The acting bug

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The recent rise in private theater companies and theaters in Ho Chi Minh City has sparked a jump in the number of private, unlicensed acting classes.

At least ten training classes initiated by individual actors, or groups of artists have sprung up in the city. It is difficult to give an exact number because many of these "schools" are operating underground - without official licenses, graduation certificates or curriculums.

Ten years ago, formative acting classes were offered at district culture centers. Students who enrolled in the courses hoped to prepare themselves for the rigorous entrance exams at the Ho Chi Minh City College of Arts and Culture and the HCMC University of Cinema and Stage.

These students would then embark on a lifelong career of study and hard work.

In the past two years, however, a deluge of aspiring young actors has caused a glut of second-hand courses. Many of these classes are taught by professional actors who are seeking talent for the country's myriad comedy troupes - groups such as Oanh Nguyen, Phi Truc and Truc Mai.

The majority of these teachers are the retired veterans of celebrated 1980s' troupes. Teachers like Hoai Linh at the Dai Co Viet Company see hundreds of candidates per class.

The country is swimming with aspiring young actors.

However, unlike previous generations, these young men and women need only pay monthly tuition fees (between US$160-230) to launch their careers.

As you might imagine, most of these classes are packed with rich, stylish young kids, who smoke, chat and swear their way through lessons. Pubs, karaoke bars and dance halls make up the sites locations for the class's extracurricular sessions.

Following a recent class attended by a reporter of Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, one student boasted that, thanks to his clever "diplomatic" skills, he claimed a minor role in a long play - after just five days of class. Such short-cuts seem to lead them to fame faster than long periods of study in theater schools.

Pay to play

In general, this curriculum is merely a recycled version of what many of these instructors lesson learned while attending the HCMC University of Cinema and Theater.

These second-hand lessons cost students big and don't necessarily lead to anything.

"After finishing a training course that cost me VND10 million ($550), my teacher sent me to Q.N comedy group to act in a comedy show and serve as the troupe's designated motorbike taxi driver," said Mai Khanh, who attends a class in Tan Binh District. "Everyday, I performed in two shows and was paid VND15,000 ($0.8) for each performance. After that, I was sent to act as an extra in a movie. My teacher said if I wanted to land a major theater role, I would have to take two more advanced courses. "

Binh, who arrived in HCMC from the northern province of Bac Ninh, with stars in his eyes, said he has completed two classes and has yet to be accepted by a comedy group. "The teacher told me that it will be difficult for me to become an actor because of my accent - though he said so only after I had paid my tuition," Binh said. "He told me to take another advanced class, after which, he said he would help get me a role in a TV series."

"My son's teacher has called my son to rehearse until 2 a.m. for a short play because at that time he had just finished his day of acting for a film," said one disconcerted mother. "The teacher then kept him out drinking until 5 a.m. My son told me that the teacher said that as "˜an artist,' we have to throw ourselves to the world, the more we engage with the world, the more we experience life.' Finally, I forced my son to find another job."

A generation without tragedy

Most training classes do not issue any certificates to their students. Job opportunities for these aspiring actors are limited to low-paying gigs with amateur comedy groups.

What's worse, this new brand of theatrical education is creating a whole generation of unenthusiastic and uncommitted comedians who have no interest in dramatic performance.

"Unlike dramatic actors, whose careers are short since they are not invited to perform as they get older, comedians can earn more money and have a better life," one student said.

"It is not difficult to be a comedian, just say some idle nonsense that makes the audience laugh," said another.

Actress My Chi has enjoyed a long, hard career as a comedian. She doesn't remember anything about it being easy.

"I graduated from the Saigon National Theater Institute together with Thuong Tin, Kieu Phuong Loan and Tu Trinh 37 years ago," Chi said. "It took me four years to study, four months to prepare for my graduation exams, and a hard life trying to survive as a performer. It was certainly not easy."

Imperfect practice

Vietnam's young new actors are hungry for guidance. And these new theater companies are hungry for talent. But these new and unregulated acting schools may turn the professional stage into an amateur venue.

At Dai Co Viet Company's graduation ceremony, a number of the graduation speeches were delivered clumsily which raised red flags for experts and critics.

"I was invited to teach pronunciation but I refused because the enrollment quality is so bad," said actress Tu Trinh. "It has become their habit and so it's difficult to help them to correct."

People's Artist Pham Thi Thanh described the student selection process as playing a crucial role in the formulation of a legitimate acting school. "The teachers must value the students' artistic sensibility and analytical capacity," she said. "Teaching acting as a trade may work when training a student to perform in classical opera, traditional opera because these forms of theater have hard articles and molds. That method cannot be applied to modern performance. Such an attitude will damage the art of acting by creating a generation who lacks artistic sensibility and the capacity for expressive performance."

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