Playing to the gallery

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HITS"˜s amateur thespians stage Winter One Acts, a sold-out-run of shows for last year's production at the Chuong Vang (Golden Bell) Theater in Hanoi 

Watching a half-an-hour romp in the hay by a couple is not something diners expect to see in a restaurant.

Yet, watching two foreigners making it out amid the sound of a coffee machine and people ordering food has been a recent treat at Hanoi's buzzing Chez Xuan Restaurant.

What the customers have been watching is a rehearsal by the Hanoi International Theater Society (HITS), an expat theater group, ahead of its annual spring show.

HITS comprises of theater-lovers from all over the world who live in the Vietnamese capital and have been active since 2001. It brings together amateur thespians seeking to explore creative expression and drama as both a leisure and community development activity.

It typically puts on a major production, ranging from musicals to dramas, and sometimes even a fantasy comedy, once a year. But it also holds other weekly and monthly activities such as play reading nights, staged readings, workshops for those wishing to dip their toe in the world of theater.

"We work to encourage an appreciation of drama in our community and seek to involve members in all aspects of theater production," Nadia Engelbrecht, a Belgian-American director and a member of HITS's board of directors, said.

Rose Arnold, a British member, added: "We believe that HITS draws people close together, lifts their spirit and provides them with a social and educational outlet."

Human resources

Every year the group turns to its audiences and all of Hanoi to ask if anyone is interested in directing a production. This might seem daunting but is a whole lot of fun and has proven successful.

Since the chosen scripts are all English-based, the plays tend to have mostly English-speaking actors.

"As you know, people come and go," Engelbrecht explained.

"The expat community is very transient here, so we try to make the most of the talent available."

However, with the improving English standards among young Vietnamese, it is exciting to see that HITS has been getting more Vietnamese coming to auditions and getting parts. Also, while its membership consists mainly of amateur thespians, most of the directors have formal education in drama.

Thus, while HITS is committed to shows that are enjoyable and fun for all, it also strives for professional quality. Their past productions include both classical works and comedies like Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Nile, Amy Cherry's the Wizard of Oz, and Beauty and the Beast.

"We now regularly command audiences of 1,000," Engelbrecht said.

To facilitate mutual support, recognition, and exchange of ideas, the group has occasionally collaborated with foreign counterparts like the American Community Theater in Hongkong.

Community theater, at its best, both draws from and gives back to the local community. But HITS goes a step further than usual by being not only an art group but also a small independent charity for expatriates living and working in Hanoi. All of its proceeds go to charity.

In 2004 the group made its first donation to Together Higher, a Hanoi-based dance troupe comprising of seven hearing impaired and five professional dancers, enabling it to buy proper dance attire.

Since then the group has assisted many more in need - like a theater group run by HIV-positive people in Binh Dinh Province, REACH, a Vietnamese non-government organization specializing in vocational training and employment for most disadvantaged youths, Health Right International's Promoting Community Based Care for Orphans and Vulnerable Children project, and Blue Dragon, an organization working with street children, trafficking victims, disabled children, and very poor families.

Some HITS members have even gone on to work for non-government organizations the group has supported.

Even the choice to deliver their lines against the background clatter of glasses and waiters in a busy restaurant-turned-stage is done with the larger community at heart.

"We not only assist with cash donations; by rehearsing and performing at restaurants like this, we hope to raise awareness of community theater among a wider audience," Jacqueline Louise Cadger, a Scottish member, explained.

Guaranteed fun: Mark the date, spread the word

"I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats. I am going to see it again and again." From the rehearsal it appears that HITS's upcoming spring production too would gives those sassy felines a run for their money.

The plays will be staged over three days next month. Directors Kelly Brennan from Britain, Cadger, and Engelbrecht and more than 20 actors from all over the world will entertain audiences with a mixture of dramatic and comedic plays, all ranging from five to 10 minutes.

The shows will be at 8 p.m on April 11, 12, and 13 at Chez Xuan.

HITS's website (www.hitshanoi.com) has more information about tickets and how to get involved.

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