Theaters go through their urban metamorphoses, but lack of public interest could be the killer blow
Languishing: Hung Dao Theater on Tran Hung Dao Street in District 1 is a hallowed site for theater aficionados
When he was a student, Tan Nguyen invited a girl to watch a cai luong play.
She asked if the date could be put off for a week, so she had the time to get a new ao dai.
"That sounds nonsensical today, but it's true that then, each member of the audience was a lady and a gentleman when entering theaters.
"A cyclo driver or a vendor would dress up in smart clothes when going to the theater."
The days when going to a theater in Ho Chi Minh City was a special occasion are gone. Most of the theaters have gone. And the audience is not going.
"There was a time when every night, Saigon had no less than ten performance spots with lights on. And whether you chose a big troupe with famous stars or a small one, people always came with a serious and solemn spirit to enjoy art," said Nguyen, former stage journalist and office chief of a performing arts guild under the HCMC Stage Association.
From 1954 to1955, in the southern region in general and HCMC in particular, theaters opened every night to perform cai luong, a new art form (southern folk opera) developed after the end of the First World War, taking inspiration from ancient legends or sensational and romantic novels.
There were many theaters and many troupes, and smaller troupes had to make use of communal houses of wards in the city's outskirts.
During the 1970s, more theaters were opened, many of them by the state. Even then, all the theaters were patronized every night, and some big troupes had to close for a day in the week to take a break.
One of the big theaters, Norodom, is the Lottery Ticket Company on Le Duan Street; Aristles is now the five-star New World Hotel Saigon; and Olympic is now the HCMC Culture Center.
Many other big theaters of the time have also ended up today as places for wedding parties or high-rise residential buildings, dance floors and bookstores.
The theaters began to disappear in the 1990s after a brief time when they were used as cinemas.
But it was not too long before films became a trend, and the cinemas had to go too, making way for pubs, restaurants, parking lots, cafés, bars, bookstores and anything that could make more money.
Majestic Saigon became the Majestic restaurant, Eden became a tea room, then a shopping mall, Vinh Loi on Le Loi Street became a car showroom, and later, a stock trading floor. Dai Nam on Tran Hung Dao Street is now a hotel, Kinh Do an Internet café for online games, Tan Dinh a bookstore, Olympic a dance floor, Vinh Quang a dilapidated ruin awaiting a high-rise to rise from its ashes, Khai Hoan an electronics supermarket and Rex, which used to be the city's best-equipped cinema, now a famous hotel.
However it is not the loss of theaters to cinemas and other establishments later on that has hit the drama profession the hardest.
"What is sadder is that the attitude of the audience has disappeared with the theaters," Nguyen said.
"People going to the theaters used to be those who really loved the traditional arts. They not only came to listen but to see the life on stage."
He said cai luong was interesting because their stories were both special and familiar and related to the audience.
"Thus all the audience, whether coming to a small or big troupe, always stepped into theaters as though they were entering a cathedral."
He said eating, talking or using black market tickets for a play was unheard of then.
Future in doubt
To save and create space for the performance of traditional arts, plans were made many years ago to build three major theaters, one exclusively for concert orchestras, one for traditional performing arts and another for modern arts. But nothing has come of this.
Nguyen called Hung Dao the pioneer of southern cai luong theaters. It was one of the first, the biggest and the one that has survived until now.
But these days, only die-hard fans and lovers of cai luong will come every week into dark, wet rooms where the roof leaks, chairs are almost broken and rats can run past your feet at any time.
It took a couple years for the city government to agree to start building a new theater.
But, Nguyen says, the most important question now is: What performances will the new theater host? "We shouldn't organize low quality performances."
The city should invest in the performances for the two years that the theater will be under construction.
And it is not just cai luong, but other musical traditions in the city as well as entertainment arts like the circus that have for a long time needed their own theaters.
Most of these art forms are now organized at stadiums or exhibition centers where light and sound systems are not suitable for such performances.
Meanwhile, several established theaters in the city have to cater for all kinds of events these days.
HCMC Opera House hosts traditional and classical music concerts, contemporary dances, cai luong and modern dramas. It also hosts fashion shows, and sometimes, award ceremonies for students or business seminars.
Ben Thanh Theater hosts wedding parties and youth clubs on the first floor.