Born in 1961 in the northern province of Binh Dinh, Nguyen Thuy Trang was the first Vietnamese woman to be awarded the title of ‘People's Artist' for her work with water puppetry. For more than three decades, she has also earned many gold and silver medals at water puppet festivals. Ngoc Thuy
chats to Trang about her extensive career.
Inner Sanctum: Being given the title of People's Artist is a big deal. How did you begin building your reputation?
Being successful at this job is about practice; the more we practice, the better we get. My generation of workers in this field are immensely experienced, and as this trade cannot be taught just from books I hope that I can guide young people, who are newcomers to this business, with my own experience.
Young people nowadays are so full of energy. In comparison to my generation, they are more competitive and perceptive. But their pace of life and modern temptations mean that their interest in this kind of art is fading.
During the last 34 years of working for the Viet-namese Water Puppet Theatre, I had health problems that I had to try to overcome, but I've been continuously training my-self as an artist and trying to improve my skills all of the time.
Water puppetry is such a tough career; without passion and belief, you cannot survive in this field. You have to have goals and work hard to achieve them, because we dedicate our lives to our careers. When we look back, time has already passed us by.
Inner Sanctum: What do you think we can do to keep water puppetry alive?
At the moment water puppetry is on the right path, and it's still developing. The priority has to be the preservation of traditional artistry. Great pieces by great directors such as Ngo Quynh Dao and Vuong Duy Bien have brought the art closer to audiences.
There are no specific training courses for water puppet theatre, so we have to pull strings so that our students can learn from teachers at the Ha Noi Academy of Theatre and Cinema.
Our students learn other things from those other environments, but in this trade you have to have water puppetry as the absolute priority.
I can see disadvantages for future generations if water puppetry becomes obsolete. They will not have the chance to see the golden generation who laid the foundations in building this theatre, and those who gave me the enthusiasm and inspiration to pursue the art. At my theatre we offer, by far, the best course in the city.
Inner Sanctum: How do you put what you have learnt in theory into practice?
The technicalities of movement make it so that I have to learn to keep my hands free so that the puppets are lively and flexible. I have to try to transmit all of my feelings and my soul into the puppet to turn it into a real person.
If you don't take notice of the smallest details, like the movement of the fingers, your ability to control the puppet will become limited. Many students want to skip the basic steps because they want to finish the lesson quickly. I want them to go through every step. I always watched my teachers dancing and then I practised by myself, and now I put everything I have learnt into a performance.
Inner Sanctum: Teaching techniques is one thing, but is it really possible to teach people how to put their own passion into it?
Young learners already have built-in passion and fire in their hearts, so we don't need to deny them the knowledge. But they come to us lacking in knowledge and lacking the understanding of the sacrifice that a water-puppet artist has to make, and that is the most important thing of all.
Inner Sanctum: What happens if your students are only motivated by the desire to make money?
It's challenging. I've seen many students think like this. I try to persuade them not to approach it in that way, but it takes time for people to understand. I put my hopes in all the cast and crew of the theatre.
Inner Sanctum: What can we do to help develop water puppet theatre?
First, there must be support from the Government, and not only financial support. I was the first person to be given the title of People's Artist, but there are in fact many other artists of previous generations who have also deserved this title.
Second, a basic training programme is needed to help students understand water puppetry. — VNS