the shows.
In Austria, we performed in Vienna's Schonbrunn castle, the city's most famous tourist destination. We also performed at the Palais Kabelwerk for the Vietnamese community and children. At the end of the show, we met many Vietnamese who were very touched.
We also took the opportunity to study and exchange experiences with artists from the Bratislava Puppetry Theatre in Slovekia and the Schonbrunn Puppetry Theatre in Austria.
Our performances were broadcast on Slovak Television and there were articles in several newspapers of the two countries. They were joyous occasions.
Why is water puppetry so attractive to foreigners?
They find it original and unique. Viet Nam is the only country which has this traditional art form. People come to ask us how the puppeteers can float on the surface of the water. Many think the puppeteers swim underwater. They don't know that the artists wear rubber clothing and stand in waist-deep water behind the curtain while manipulating the puppets.
Many are intrigued by the combination of fire and water on stage. A typical scene in Vietnamese water puppetry is the scene of dragon spurting fire – a symbol of sacred things in the belief of Vietnamese people. Many wonder how the dragon can emerge from the water breathing fire.
How is the theatre doing in this period of economic crisis? Can the artists live well?
Luckily, our theatre runs efficiently despite the economic downturn which has affected most companies. Our theatre still attracts many foreign tourists. We perform two or three one-hour performances every day and employ about 40 puppeteers. Besides a fixed monthly salary from the State, our artists are also paid every night. So they can live on the job and feed their children. Water puppetry is surviving better than other traditional art forms.
Water puppetry naturally attracts children. What do you do to make water puppetry attractive to adults?
We've tried to preserve and collect more typical traditional scenes, including a lion dance, phoenix dance, boat racing, buffalo fight, swimming to catch ducks and fairy dance. We've also made new puppet programmes to attract adults including Xuy Van (Ms Xuy Van), Hon Que (The Countryside's Soul) and Truyen co Andersen (Andersen's Fairy Tales). There is also a new puppet show Gau Bac Cuc (Bears of North Pole) being prepared to take part in the third Water Puppetry Festival in Viet Nam on September 4. Last year, our theatre won the first prize with Truyen Co Andersen (Andersen's Old Stories) at the same event. — VNS