by Ngoc Le
Act of rememberance: Five veteran actresses dressed up in their signature characters perform in front of an altar to pay tribute to the art's ancestry. — VNS Photo Minh Hoang
HCM CITY — Kim Chuong is over 80 years old, but she has never missed celebrating National Theatre Day, not even after her retirement decades ago.
Although this designation of the festival was declared just weeks ago, the 12th day of the eighth lunar month has long been the most important day in the life of theatre actors and actresses in the country.
Chuong, once a famous cai luong (reformed opera) troupe impresario, said: "It is an opportunity for me to pay tribute to mentors who imparted to me the intricacies of the art."
Her troupe observed the event even when they were on performance tours.
"It was very big and solemn celebration," she said. "All of us stayed up to sing and perform overnight as a tribute to our ancestors."
"During the day, we chanted Buddhist sutras, made offerings, performed worshipping rituals and enjoyed parties."
Last weekend, a festive atmosphere pervaded theatres and troupes in HCM City and the southern region as a whole as theatrical circles celebrated their biggest day of the year.
The headquarters of the city's Society for Amity between Theatrical Actors on Co Bac Street in District 1, a shrine for theatrical arts, was the primary venue for all artistes paying their respects to departed predecessors.
The property houses an altar on which stands a tablet insribed with two words: To Su (ancestry).
"As actors, we see the day as special as the Lunar New Year Holiday," said veteran hat boi (classical theatre) actor Dinh Bang Phi, who performed solemn rituals in a ceremony that brought together many senior artists.
"Theatre ancestors are predecessors who have founded the national art form and contributed to its development until today," he explained. "They are mentors, talented actors and all the people who contributed to making the art form possible, including musicians, choreographers, carpenters, blacksmiths and even traders."
Various forms of theatre art, including hat boi, cheo (classical opera), cai luong (renovated opera), drama and comedy, share the same ancestry, he said.
Altars for the ancestors have been set up by every troupe over more than three centuries.
Apart from the ancestry, every theatre worships two baby dolls which represent the audience that patronise the art and offer a means of livelihood to artistes.
"The legend is that they are sibling princes who defied their king's ban on plays. They died in a troupe and have been considered guardian angels that every actor prays to prior to his or her performance.
"However, the main altar is here," Phi said.
Phi, Chuong and many other veteran artists took turns to burn incense at the altar. They were followed by a long line of actors from a spectrum of theatrical arts.
During the day, theatre actors, retired or just debuted, still healthy or no longer able to walk, brought their own offerings to the shrine.
"Whenever I perform the art, I still remember our ancestors," said visually impaired musician Van Ben, who was escorted to the shrine by his son.
First day celebrations
The first Vietnamese Theatre Day was celebrated last weekend by hundreds of cai luong actors performing together at two special shows in District 1's Hung Dao Theatre.
The shows, staged by the city's Association of Theatrical Actors and the Tran Huu Trang Cai Luong Troupe, attracted large crowds. They were the biggest cai luong shows the city has seen for years in terms of number of artists involved, the number of plays performed, and their duration.
Actors, veteran, infirm, young and even their little children performed in front of a makeshift altar in the middle of the stage.
They performed famous songs, scenes from classical dramas and excerpts from their signature roles.
They also staged scenes that highlighted all the hardships faced by theatre artists and support staff, and the dedication needed to do theatrical jobs as well as artists' dedication.
"It's a great honour to all theatrical actors that we have a day dedicated to us," said veteran actor Bao Quoc.
Actress Xuan Yen, who suffers from rheumatism and back pains, said she would rather die onstage than watch her colleagues perform.
"I miss my roles so much. I'm so grateful to our ancestors who blessed me so much that I was able to stand here and perform today," she said, confessing that she was exhausted and in pain.
"It's a once-in-a-year chance for actors to get together, and pay tributes to our ancestors," she said.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old actor Vo Minh Lam had his eyes on the future.
Lam who has engaged in theatre for four years, said he prayed to the ancestors that there are more, bigger and comfortable theatres that make the art form more accessible.
"I hope that I will get more chances to hone my skills and that there will be more and more young actors who keep the art alive," he said.
Nguyen Phuoc Trung, 52, an ardent fan in District 3, said: "Cai luong will live forever in fans' heart, and I believe that its golden age will be back one day." — VNS