Anyone who has been to a live performance, be it theatre, dance or music, can vouch for the fact that it is a different experience to merely watching the same on a screen. There is something about being entertained directly by fellow human beings that has always enthralled audiences.
Theatre options in Saigon are still limited, although it is better than before. Back in 2005, if you wanted to attend a theatre performance, your options were to go abroad or accept the fact that you were in a city where English-language theatre simply did not exist.
The first theatre group to be established in HCMC was Saigon Players. It was started in 2005 by a group of thespians who wanted to create theatre and, at the same time, give back to their host country. Their main focus was, and remains, to reach out to people interested in theatre by putting on high-quality, entertaining shows, and by encouraging people to participate and develop their talents. They always give proceeds of their shows to local charities.
Over the years, Saigon Players have done a variety of shows, mostly comedies, including the Miss-ed Saigon series of sketches performed in restaurant or café venues. As an amateur dramatics group, they play the role in the theatre scene of encouraging participation from all people with an interest in performing.
In 2008, The International Choir and Orchestra (ICO) and Saigon Players brought the first full-scale Broadway show to a theatre in Saigon with Annie Get Your Gun. Brian Riedlinger, a trained musician and actor, was instrumental (if you’ll pardon the pun) in this trail-blazing event — but it wasn’t easy. In addition to sourcing or making props, set and costumes, putting on a show required (and still requires) a performance license from the government which involves plenty of red tape and hoops to jump through.
It was on the back of the second of these ICO shows, A Christmas Carol, that Dragonfly Theatre Company was born. Jaime Zuniga, Aaron Toronto and Brian were passionate about the need for Saigon to have professional-quality, English-language theatre not only for the expatriate community but also for English-speaking Vietnamese.
They joined forces to bring Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to the city and it was received by an audience who appeared to be in the grip of a cultural drought. The shows were mostly sold out. Dragonfly also reached out to school groups by providing special matinée shows where students could watch the show and then interview the actors both in and out of character.
Since then, the theatre scene has grown and diversified. With a change in committee, Saigon Players started doing more serious shows; Dragonfly produced plays that were, while sometimes less well-known and intellectually challenging, artistically very satisfying and well received, and SocioMuso (SYMT) arrived to fill the gap in youth theatre.
The director of SocioMuso, Matthew Gardener, states on their website that the group is “dedicated to harnessing the talent of those children who have a particular passion for the arts, but all children benefit from participating. They can develop personal and professional skills which can be used in their lives, regardless of their chosen career.”
But for all the theatre groups in Saigon, putting on a production has many challenges. Finding a venue is the first and biggest difficulty. To perform officially, for example in one of the many theatres around the city, requires a performance license, taxes, translated scripts and lengthy background checks. This takes significant time and money, taking the cost of a production higher.
Sourcing props, lighting and set would seem simple in a country that can make anything, but every piece has to be individually found, described, designed or made. There are no costumiers or Amazon in Vietnam. I remember spending hours trying to get Elizabethan dresses made for Dangerous Liaisons (learning the Vietnamese for “Wider! Wider!” along the way). Storing all these items is another issue. Members of Saigon Players and Dragonfly Theatre have all been custodians of various theatre items with Aaron Toronto housing the fuselage of the plane from The Little Prince on his balcony for 6 months.
Getting the word out to people and growing and maintaining an audience is also a challenge in a city alive with entertainment options and with a transient pool of expats who may or may not be interested in theatre.
Every performance gets a little bit easier; theatre groups here are not afraid to try new things, to bring new ideas, and are constantly grateful that audiences trust us to choose plays that we think will entertain them. But why do we do it?
We believe that theatre transcends everyday concerns about money, career and business, and deliberately challenges people with new ways of thinking. Theatre performances should be able to reach out to the soul of an audience member and elicit emotion on many levels. This is why the people involved in the theatre scene will devote their time, effort, energy and money to overcome the challenges of putting a show on. To us, it is worth it to reach out to you.
Dragonfly is the work of a number of people including Jaime Zúñiga, Aaron Toronto and Brian Riedlinger. The company prides itself on using professionally trained actors such as Aaron Toronto, Ryan Burkwood, David Delves, Leon Bown and the famous Vietnamese actress Lan Phuong
Theatre in Vietnam
For more info on the various theatre options in Vietnam, click on the following links:
Dragonfly Theatre Company
And in Hanoi…
Hanoi International Theatre Society