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Pulling the strings to create a spectacle

Update: October, 26/2014 - 21:47
Full house: The hall is packed as puppeteers perform Agriculture Work (ploughing, planting and watering rice) at an afternoon show. The Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre has no problem selling tickets. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

Unseen and mostly unheralded, day after day, hard working puppeteers in Ha Noi stand in more than waist-highwater to entertain residents and visitors with a unique, indigenous art form. Hong Thuy reports from behind the scenes.

There was not much light from the yellow light bulb hanging at the far corner of a backstage wall at Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre, where performers were working.

At first, the dimly lit area made it hard for me to see the operators' faces, and it took several minutes for my eyes to adjust and get used to their silhouettes moving about in the room.

Clad in dark, waterproof, chest-high pants and boots, the puppeteers, the real performers, seemed focused on the task at hand of giving viewers the maximum possible pleasure, though they were demonstrating their skills behind the spotlight and in silence to turn lifeless puppets into live characters.

Adjusting her suspenders snugly enough to hold her pants up and prevent water from fully soaking her, puppeteer Vo Thuy Duong joined three other teammates who waded into the community's central pond stage.

Stage props: Puppets are manipulated by an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes.

They were standing in water up to their waists, hidden from view by bamboo curtains, all raring to manipulate the puppet called Chu Teu (Uncle Teu), a jester with a plump body and peach-shaped hair who was to narrate the story to be performed onstage.

Beyond bamboo blinds disguised as theatre backdrops boomed the deep and warm voice of an emcee, who introduced the water puppet show that was about to start.

A few seconds later, Uncle Teu took to the stage amid a boisterous musical composition that attracted attention and created a joyful atmosphere. He was smiling, showing rosy cheeks, wearing nothing but a loincloth and clowning about in front of viewers, telling them to "come out here, do I need to tell you who I am".

The puppet is fastened to a long bamboo pole that reaches straight out from under the curtains but is never seen above the surface of the water. Attached to it is a handle connected to the puppet's moveable head and arms by an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes.

Puppeteers always convey their emotions to characters when using the handle to manipulate their puppets on the surface of the water. Thus, human controllers tend to move like synchronized swimmers or dancers as their puppets change positions onstage.

A tough job

Although the 35kg puppet is often attached to buoyant wood to keep it afloat, Duong said two members of her team must assist in keeping the puppet upright and moving it around while two others worked on the handle to make the figure move its head and arms.

In addition, the four operators in the team use a code that they all understand to help in co-ordinating the action of controlling and moving the figure as a single unit.

It is no less complicated to manipulate characters interacting with each other as a couple or passing objects to and fro. In Phoenix's Dance, performers must be sure to put their skillfulness in practice, not only in incorporating sudden and gradual changes in the movement of two phoenixes within the accompanying music, but also in engaging audiences into believing that the two, one male and the other female, are in the mood for love and happiness.

And just like that, more than 100 lively wooden figures of legendary heroes, fairies, dragons and mythical birds, as well as farmers, fishermen and even fish and ducks, appear from behind the curtains to tell legendary tales and portray the daily lives of Vietnamese rural folk within a 60-minute show.

Puppets are operated to move so smoothly over the water that it is hard for anyone to imagine that each of them weighs from 9 to 35kg.

"It took me more than a year to move puppets quickly and skillfully. I couldn't have done so unless I had learned to overcome their heaviness and practised moving them around frequently," Duong admitted.

A graduate of the Faculty of Water Puppetry at the Ha Noi Academy of Theatre and Cinema, the 37-year-old artist has been on the job for 19 years.

Her journey as a water puppeteer was tough because the art required her to master numerous skills during her four-year stay at the college, including cheo (Vietnamese traditional opera), dancing, theatrical play and folk music.

Open air theatre: Crowds gather during festivals for outdoor water puppetry shows

After graduation, she practiced under a master, learning in the old way by observing and imitating the master's skills. It took her another year to learn the techniques and become an independent puppetry operator.

Overcoming the heavy weight of puppets is already hard, not to mention manipulating them quickly and skillfully.

"My hands became red and calloused from too much soaking under water and holding heavy puppets," Duong revealed.

"It is harder still for us as puppeteers to stand in water, especially during chilly winters."

When her friends found out that Duong's job was tough, not a few of them wondered why she had chosen to become a water puppeteer instead of an onstage artist.

"Maybe I'm destined to do this job. My mother was a puppet operator and I represent the third generation of puppeteers in my family," she said.

No doubt, men and women like Duong who are responsible for the flawless movements of puppets will have their moment of glory, but it will likely be fleeting.

"Several times, I felt self-pity because we had always been performing backstage in silence. We get dressed and do make-up only at curtain time, when the show is ending, to say goodbye to audiences," Duong said.

But Duong and other puppetry artists have experienced the proverbial eureka moment and were convinced that, once they have become deeply involved in their job, they should devote themselves to it.

And it is not surprising that their job does not let them down.

"The more I am on the job, the more I have a passion for it. Water puppetry represents the value of our traditional culture, so I am proud of being one among many puppetry artists who are able to preserve and showcase our culture to the world," said Mai Anh, a 35-year-old singer-turned-puppeteer.

Crafty: Puppets are carved out of special wood and coated with waterproof paints in different colours.

The artist once considered giving up her puppetry job because it did not give her as much leisure time as singing. But her pride in the country's cultural heritage and the pay she has been receiving has kept her in the profession.

"I feel secure at work because I am well-paid and able to live by what I am earning on the job," she revealed.

Mai Anh is not exceptional. About 40 puppeteers working at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre in Ha Noi feel the same way.

Lights up

Founded in 1992, the theatre is one of a few playhouses in the north which have no problem selling tickets. Six years after its foundation, the theatre became financially independent, as it no longer relied on the State budget to fund its operations, and began making a profit.

Since then, the theatre has been experiencing a year-on-year increases in its revenues, from VND4 billion (US$190,000) in 1998 to VND40 billion ($1.9 million) in 2013.

This has allowed the theatre to pay a puppeteer an average income of VND15 million to VND20 million (about $700 to 950) per month, depending on their seniority.

Theatre director Nguyen Hoang Tuan attributed its success to the wisdom of the ancient rural Vietnamese, who had devised water puppetry as a form of entertainment whenever rice fields were flooded.

"The art has become so unique and attractive that no other country in the world has water puppetry except Viet Nam," Tuan said.

Water puppetry was believed to have originated from the villages of the Red River Delta in the 11th century, when the perfoming guilds of nine northern provinces practiced the art.

Evidence of the link between water puppetry and farming can be seen in the traditional puppetry guilds, which are located around the fertile land of the Red River Delta. This area consists of numerous rivers and is often prone to flooding.

Research by the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre in 2005 showed that of the 27 active practicing guilds from 1955 to 1976, only 14 remained active and most of them couldn't make a living by performing the art.

Le Tien Tho, Viet Nam Stage Artists Association president, said that traditional puppetry guilds were in danger of becoming extinct because many young people no longer wanted to perform the art.

Low audience attendanceand the high cost of making sets of puppets are the main reasons behind the guilds' decline.

Tuan said it would cost the theatre VND100 million to 120 million ($4,800 to 5,700) every four months to make more than 100 puppets.

Thus, it would be a waste if the guilds spent such a huge amount of money for their puppet shows. Meanwhile, the number of guild performances was far too few to compensate for their spending, Tuan added.

Having the advantage of a good location in the centre of Ha Noi also helps the theatre win its laurels.

Since domestic operators usually offer competively-priced packages to tourists who want to visit the most popular sites near the area, there is no doubt that the Thang Long Theatre has since become one of the capital city's most popular tourist attractions.

Last year, the theatre was recognised as unique in Asia for having performed water puppetry shows for 365 consecutive days, Tuan noted.

Unique form of art

Although water puppetry is unique and indigenous to Viet Nam, it has yet to be recognised as an intangible world cultural heritage. The delay in its recognition will be a huge loss to the country, Tho said.

He has voiced concern over the neglect of organisations in charge of preparing documentation for the Government to declare water puppetry as an intangible national cultural heritage. This is the foundation needed for UNESCO recognition of the art as a world cultural heritage.

"It seems to me that they have done little to glorify the art, which is in danger of being lost," Tho added.

For puppetry artist Phan Thanh Liem, renowned for bringing water puppetry to numerous local and international audiences through puppet making and performances in his own home, the delay is blameworthy.

"Every art is the same. It will be lost to oblivion if due attention is not given to making it better and more important. No one is really keen on doing so. This falls within the responsibility of people in charge, " Liem said.

He recalled having heard of a plan to enhance water puppetry as an intangible world cultural heritage about five years ago.

But Liem also recalled an informed source telling him that the plan couldn't be carried out because Viet Nam lacked sufficient historical evidence to prove the uniqueness and indigenousness of the art.

According to Tuan, the oldest record mentioning water puppetry is the inscriptions on a stone stele dating from 1121. The stele can be found at Doi Son Pagoda in Duy Tien District, Ha Nam Province, about 50km from Ha Noi.

It describes a scene: "A golden tortoise with three mountains on its shell was seen on the rippling surface of the water. It showed both its carapace and four legs . . The cavern's entrance opened and fairies in the play appeared . . Flocks of precious birds and herds of animals sang and danced."

"It may take years for the art to receive the UNculture agency's recognition, but preparation for this should be done now," Tuan said. — VNS

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