by Hang Nguyen
The first time my younger sister, 23, visited a live theatre was to watch a traditional play at the Youth Theatre in Ha Noi's Ngo Thi Nham Street a couple of months ago.
She hasn't been back because she is too busy, even to go to cinemas to watch the latest movies on her "must-see" list, such as Maleficent or X-Men: Days of Future Past.
She also spends her spare time in such modern activities as travelling for fun or replying to Facebook comments about her "selfie" photos. She also chats with her friends via Viber – an application for smart phones that lets users make free phone calls and send free text messages.
My sister's outlook is similar to the way many younger Vietnamese enjoy their spare time. And going to the theatre has become more of a luxury.
I thought of my sister's free-time habits when I read about the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism's recent submission to build 51 new theatres and upgrade 20 already existing throughout the country by 2020 as part of an entertainment master plan.
The new theatres would cost about VND7 trillion (US$330 million), an amount that instantly sparked controversy from all levels of society.
Do Ngoc Huyen, 45, a housewife, living in Long Bien District, said that she never went to a theatre. Her idea of entertainment is watching South Korean family-oriented dramas and Chinese historical dramas on television.
Ngo Ngoc Tu, 64, a retired senior engineer formerly working for a State company, lives in central Hai Ba Trung District, but he and his wife rarely go to live theatre. He said he had been to the Opera House a few times, but "that was so long ago".
"Now, I sometimes go to the Cung Xuan Theatre near my home - Ha Noi ‘s first modern outdoor theatre - but not to watch plays or musical performances. I go just to attend wedding ceremonies, which are regular events," Tu added.
There have been many wedding ceremonies, but surprisingly few traditional operas or other dramas for which the theatre was built.
Bui Thu Ngoc, 28, an employee at a bank in Dong Da District, said she heard that VND31 billion ($1.45 million) of the VND7 trillion was to be set aside for theatre productions, including the composition of 15 new musical works during the next five years.
"I just wonder what else these 51 new theatres would perform if only 15 new works are written in this period," she said.
But the major controversy is over pouring such a huge amount of money in building a whole batch of new theatres throughout the nation. The argument is that, today, neither the old or the young pay much attention to the theatre. Sad, but true.
Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, former director of the Viet Nam Institute of Cultural Studies, told Dat Viet (Vietnamese Land) e-newspaper there was no sense in building more theatres, if people were not interested.
He said the reason today's theatres were not thriving was because they now had to compete with a wide range of other types of entertainment. He commented, "Wisely I thought, that building new theatres should be linked to demand. If not, what a waste!" he said.
"The reality is that many theatres today seem to be places to stage anything but plays and dramas," he said. A short time ago, the professor went to central Nghe An Province to attend an international workshop.
At first, the workshop was to have been held at a local theatre, but later it was moved to another place to make room for a local wedding ceremony. They were the only real-life dramas! "It was ridiculous!" he said.
In an opinion piece in Dat Viet (Vietnamese Land) e-newspaper, singer Nguyen Trung Kien said that investment in the national entertainment industry was a good sign. But he suggested that much of it would be better spent upgrading existing buildings and training artists of all kinds, both traditional and modern.
He insisted that this was the best way to develop the national entertainment industry - and perhaps he should know, because he has been recognised as a People's Artist, a high honour.
Kien's idea sounds much more sensible! — VNS