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Theaters run by expatriates are succeeding where their local counterparts have failed

A scene from "˜The Last 5 Years', featuring a five-year relationship between Jamie Wellerstein (starring Brian Riedlinger), a rising novelist, and Cathy Hyatt (Vanessa Tantillo), a struggling actress

It was a surprisingly forthright answer.

Jaime Zũniga, a 30-year-old Nicaraguan who made a name for himself in local theatrical circles by presenting Oscar Wilde's classic comedy "The important of being Earnest" in Ho Chi Minh City, told Vietweek that his motivation in putting on English-language plays was to make money.

The usual platitudes about promoting cultural exchange or raising funds for charity were absent.

 "I want to create a professional theatrical group for expats living and working in Vietnam. There are some shows, but they are just not regular. My long-term target is to create a professional English language theater in HCMC and make it accessible to the Vietnamese community. It is needed," he said.

Zũniga, an economics graduate, and his partners from the Dragonfly Theater Company (a newly formed group of Western and Vietnamese actors and directors) showed they mean business by following up their successful debut with a reproduction of Jason Robert Brown's musical "The Last 5 Years."

The musical was presented in cooperation with the International Choir and Orchestra of HCMC on June 15 and 16.

It explored a five-year relationship between Jamie Wellerstein, a rising novelist, and Cathy Hyatt, a struggling actress.

Actor Brian Riedlinger, who played Wellerstein, told Vietweek that although the play was in English, the target audience was both foreigners and locals. He said it was possible for the audience to connect despite language barriers.

"As a foreigner, I sometimes watch plays in Vietnamese at local theaters, though the plays don't have English subtitles, thanks to the artistic language and the actors' body languages, I understand about 20 percent," said Riedlinger, director of the International Choir and Orchestra of HCMC.

"Our plays in English have subtitles in Vietnamese so that both foreigners and Vietnamese can understand," said the director, who has performed in three musicals and organized at least 20 concerts in Vietnam during his six years here.

But Britain-based TNT Theater, known to multinational audiences for their production of Shakespeare's and Charles Dicken's masterpieces, does not use subtitles in their performances.

"We never use subtitles because it does not tend to increase audience numbers. People viewing our productions are able to follow the performance due to its visuality, music and choreography," Grantly Marshall, a producer, actor, and founder of the American Drama Groupe (ADG) Europe, told Vietweek.

Marshall admitted that they have not been able to attract large numbers of locals to their plays, but was not too concerned about it.

"I think many Vietnamese think English language plays, like Macbeth, are too difficult for them to understand and therefore, they do not attend in large numbers. I think this will change with our future productions," he said.

TNT's latest production, "Oliver Twist", did make a splash in Hanoi, HCMC and Da Nang in May. It was the second time that TNT was performing in Vietnamese cities other than Ho Chi Minh City.

The first, "A Christmas Carol" was also well received, with promotions targeting students from local universities.

The Saigon Players, meanwhile, is an amateur theater club that brings together expats with a love for the theater who present comic skits in small clubs, bars and stages. They also engage in regular charity work.

Established in 2003, the club has attracted a cross section of people from several countries, many of whom have a strong theatre background and can contribute their skills in writing, directing, stage-managing, make-up, choreography or acting.

Together, Dragon Fly Theater, TNT and Saigon Players are serving both expat and Vietnamese audiences.

In "The Last 5 Years," Jamie plays a Jewish man from New York City who falls in love with Cathy, a Gentile (non-Jewish) woman from Ohio. As such, they make references that only Americans, Jews and Manhattanites may understand. Jamie even sings in Yiddish.

The producers distributed a cultural guide to the audience to help them (non-American gentiles and Vietnamese) understand what Jamie and Cathy are talking and singing about.

Nguyen Gia Khanh, a first year student of the Foreign Trade University, said because of the cultural guide and subtitles, she understood about 70 percent of the play.

"It was the first time I saw an English-language play which featured only foreigners. It was quite refreshing and interesting seeing a play with just two actors," she said, during a rehearsal on June 13.

A scene from the Hon Viet (the Soul of Vietnam) variety show, which is now performed on the 15th and 23rd every month

Huong Thu, one of the Vietnamese novices with Saigon Players, said being part of the club can help people like her to overcome their shyness and understand the world's culture better, not to mention improve her English skills.

"Besides practicing English in an artistic way, we also take part in many charity activities. Given its volunteering spirit, the club is like a free family to everyone," she told Vietweek.

Vice versa

While foreign producers are trying to take expat audiences back to their homeland with famous dramas and comedies, local theater managers are trying to introduce them to Vietnamese traditional arts, without much success.

Linh Huyen, a cai luong actress who lost over VND600 million (nearly US$30,000) in producing the play called Ba chua tho Nom (Queen of Nom poems) for foreigners with English subtitles, said she was not disheartened that it did not have a long run.

Her new variety show, Hon Viet (The Soul of Vietnam) is now performed on the 15th and 23rd of every month. The show, which has no dialog, is introduced in English. However, after six months, it has cost Huyen over VND1 billion, with no return to show for it.


Huyen said she will try to maintain the show, and collaborate with the tourism firms to get more visitors to attend.

Before Huyen, producers at the Phu Nhuan Theater and Tran Huu Trang Cai Luong Theater had given up trying to entertain foreign audiences in English.

People's Artist Hong Van, head of Phu Nhuan Theater, said: "The tourism firms refused to bring tourists to my theater saying it was too far from the city center. Moreover, not many Vietnamese artists can speak English well. They cannot concentrate and find it difficult to remember their English lines. The audiences cannot enjoy the show when the dialogue is not clear."

So far, the expat theaters are doing a better job of reaching out to their target audiences, and in doing so, offering a few pointers to Vietnamese troupes, in terms of choosing the right content and presenting it in a way that captures audiences.

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