A female stage director shows plays don't have to titillate or amuse to win an audience
Ai Nhu (R) in Ban tay cua troi (God's hand) one of her most popular plays
Early this month, Ban tay cua troi (God's hand), a hit play in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, was re-staged in the southern metro.
Ai Nhu, who grabbed headlines as a trendsetter in presenting folk stories on stage when she first did the play four years ago, is now reproducing it at her own theater, Hoang Thai Thanh.
While it received good reviews again from the audience and critics despite a young cast, the play is now held up in a different light.
It has marked the 51-year-old director out as a person who does not produce plays to entertain or be sensational, but as a reflection on day-to-day life seen in stark relief. Compared to typical treatment of a story or subject, Nhu adds more twists and dramatic details, and is "more likely to have a sad ending," as one viewer remarked.
When she left Idecaf Theater, one of the most famous in the country, last year with her partner, director and actor Thanh Hoi to establish Hoang Thai Thanh, many people saw it as a risky, but bold step. She had been with the theater for eight years, and to set up a new one in what people say is a shrinking market showed that she was an artist determined to find a different space to express her creativity.
Veteran stage director Tran Minh Ngoc said: "From plays performed so far at Hoang Thai Thanh, I can see that Ai Nhu has identified her own style in which we see her seriousness, earnestness, and refusal to follow the trend of frivolous art.
"By doing this, she has helped mature audiences' tastes," and her theater has made HCMC's "stage life" more diverse, Ngoc said.
Nhu, who is also an actress and a playwright, said she founded her own theater because she realized that she needs a stage to apply "my own ideas without others' interference."
Judging by the response so far, Nhu's approach seems to be an idea whose time has come. Since it opened last February, the theater has introduced 11 plays, almost one each month a record in productivity among local theaters. All the plays did well, and recently, the theater even added one more performance every Sunday afternoon on audience request.
Tran Minh Phong, a theater aficionado, said he loves watching plays at Hoang Thai Thanh because the actors and actresses are skilled, and the plays have good plots that do not stoop to "cheap humor" to try and attract people.
Nhu's own work, as well as those done in collaboration with Hoi, are typically romantic melodramas that make people cry and smile, but also make them think about life and love, another audience said.
Nhu's "serious" treatment has also gained recognition and trust among actors and actresses, with experienced and famous actresses like Kim Xuan and Hong Anh, as well as about 20 upcoming ones like Ngoc Lan and Truong Minh Quoc Thai, agreeing to work with her troupe.
"My filming schedule is really tight, but I volunteered to join Hoang Thai Thanh, because I know that my acting skills will be improved here. Moreover, I will have a chance to let the audience see variety in my acting," said Lan, a famous TV series actress.
Destined for the stage
Nhu studied acting in 1980, but because of many difficulties, she quit school three years later, got married and earned a living by selling cigarettes in the street.
A mother of two children, both of whom work now at her theater as actor and actress, Nhu said her push cart used to stand next to the Youth Culture House, so she often saw her classmates go in and out of the place, and would think that they would be acting on stage while she still sold cigarettes.
This thought, coupled with meager earnings from selling cigarettes, prompted Nhu to make a change. In 1985, she began working for the Binh Minh Sewing Company, where she directed her co-workers in plays for company functions.
As her love for stage kept growing, Nhu returned to school two years later to study direction.
While studying, Nhu also worked as an actress. In 1988, she gained public recognition when taking on the role of a little girl in the classic play San ga tinh nguoi (Human railway station). This cast her into a mould she was given the role of a young girl, or even a child. She was even dubbed the "child actress."
That image became history when she debuted as a director with Khuc nhac long cua vi muc su (Song of the priest's heart), adapted from André Gide's La symphonie pastoral, in 1991. Now, the adjectives that are used to describe Nhu include "strict", "serious" and "devoted."
Hoi, who has collaborated with Nhu for over the past 16 years both in acting as well as writing scripts under the famous pen name Hoang Thai Thanh, once told Thanh Nien: "For others, the stage is their career, but for Ai Nhu, stage is her fate, and her air without which she will probably die."
For example, it is not a big deal for most people when a rehearsal is delayed for some reason or other, but for Nhu, it's "as big as a house on fire," he said.
In earlier interviews with local media, Hoi has mentioned his partner's strong will and personality, citing her great efforts to change her Hue accent into a southern one when they first acted together in The Count of Monte Cristo in 1989.
Nhu herself is a much harsher critic. She said she has a habit of watching her works and grading it based on very strict standards.
"When a play is bad, some blame it on the cast or other factors, but I don't think so. As a director, you have to be responsible for your own work."
Ai Nhu, one of the few successful female stage directors in Vietnam, does not bother with sensationalism.