The watchers behind the curtain

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Vietnamese theater artists celebrate a variety of patron saints

  Artists attend the Giá»— Tổ (Anniversary of Tổ) celebration at Ho Chi Minh City Drama Theater on September 27. Photo: Hoang Duan

Theaters in Vietnam often don't have proper lighting or sound systems, and some don't have curtains or seats. They can lack just about pretty much anything.

But the one thing no theater no matter how low-budget it is will never go without is a small space backstage for a modest little altar.

Before every show at the Ho Chi Minh City Drama Theater, the fully-costumed and made-up cast bow down to pray and worship at the altar of Tổ, the patron saint of the Vietnamese stage arts.

The word Tổ literally translates to "ancestor", but different artists (particularly different theater companies and troupes) worship different forms of Tổ and call it by different names.

For this particular theater, Tổ is two princes referred to as Hai ong hoang me hat, or "the two princes who loved to sing."

The altar has small doll-like statues of the two princes made of coral wood and dressed in colorful performance clothes.

The altar faces the stage so the princes can watch over the performers. A thin cloth veil is wrapped over the altar, split in the middle like a curtain so the statues can watch the performance through the smoke of the incense offerings.

Hoang Duan, a popular drama and cai luong (southern Vietnamese opera) director and actor, told Vietweek that the offerings help performances run smoothly and naturally.

"We artists have done it for years, following our ancestors' footsteps"¦The worship sets our mind at rest," he said.

"Once I forgot to do it, and I felt insecure and was not in my element. My performance was disappointing."


There are many popular slang phrases that use the word Tổ, particularly among artists.

Tổ Ä‘á»™ is used to describe artists who are serious and successful. Tổ trác implies failure and a fall from grace. Tổ phạt if for those who have been punished by Tổ for insolence towards their colleagues or audiences. Tổ lấy nghề refers to those who stop practicing the art, even though they love it, to go make money elsewhere. Tổ hành describes artists who become broke, beggars, crazy or criminal.

Nearly all theater artists in Vietnam believe in and pay respect to Tổ, and last month they celebrated an annual festival in honor of the patron saint (or saints). Special ceremonies, rituals, and worship practices are performed in the morning before celebrations and parties in the afternoon. The theater holiday festival, officially recognized as "Vietnamese Theater Day" here, comes every 11th and 12th days of the eighth lunar month, which fell on September 26-27 this year.

Legendary hat boi (traditional Vietnamese opera) artist Dinh Bang Phi, who has spent years performing and studying the Vietnamese stage arts, described the day as a special occasion when artists gather out of respect for the patron and make ceremonial offerings.

"They whisper their career's hopes and dreams into the ears of their saints," he told Vietweek.

Honoring the audience

Phi said that there are many stories about who and what Tổ is (or are) that artists of the different forms of stage arts such as conventional modern theater drama (which in Vietnam resembles Western dramatic theater), cai luong, hat boi, cheo (traditional operetta) have been told and still tell.

One of them most popular stories is the story of the two brother princes, but there are also stories in which kings, beggars and even bandits or pirates who became the patrons. Some even worship a collective of 12 saints each of which performed a different job in the theater, like making costumes or sets known as the twelve Cot Ong (which translates to "Born of the founders"). These patrons are worshiped for "founding" various parts of stagecraft.

Duan said that the story about two young princes from an unspecific time long, long ago, who were infatuated with theater, is what inspired the altar at the Ho Chi Minh City Drama Theater.

"Their father forbade them to watch any more theater, but they did not obey. One day, the brothers were found dead in a small room backstage that they had snuck into in order to watch performances secretly.

But the cause of their death no matter how mythical or true the story is has been lost over the centuries.

"The story has many variants. One version says there is only one prince. This prince loved theater and was also forbidden by his father to watch it. But instead of dying backstage, he died in the bushes of a low coral tree, where he had hid to watch a show.

People then saw the ghost of the prince (or princes) appear and watch the show.

Via local folk stories that became established lore and legend, people began to believe that the princely ghost(s) was watching over the art form from the heavens. So they began paying tribute and honoring the patron saint with altars. Every Vietnamese troupe still has their own altar to do so.

Phi said the princes represent the audiences. "They are the audiences that expressed great love for the art. The artists' patrons are the audiences because without the audiences' support, no art can live."

Modern times

Phi said that at first, only hat boi, cai luong and cheo artists worshipped Tổ.

"Then, Tổ became the common patron of many arts, from traditional to modern ones such as music, cinema and modeling."

He said this was a positive development for the Vietnamese art world and arts culture as it created solidarity among artists. He said having a patron in their hearts, artists would treat the form with more respect.

"The true respect for the craft and where it came from could help protect the art," he said.

Phi said that when artists believe that Tổ is watching over them to either help and reward them, or even punish their misdeeds they are more likely to remain pure and true to their art.

But a lot of rules come with it.

Some artists worship children from the audience as patrons, so certain fruits and drinks are not allowed at the altar such as sugar cane juice and persimmons as it is believed that the children's spirits find these irresistible and will indulge in them instead of watching over the show and performers.

Sometimes the patron saint can take the form of a beggar, so artists don't give money to beggars only food as they want the art to remain pure and true and not commercialized.

Likewise, there is a story of a bandit who became a patron saint because when theater troupes used to travel by river they would beat a drum to alert bandits and pirates in the area that they were artists and the crooks would have enough respect for the form not to bother them.

Phi said that besides the mythical deities, some stage artists also pay homage to real-life forebears of each genre of art like cheo's Pham Thi Tran, hat boi's Dao Duy Tu, Dao Tan and cai luong's Cao Van Lau, Tong Huu Dinh.

"˜Sacred part of life'

The annual Giỗ Tổ (Anniversary of Tổ) celebrations always give local artists a day off work to celebrate the protectors of their craft.

Ho Chi Minh City's theaters celebrated it in a variety of unique ways this year.

Ai Nhu, head of Hoang Thai Thanh drama stage, said it doesn't matter how big the party is or how many artists take part.

"Every artist considers the day an important and sacred part of their life, so they will attend the anniversary at any cost. We do not perform for money on this day, we just gather and share the ups and downs of the life path we've chosen," Nhu told Vietweek.

Sixty-three-year-old Bao Quoc, who is a renowned senior cai luong and drama actor, told Vietweek that as a child, he and his dad used to celebrate the day as a father-to-son event by performing their favorite scenes together for their colleagues along with other father-son acts in front of their Tổ altar.

Quoc also said that the anniversary is also a chance for supporting actors to show off their improvement to the troupe's leaders.

It is common after some solemn ceremonies for the artists to perform together and for each other, but mostly to entertain the deities. They do this at their theaters, or even at home.

It is the one time the protector patrons get to just sit back, relax and enjoy the show, without worrying about whether or not it will be accepted by the audience, because they are the audience.

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