Actress Dam Lien, 67, also known as the "queen of laughter", talks to Luong Thu Huong
about her life-long love affair with tuong (classical drama).
Dam Lien is among the few renowned Vietnamese tuong (classical drama) actresses. The play Ong Gia Cong Vo Di Xem Hoi (The old man carries his young wife on his back to go to watch the festival), in which Lien plays two roles and has performed more than 2,000 times, has expanded her widespread reputation in this traditional art. Following her recent study on 16 tones of laughter in classical drama, Dam Lien has become known as the queen of laughter and classical drama.
Inner Sanctum: The classical drama stage was nearly denied your presence due to the direction you initially chose when you started out on your career. Can you tell us more?
Becoming a dancer or a movie actress was my dream when I was at high school. When the Army Art School held its entrance exam, I eagerly enrolled and passed, but my mother strongly objected. She expected me to follow classical drama, the traditional profession of my family.
When the film crew of Chung Mot Dong Song (On the same river) advertised for an actress of my age, I was chosen, but missed that opportunity once again due to my mother's objections. I felt so bored that my mother had to spend everyday analysing and chatting heart-to-heart with me.
I started to fall for classical drama thanks to a lullaby sang by my mother one summer afternoon which was so beautiful and soulful. I also had great admiration for other classical drama actors who could sing and dance so beautifully. By that time, classical drama had naturally entered my soul.
Admittedly, it is not easy for a person to fall for classical drama instantly, instead, it needs time for it to be gradually absorbed.
Inner Sanctum: To the audience, your name is synonymous with The Old Man Carries His Young Wife on His Back to Go to Watch the Festival. It has been performed over 2,000 times throughout the country and even abroad, and also featured in the TV programme Strange but True. Do you think it is your most successful project so far?
I have had many successful roles, but my acting in The Old Man Carries His Young Wife on His Back to Go to Watch the Festival is the most talked about because it is my own work, my own child. The roles have been instilled into my blood so that I can perform them anytime, anywhere. However, they are also my most challenging roles. I think about them all the time – on stage, at home, in my dreams – because they are totally new kinds of roles that have never been performed on the classical drama stage.
Inner Sanctum: How do you train to perform two roles at the same time?
I have always felt grateful to artist Ngoc Phuong. However, when he offered the roles to me, I thought he was playing a joke because I had married a man 15 years older than me. I cried and refused the roles, but thanks to encouragement from my husband and colleague's, I gradually got over my complex, and agreed to do the play.
During scorching hot summer days, I practised the laughter and voices of the two characters. There are up to ten kinds of laughter in the play, like the happy or indulgent laughter of the young wife, or the proud and jealous laughter of the older husband. At times he both cries and laughs. The play only lasts 14 minutes, but the two characters are present throughout.
To perform the posture of a 70-year-old man carrying his 16-year-old wife on his back, I trained by carrying my mother. I burst into tears of happiness when I finally mastered the trembling posture of the old man. However, it took over 200 shows before I felt completely satisfied with my performance.
Inner Sanctum: Director Ngoc Phuong said that this play would enable you to reach the peak of your career. You have broken the old order in expressing different states of mind through laughter. Have you received any awards for these roles?
I have never performed this play in a competition, but I think that the value of the actor depends on their work. Even when a role receives an award, it is meaningless if it doesn't leave a lasting impression on the audience.
Inner Sanctum: You have just conducted a study on laughter in classical drama, and invented another 16 new tones of laughter. How did you do it?
Laughter in classical drama is not simply physical laughter. Practising classical drama laughter is very difficult because it gives you a sore throat. I have to use recorders when I practise so I can listen to myself and try and break the laughter down to fit each role, like the painful wild laughter of Ho Nguyet Co or the bitter and cheery laughter of the old man carrying his young wife on his back. It's because of these roles that I conducted the study.
I learnt 36 tones of laughter from artist Sau Lai, then invented another 16, which express all colours of mood and states of mind in classical drama.
Inner Sanctum: How has classical drama inspired you?
I have always felt thankful to classical drama. It is a very interesting but scholarly form of art. From the scripts and interpretations to its melodies and movements, they are all very delicate and full of life.
There are many talented classical drama actors, but their performances sometimes fail to capture the audience's hearts because they have been too formal. Art cannot be based on formalism, and pursuing classical drama requires lifelong learning. However, as long as an actor's performance wins the audience's hearts, you can't ask for much more than that. — VNS