Wild about Wilde

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A classic comedy sets the stage for realizing theatrical dreams for a couple of expats

A scene in the dress rehearsal of "˜The Importance of Being Earnest.' Critics said that Vietnamese up-and-coming Lan Phuong (in red) has fulfilled her role with good acting and English-speaking skills.

"When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country, one amuses other people."

Jaime Zúñiga and Aaron Toronto are serious about amusing other people. They are also serious about many other things.

The Nicaraguan and American both residents of Ho Chi Minh City have been brought together by their love of theater to present what they hope will be the first of many plays in English for all speakers of the language, including Vietnamese.

Fittingly, their first production, presented at the Youth World Theater on Thursday, October 20 was Oscar Wilde's "The importance of being Earnest," described often as "a trivial comedy for serious people."

The cast comprised two Vietnamese actresses, one famous and the other relatively unknown, an American, Australian and Austrian. They came from different backgrounds, one a freelancer, one a computer engineer and another a full-time mother with some experience in theater acting. All of them said "yes" to the project's initiators, Jaime Zúñiga and Aaron Toronto, without any hesitation.

They are also agreed that they want to build an English theater with a professional framework and productions that not only make a profit, but also exert a positive influence on society.

New paths

An economics graduate in Nicaragua, Zúñiga began working for a leading logistics group in the country before moving to the company's branch in Vietnam.

It was after his arrival here three years ago that his love for theater was reawakened after many years. He had been involved in acting and directing plays when he was a high school student, but had been caught up in his studies and career since. 

To see so many theaters in Vietnam was a surprise, and his interest in exploring the local culture led him to watch some of them.

"There are many theaters in Vietnam and lots of shows to watch. But for the first few months after coming here, I could not find any English theaters. I actually went to see some shows in Vietnamese, but I floundered and wanted to see something that I completely understood," said Zúñiga.

This led eventually to a meeting with Saigon Players, a group of expats who share a love for the theater and Jaime became passionate about theater once again.

"I started to get involved with them after a workshop hosted by Emily Huckson, chief of Saigon Players and writer of most of the group's plays. I played my first role in their "˜Miss-Ed Saigon' and decided to carry out my own curtain dream."

Zúñiga said he went a few times to Singapore and watched plays there, and thought: "Why, can't we do something like that in Vietnam?"

He found the answer after landing a lighting job in British TNT Theater's "A Christmas Carol." One of the actors in the play was Aaron Toronto, who was also interested in producing plays locally in English.

"Two days before the opening, I sit here and proudly tell you about it. Everybody was excited" said Zúñiga.

Toronto also knew he had found a match.

"I am always thinking that a film is a director's game and the play is controlled by the actors. Like Jaime, I used to join my high school's drama club and perform for the community. But the passion was latent for a long time, since I knew I belonged to the cinema. When I took part in "˜A Christmas Carol' in 2009 with a humorous role, I really wanted to do something better."

"Algernon Moncrieff in Oscar Wilde's classic work is that better. A dandy, witty scoundrel and dedicated follower of fashion are good words to depict my character. He is actually me," Toronto said, laughing.

The 32-year-old American, who has lived in Vietnam for the last seven years and speaks the local language like a native, was speaking in Vietnamese when he told Thanh Nien Weekly that building an English theater for both locals and foreigners in HCMC is not an impossible mission.

"Previously, some expat groups were just doing plays based on the volunteers and only for the expat community. It is not a bad way, but it will be better, especially in quality, if we create a professional one. It will be like a bridge that connects the local and expat communities. For instance, we try to bring a good show; the audiences accept the chance to discover a new culture."

Zúñiga said he had three targets for his project.

"First, if we have to do a play, we have to do it right, with professional quality. Second, it will be much better if the audience is expanded to have not just expats but also English-speaking Vietnamese people of all ages. And last but not least, attracting the Vietnamese theater's professionals to join, like talented actress Lan Phuong, who we have in our debut show."

The choice of play was not a hard one.

"Why Oscar Wilde? Simple. Aaron and I were discussing the theater project. He said, "˜Oh, we should do something like "˜The Importance of Being Earnest.' It must be a comedy, very funny with understandable and accessible language and Oscar Wilde is a big name. And we thought, why don't we do exactly that play? That's how it started."

Educational art

Zúñiga said that he has applied a Nicaraguan theater model, for this show and is likely to use it for future shows as well.

"We make more expensive shows for people who can afford it and the same performances for students with cheaper tickets. The more expensive tickets will subsidize the cheaper ones, but the show can approach more people. It works in Nicaragua and I think it could get the same success here. We will tell you the result after six performances of the show," he said with a confident smile.

Two of the six performances of "The Importance of Being Earnest" are saved for students with a competitive price of VND200,000 for all seats. In the four other shows, tickets cost from VND200,000 to VND500,000 each, with special discounts for students, who can get balcony seats for VND100,000.

Toronto was upbeat as he said the tickets were nearly sold out. If the audience were to like the play, they would be even more confident of realizing their final goal.

Zúñiga said he wants to take the project one step further. He said he and his team will cooperate with the schools to include the play as a lesson.

"That is a way for theater to contribute to education in Vietnam."

Another innovation that that Zúñiga is proud about is "hot seating."

"Hot seating is a 30-minute-long exercise where the actors, after the two-and half hour long showtime, still remain in their characters and answer questions from the audiences. And it is not just the cast, but the theater crew who will take questions as well.

"It will be interesting and mark our production with a specific trait in the local theater industry."

So what's next?

"I can just say that I will adapt a play, from a noted French novel, for local children. Let's wait and see."

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