Vietnam plan for 70 new theaters met with skepticism

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A foreign tourist at a pottery display in front of the Kim Ma Theater in Hanoi

A government plan to open 71 new theaters across Vietnam has raised eyebrows on those who say poor designs and arts funding cuts will make for a whole new set of ugly abandoned buildings.

Under the plan, the theaters will be among 294 cultural works to receive a total investment of VND10.8 trillion (US$514 million) from now through 2020, but hopes for the project are not high.

A report on Tuoi Tre recently quoted performing arts industry professionals as saying that the plans to build the theaters did not take into account managing the theaters nor the personnel investment required to make such a plan work. They said the projects would be lack properly-trained architects.

The plan calls for the building 51 new theaters and upgrades of 20 others.

Speaking to the newspaper, Tran Binh, director of the Theater of Vietnam Music, Dance and Song in Hanoi, said he "applauded" the plan, but doubted that the new theaters would be well designed, or even meet bare-minimum standards. He said that all playhouses in Vietnam were "badly" built.

For example, at the Bac Ninh Theater, which was built a couple of years ago, audience sitting at the first front row are only able to see the performing artists from the knees upwards, Binh said.

"It should be taboo that a theater is not built to decent standard, but it is quite common in our country," he said. "Whether new theaters are big or small, the most important thing is quality."

Hoang Dao Kinh, former vice chairman of Vietnam Architect Association, agreed with Binh, saying that all theaters built in Vietnam after 1954 are simply "meeting halls that are used for various functions."

"There are no real theaters here," he said.

In fact, local architectural schools do not train architects to  design theaters, while other universities have yet to offer courses related to the operation of a theater like lighting, according to Kinh.

Since Vietnam does not have a "tradition" of building theaters, the project will probably end up with similar theaters built across the country, each one without distinctive characteristics, the architect said.

Raising the same concern, Pham Ngoc Tuan, director of Vietnam Tuong Theater, warned that building a good theater is not easy.

According to Binh, performing arts troupes would't be able to afford to rent high quality theaters.

Binh's is the only group that currently rents the Hanoi Opera House, which charges VND35 million ($1,665) for each show, he said. It is VND47 million ($2,236) for the Au Co Theater.

Additionally, beginning next year, the government will stop subsidizing some 130 performing arts groups and many will not survive, Binh said.

"Without investing in human resources, what is the point of building theaters? Who will perform in them? Or will they be rented for conferences, business meetings, or weddings?" he asked.

"We truly doubt the project -- it is too dreamy!"

Agreeing with Binh, Prof. Trung Kien, former deputy culture minister and a veteran singer, said: "We are so glad that the government and society care about us. But the most important thing is not to build theaters, but human resources."

In response to the concerns, Phan Dinh Tan, the spokesman of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, said it was necessary to build the theaters, because Vietnam lacked such spaces for the performing arts.

The works are also needed for economic development and in order to lessen the burdens on the Hanoi Opera House and other theaters, Tan said.

However, despite the ministry's insistence, most insiders still doubt the feasibility of the project.

Binh, for instance, said that 51 theaters would take forever to build, given that the construction of Au Co Theater lasted for more than ten years, even though it hosts only 800 seats. 

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