Drama-cafés take the stage in Ho Chi Minh City
A scene from the satiric folktale named Ngao so oc hen (Oyster, clam, shellfish and mussel) performed at Bet café
Art cafes have moved up a notch in Ho Chi Minh City.
From hosting painting exhibitions, live music, films and even lectures, a new breed of cafés have now gone on to staging skits and plays.
The trend has been developing over the last two years, and theatre aficionados now have a choice of plays and topics to choose from as they sip their evening caffeine constitutionals.
One of the trailblazers of this urban art trend is the Bet (Sitting down on the floor) coffee shop in District 3. Do Thanh Lam, Bet's owner and a former bass guitarist, says drama-cafés are a new way of bringing art closer to its audience.
Lam is well placed to offer drama along with coffee. His father, late playwright Hung Tan, and his mother, Meritorious Artist Thanh Vy, were giants in their respective fields.
Bet Café has succeeded in attracting a remarkable number of regular patrons who flock to the plays staged on its premises every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The café has also been able to gather a group of professional actors and actresses to add quality to its theatrical offerings.
The plays, performed in a small space by two to seven actors, usually last about an hour and a half. The Son, one of the actors at Bet Café, says the stories dealt with in the plays are relevant and contemporary in any age.
"It is very difficult to tell what the audience's favorite topic is; everyone has his or her own opinion. But we try to opt for the best. We usually take the original scripts of noted plays and abridge them. There haven't been any problems with our own scripts, but for those of other authors, we must have his or her permission to make changes to the play.
"It [the café version] is shorter, but just as good. The main framework and meanings are preserved," said Son.
Son, an actor with Hoang Thai Thanh troupe, thinks the audiences' attitude towards this art trend are positive.
"There is a very small distance between the actors and the viewers at Bet. They can absorb and share their feelings and emotions with us. It is more like a family than performers and onlookers."
When asked how much the artists earn, Son just smiled.
"Let's just say it is acceptable. Besides, the audience's applause is a great bonus."
Lam said there have been times he has had to empty his pockets to cover all expenses. Not selling tickets or charging extra for the plays is a risky business.
"It does not get any easier when your idea does materialize, but I still pursue it. Luckily, my fellow actors are not only young and talented, but also passionate like me," said Lam.
After Bet, other cafés like Nhen (Spider), Lit and Q2 have followed suit, but with different offerings.
Nhen presents horror skits that are not for the lily-livered.
"Black, white and red décor surrounded by spiders is the best setting in which to multiply the fear. It is not extremely scary, but I do get a creepy feeling at times," said Thu An, a café patron.
In Go Vap District, Q2 café serves up comedy, horror as well as full-length plays for an extra fee of VND20,000.
The long plays need particularly careful preparation as they are performed without a stage or props or any real distance between the actors and audience. Most of the cast are young and have just graduated from acting school and are looking to gain experience and earn some income.
Vi Dieu, a teacher who loves to go to the theater, says the drama café can only satisfy the entertainment demand of the youth, and not present remarkable works of art like those performed at professional stages by well-known artists.
"That's why people still spend longer hours and bigger sums of money at the professional theaters. A three-hour-script has more things to say and can be understood more than its abridged version. The audience can also better enjoy skilful acting by their favorite artists," Dieu said.
The Son feels differently.
His own work with the Hoang Thai Thanh stage (schedule Friday, Saturday and Sunday) does not clash with the side-career at cafés, where he works Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"Performing in cafés gives us a chance to come closer to our audience and convince them to join the adventure along with the play's characters. I cannot predict the trend's future, but as of now, it carries much hope."
HEAD START FOR EXPATS
Expatriate theatre enthusiasts can also get in on the trend of performing plays in cafés.
The Saigon Players troupe, founded in 1994, has the La Habana Club a bar in District 1, as its base. Over the last 15 years, the troupe has expanded to 60 members and successfully brought together expats from different countries in Vietnam.
The troupe holds meetings and practice sessions on the first Wednesday of every month, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Any member can become, a director, scriptwriter or actor. According to the group founders, "Saigon players" can be understood in two ways: "Players in Saigon" and/or "All friends in Saigon play together."
All the income from Saigon Players' performances is donated to charity.