Breathing new life into puppets

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Thanks to scores of dedicated performers, Vietnam's traditional puppetry will continue to survive but experts say it will take more than that to make the art form thrive


Water puppetry performances at the festival which was attended by nearly 300 puppeteers from 15 village guilds across the country.

A veteran puppeteer famously said that once a performer develops a passion for the art, he will stick with it until he dies.

The statement certainly rang at the country's first folk-puppetry festival, which was held last week in the northern province of Hai Duong.

Nearly 300 puppeteers from 15 village guilds turned out for the event.

Le Ba Dong, 78, of Dong Ngu Village in the northern province of Bac Ninh, said his guild performs throughout the province year-round.

"I'm too old to wade into the water to perform anymore, but I'm teaching the art to my children and grandchildren," said Dong, whose father began schooling him in the thousand-year-old water puppetry when he was in his twenties.

Dong says he's currently teaching15 students aged between 15 and 25. His 54-year-old son and his 28-year-old grandson are also puppeteers.

"We can rest assured that there will be people to keep the art alive," he said.

Nguyen Trong Chinh, an artisan from Nguyen Xa Village in the northern province of Thai Binh, said each village has its own tricks and secrets and parents tend to pass the art down to the next generation, so puppetry has never been lost.

He said that more than 20 farmers in his village work at puppetry in their spare time. They range in age from 18 to 80. Old people play instruments, teach dance and puppet-making techniques to eager young performers.

Some villages have even set up their own theaters and manage to draw tourists to their remote locations.

Nhan Hoa Village in Hai Phong City, for example, has been a destination for puppet performances over the course of the last 16 years.

Tran Van Phuoc, 65, head of the guild, said that there weren't many shows at first.

"We struggled for a while. There were times we felt discouraged and thought about quitting," the 65-year-old artisan said. "But in the end we overcame it."

Now, the Nhan Hoa guild performs over 30 shows each month.

"We perform whenever tourists come, be it is in harvest season or not. After finishing a show, many performers run back to their ploughs to resume farming," Phuoc said.

According to the artisan, increasing winter visits from tourists has made everything more difficult. Despite the cold, the dedicated performers wade into a chest-deep pool and hold back exclamations to their theatrical performance.

Trouble ahead

However, dedicated as they are, veteran puppeteers are still concerned about the art's future.

Phuoc said that each member of his guild currently earns some VND30,000 (US$1.45) for each show.

Of that meager sum, the performers must cover numerous costs including the maintenance and repair of their puppets which are routinely damaged during their frenzied performance schedule.

"Recently we heard that the government planned to collect taxes on each show, so we are very worried," he said. "With prices increasing, extra taxes will eat away at our already slim earnings."

But, taxes aren't Phuoc's biggest concern.

"Some young people leave the village for urban towns after learning the art, so the older generation still worries that no one will perform puppetry in the future," he said.

In an interview with Nhan Dan (People) newspaper earlier this week, Nguyen Dang Chuong, deputy chief of the Department of Performing Arts, also said the greatest concern among village puppetry guilds and managers is the lack of new blood.

He said most of the guilds organize shows without support from the local authorities"”out of passion and dedication.

If local governments begin paying closer attention to the traditional art, they will invest in it and provide vital training to aspiring performers. Otherwise, Chuong said, the guilds will see fewer and fewer new puppeteers.

In 2002, the department launched training courses for young puppeteers in 14 water villages with funding from the Ford Foundation.

Since then, Chuong said, many of the performers have aged out or left the art behind to earn a living.

Meanwhile, due to financial difficulties, some guilds have begun cutting corners. Chuong cited as an example guilds that now rely on recordings to provide background music"”a violation of the tradition of live accompaniment.

"The use of modern technology has detracted from the traditional art's originality and unique color," he said.

Moreover, village ponds have been destroyed due to urbanization, depriving the art of its traditional performance spaces, he said.

Chuong argued that the secretive nature of the art has also threatened its preservation. Most puppeteers keep their performance secrets to themselves and only pass them on to the next generation within their own villages, Chuong said.

The art needs collaborative creation to develop, he added. 

He said these are the reasons why the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism decided to organize a puppetry festival and give artisans the chance to introduce their local style

They have also called on government agencies everywhere to pay more attention to the art's preservation, he added.

In the meantime, Vuong Duy Bien, chief of the department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, was quoted by the Voice of Ho Chi Minh City as saying that Vietnam's puppeteers are "lucky" to have children as its largest audience demographic.

However, the ministry needs help to bring the art form closer to children, Bien said.

According to the officials, the department is currently drafting a plan to preserve and develop traditional arts. The plan will include provisions to train puppeteers and help village guilds develop unique shows to avoid repetition.

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