The performing arts scene in Vietnam lacks the expertise and top-notch theaters needed for impressive set designs
The music and dancing band for Nguoi tinh (The lover), a live show of singer Dam Vinh Hung at the Lan Anh stage in HCMC.
When he saw the stage that had been built for Korean superstar Rain's Ho Chi Minh City shows three years ago, Nguyen Quang Dung knew what Vietnam was sorely missing.
The acclaimed director of blockbusters such as Nu hon than chet (Hot Kiss) and Giai cuu than chet (Hot Kiss 2), as well as music-fashion shows such as Miss Universe 2008's Bikini Contest and last March's Duyen dang Vietnam (Charming Vietnam Gala), was wowed by the US$2.8-million show that included a 50-ton set frame sent from Australia and nearly 29 tons of other sound, lighting, and visual equipment imported from Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong.
Powerful laser beams, giant plasma screens, a rotating roof and special effects that both engulfed the stage in flames and soaked it in rain made for an evening few audience members ever forgot. The show even included a bit of magic as Rain opened the performance by emerging from a giant spaceship, only to disappear again mysteriously.
Dung lamented that Vietnamese productions weren't capable of such technical wizardry and that most stage and set designs here were very forgettable. He said the problem was both technical, in terms of a lack of funds and technology, and creative, with a shortage of big ideas coming from local set and production designers.
"Backstage must be at least as big as the main stage," he said. "This is crucial for scene changes and special effects, but most of our theaters have tiny backstages, some of which are only one-fourth as large as the main stage. Many don't even have dressing rooms for actors."
Creative director of the annual Dep Fashion show Nguyen Thanh Huong (known as "Huong Color" for her creative personality) said she often had to host the event at "inappropriate" places due to the lack of good theaters.
Actress, director, and scriptwriter Ai Nhu at the Hoang Thai Thanh Theater troupe agreed that there were too few good theaters in big cities like HCMC.
"We know we are nothing like Broadway, but our artists still try their best every night. My theater would be more correctly described as a "˜meeting hall.'"
Dung also said that stage arrangement and décor were often ugly and looked fake in Vietnam, even to audience members in the back row.
Many Vietnamese, especially the youth, are complaining about poor stage arrangement.
On commenter on ttvnol.com said "Vietnamese productions are so ugly that they've developed their own identity. We can recognize a Vietnamese set easily with just a quick glimpse... they are small, with a curtain, bamboo blind shades and a basket. Rock and dance shows are even worse."
Dung said "It is easy for people to distinguish and compare a good stage design with a bad one since cable TV programs and international shows are more easily approachable than ever."
But Dung said that Vietnamese set designers consistently disappoint audiences with reckless sets.
The only current exception seems to be the VND4-billion ($210,800) play Xin loi em chi la (Sorry, I'm just a...), in which the revolving stage at Hoa Binh Theater is used creatively and one scene includes a stuntman jumping down a waterfall (made with LED screen effects) from a height of 20 meters. Another scene features an elaborate bar set and lively performance by rock singer Minh Thu.
Huong Color said her shows had been constrained by the limits of the Vietnamese theater industry's resources.
At her Dep Fashion Freedom show last year, Huong wanted to place a 3m-tall glass cube on stage, "to express the idea of being confined versus the freedom theme of the show."
But she said the largest glass they could find in Vietnam was only 2.2m-tall.
"The size of the smaller box made the show less impressive and imposing and it dulled the main theme," she said.
Dep Fashion show stage director Pham Hoang Nam said the kinds of equipment he needed simply didn't exist in Vietnam. Instead he had to rent and purchase equipment in China.
But Dung said that what Vietnamese designers lacked in substance and style, they unfortunately made up for with superfluity.
Stage designer Kimb, who has arranged plays in HCMC theaters such as the 5B Theater, Phu Nhuan Theater and recently the upcoming cai luong play Ba chua tho Nom (Queen of Nom poem) at the HCMC Opera House, agreed.
She said that she was once asked to place a fish tank on the stage, even though it had nothing to do with the story of the play.
"Stage arrangement is not simply decoration, it is a matter of applying symbolism in a realistic style."
Director Nhu said, "the arrangement must serve certain meanings and the main theme of the play, in both direct and indirect ways."
But critics agree that many theater designers in Vietnam have yet to grasp this concept.