Setting the stage

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Theater troupe Up performs play Bi mat cac co phu dau (Secret of the bridesmaids) at Bong Den (Light bulb) Café in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City

The woman walks back and forth amid rows of retro-style wooden chairs and tables in the approximately 30-square-meter Bong Den (Light Bulb) café in Ho Chi Minh City.

Wearing a brown bà ba (a traditional costume that is nowadays worn mostly by old people in southern Vietnam), she seems to be the only talker in the room.

"Dear, can you come?" she asks loudly, joyfully on her cell phone, ignoring the presence of 20 or so other customers, "Everything is ready and well-prepared for Song Cam's wedding ceremony today, we are waiting for you."

"Lower your voice, please, we are in a café," a young man wearing thick make-up and a bridesmaid's gown tells the woman, "Why do you call that girl, is it not ok for you if I am the only bridesmaid today?"

The conversation elicits laughter and applause from the café's patrons.

The applause, however, gets no immediate response from the woman and Son Ca, the man in the bridesmaid's dress. Both are actors in a play called Bi mat cac co phu dau (Secret of the bridesmaids) that they are performing in the café located in an alley off Tran Huy Lieu Street in Phu Nhuan District.

Son Ca, played by actor Le Nghia and the woman, played by actress Kha Nhu, go back to the "main stage" for which the props are just a piece of red cloth, a bench and a metal wire mannequin draped with a bridal dress. Later, on the same stage, the bride and the bridesmaids will perform the 2012 hit dance number, Gangnam Style.

The 120-minute performance is by drama troupe Up, founded nearly two years ago by 11 young, fresh graduates from the city's University of Stage and Cinema.

The play tells the story of friendship and love between Song Cam and her bridesmaids her best friends. The day before her wedding, her friends help expose a relationship between the groom and one of the bridesmaids; yet, in the end, Cam chooses to forgive and gets married.

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Due to the small space in cafés,  each play is typically seen by just 20 to 30 people, who have to pay VND50,000-70,000 extra (tickets at professional theaters cost VND90,000-130,000). For each performance, Up is paid around VND1,200,0002,500,000 (US$60-125).

Apart from Bong Den, the troupe also performs at seven other cafés in the city and its neighboring province Dong Nai.

Up is not the first or the only troupe that actively promotes café-drama as a new approach to reach audiences in recent years, attempting to push back the degradation of theater in the city as well as the country as a whole. 

There are few avenues these days for local artists as well as young, fresh graduates who are aspiring artists to pursue a career in acting. 

Up's Art Director Kim Huyen, who plays the bride, Song Cam, said café-drama is for everyone, but it is preferred especially by a younger audience. It is also an ideal environment for both young directors and actors like her to develop and perfect their acting skills.

"People of the same generation can share the same point of view," said the 25-year-old director, "In addition, young café-drama artists are free to create without being bound by anything, for what we spend is not money, but our intelligence and labor."

Huyen and other members of the group take being café-drama actors and actresses very seriously.

Up's manager Nguyen Ba Hung said, "We don't think that we choose to perform here because we cannot find better places, but because we consider this a new, particular form of theater."

Hence when they perform, they do take some measures similar to what happens on the professional stage, including the announcement about the audience turning off mobile phones. The also remind the audience to focus on the performance.

Phu Don Tuan, an amateur photographer and drama lover, told Vietweek after the performance of Bi mat cac co phu dau last week, "I prefer café-drama for the interaction between the actors and audience that allows the audience to become a part of the story. In addition, since the actors are so close to the audience, they don't have to use microphones like they do in the theaters, and they have to pay more attention to their voice and acting."

Pham Hong Duc of District 7 was invited to a performance at Nhen café on Huynh Van Banh Street in Phu Nhuan District by his friends.

"I seldom spend hours watching plays, but Up's artists did surprise me. They are able to manage so well in such a small space. Also, it's a great pleasure to enjoy both the art and my favorite drinks at the same time," Duc said.

According to Do Thanh Lam, the owner of the Bet (bệt - sitting down on the floor) Café in District 3, a café-drama pioneer, though many patrons are not yet used to enjoying hour-long plays in cafés, most café-drama fans are well-educated or work in the arts.

"In such free, open spaces, and at very reasonable prices, if the audience are not interested in the play and don't respect and appreciate the artists, it is not easy for them to behave well and focus on the play," said Lam, whose mother is the talented cai luong artist Thanh Vy and father is the late playwright Hung Tan.

Some members of Lam's group, including Tuyet Mai, Quoc Thinh, Luong Duyen and Van Trang, are professional actors and actresses of the well-known Hoang Thai Thanh Theater.

Like Up and other groups, they have to work from scratch on each play, including writing scripts and rehearsing, which often takes them one to three months.

While Bet Café prefers to perform famous, old plays, including Ngheu So Oc Hen (featuring four main characters named after mollusks mussel, shell, snail and clam who are respectively the  Fortune Teller, the Rich Man, the Thief, and the Receiver), and La Sau Rieng (Durian Leaf); troupes like Up, Tam Ngoc and Doi introduce their own new plays to save budget and "not get involved with copyright issues."

Up's Huyen said, "When it comes to our own plays, previews are not required by related agencies, only by the café's owners." The troupe has so far performed eight plays that have love, sex and homosexuality as common themes.

"We aim to refresh old, familiar topics with the new approach of young people," said Huyen, explaining why her character, Song Cam, chooses to forgive her fiancé and her friend though both had betrayed her.

"Today, people do talk about love and fidelity as in the past, but from a modern point of view, Cam prefers not to live in the past and no longer wants to suffer from it once her man shows sincere repentance."

Excited as they are about the form of theater they are pioneering, Up and its members also worry about the future of café-drama.

"Without proper, sufficient investment, it is certain that in two to three years, café-drama will go the way of comedy shows or ca nhac phong tra (cabaret music). We hope café-drama will soon be promoted as part of city tours in Ho Chi Minh City by the HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism," Huyen said.

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