A scene from Bui Nhu Lai's "˜Stereo Woman To Be Yourself,' which explores lesbian relationships and opened at Hanoi's Youth Theater last month
Theater director Bui Nhu Lai began exploring issues like homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in 2006 at a time when it was still considered avant-garde.
The 33-year-old, who is deputy head of the Hanoi-based Youth Theater's Troupe 3, says he became interested in these issues after participating in a three-year training course organized by a US-based theater and the Vietnam Stage Artists Association starting that year.
"In the three years I met with many social and sex researchers.
"From then, my goal was no longer to make dramas for just entertainment, but improve social awareness through art."
Another training course organized by the Philippine Educational Theater Association in six Mekong countries stoked this desire.
The program focused on social education through art, and involved dealing with issues like homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, violence, and street children, he says.
"Since then, I have made many plays based on them."
His 2006 play, the three-part drama series "Stereo Man," explored homosexuality and related social issues in contemporary Vietnam.
It was the theater's first social project and was well received by youths when staged at 50 universities and colleges around the country.
His latest offering "Stereo Woman To Be Yourself," which opened at the Youth Theater on May 10, explores lesbian relationships.
Depicting the stories of 40 women, it is a combination of traditional theater, contemporary dance, and performance art.
"We use very few words to tell the story of this minority community," Lai says.
"The play reflects their emotions, sufferings, and the pressure from society, family, and friends. The artists use body language to express suffering."
The play's message is summed up by one of its characters: "We are all born equal, pure, and with a desire to be loved and love. They lesbians want to tell people that though they are different they don't isolate themselves but have love for everyone, just like others."
Nguyen Huong Lan, 20, a Hanoi student and member of the audience, told Vietweek after the play: "I used to shy away from making friends with people with HIV and homosexuals. But after seeing some plays of Bui Nhu Lai, I understand them more.
"I think they should have a normal life, and society should sympathize with them."
Nga, 25, from Hanoi, said she was moved by "Stereo Woman," because it provided a candid look into the lives of lesbians like herself.
"After seeing the play, I feel more self-confident walking down the street hand in hand with my girlfriend, and making known the truth of my own life," Nga said. "Homosexuality is normal, and we could still live in a useful way in the society."
To write his plays, Lai reads research documents and goes to bars and cafés where homosexuals hang out to get acquainted with them.
He has not had much difficulty in approaching them.
"We have to learn how to approach them so as not to injure their feelings. The most important thing is to have a sincere desire to work and share with them.
"To write plays about them, we have to make friends with them and know what they think."
He invited a man named Hoang who has been living with HIV for 12 years to act in his "Stereo Man" which helped many young people understand more about the disease and spread the message that they should support people with HIV instead of discriminating against them.
"After it was staged at a university, many students shook hands and apologized to Hoang for their erroneous thinking about HIV/AIDS and infected people."
Lai says his works often target students and youth because they tend to be more open to new ideas.
Love between gay people is as beautiful as love between a man and woman, and they have the same desires and conflicts as anyone else, he says.
After seeing his "Stereo Woman" many lesbian women cried and thanked him for correctly depicting their lives, he says.
"Their tears moved us."
Lai's biggest difficulty is finding funding since his plays are mostly performed at universities and for free. "Some projects take 2-3 years from conception to finish since they have to wait for sponsors."
He has just finished writing a script based on family violence. Many women who are themselves victims of violence will act in the play, which is scheduled to open in Hanoi's Youth Theater on June 15.
"Hey Me, Don't Despair" is in two parts, one act depicting women victims' feelings and memories of violence, and the other based on true stories and featuring actual victims, Lai says.
The play aims to convey the message that women should be stronger to fight against family violence, he says.
"The only way for victims of family violence to escape their misery and have a better life is to fight."
Society should have a better understanding of family violence, and the victims should have greater belief and bravery to expose it so that the community and society can help them deal with it, he explains.
"The play is very special since it is performed by victims themselves. They have overcome unhappiness and mastered their situation."
"We were impressed with all the stories they told us. They stirred our souls with sadness. Some of the stories were so extraordinary that sometimes we could not even believe that we were sitting in front of these people and listening to stories of their real lives."
After premiering at the Youth Theater, 11 Ngo Thi Nham Street, the play will be performed in neighboring cities and provinces.
Lai reveals plans next to write a play on the life of street children and get actual street children to act in it.