Doctor Chua Soo Pong from Singapore is directing a work entitled Dưới Bóng Đa Huyền Thoại (The Legendary Banyan Tree) for Việt Nam's Tuồng Theatre. The performance will be staged at Pohang International Performing Arts Festival in Pohang, South Korea in August.
Dr Chua completed his master's and doctorate in anthropology and ethnomusicology in the UK.
His works have been performed on nearly 80 international stages in the world. He has attended international stage competitions as juror, performer and chairman in many countries such as Turkey, Iran, India, Indonesia, Japan, Finland, Italy, Denmark, Russia, the US, and Việt Nam.
In recent years, he has worked with the Việt Nam National Drama Theatre staging The Mouse Daughter's Marriage, which was performed at Malaysia's George Town Festival in August, 2015.
He also led the theatre to perform in China, Japan, South Korea and Bangladesh.
Culture Vulture interviews Dr Chua about Vietnamese traditional tuồng classical drama and his efforts to popularise Vietnamese art in the world.
When did you begin to study Vietnamese traditional tuồng in general, and Việt Nam's Tuồng Theatre, in particular?
Tuồng Theatre is one of Asia's traditional theatres that has a long history, rich repertoire and complex performing aesthetics. I first saw tuồng when I came to Việt Nam as a senior specialist of the SEAMEO SPAFA Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts, to organise a seminar on documentation of performing arts in Southeast Asia.
Our partner is the Hà Nội Academy of Cinema and Theatre. I met Lê Đăng Thực, the director of the academy at that time. During the visit, I saw tuồng, chèo (traditional opera) and cải lương (reformed drama). I was most impressed by these beautiful theatrical genres of Việt Nam.
I also met Lê Tiến Thọ, a prominent tuồng artist, and we became good friends immediately as we share the passion of promoting traditional theatre as cultural heritage. I watched many more tuồng performances on my subsequent visits.
I also invited the Tuồng Theatre to participate in a Traditional Theatre at the Park and Seminar on Asian Traditional Festival I organised in 1988. Later, I facilitated the visit of Tuồng Theatre in China (I was then the Chief Adviser of the CHINA-ASEAN Theatre Week, in Nanning) and South Korea (Wonju),
Could you tell us more about the co-operation with the Tuồng Theatre?
It is a great honour to be invited by the Việt Nam Tuồng Theatre's director Phạm Ngọc Tuấn to direct The Legendary Banyan Tree. It was a rewarding experience to work with distinguished artists like People's Artist Hồng Khiêm, People's Artist Ánh Dương and Meritorious Artist Minh Tâm after watching their performances for many years.
I really did not encounter any difficulty as the Tuồng Theatre has a wonderful team of artists who are dedicated and willing to put in extra hard work to achieve artistic excellence. Tuồng shares many aesthetic principles of traditional theatre genres that I have worked with, like Chinese opera, Japanese kabuki, and Indonesian wayang wong. When I demonstrate the movements desired for a particular scene, they immediately understand the quality of movements needed. And we refine them together.
Traditional art festivals have been held annually in Việt Nam. Have you had chance to attend a tuồng festival?
I was honoured and privileged to be invited by artist Thọ to the Tuồng Festival to commemorate playwright Tống Phước Phổ. The festival was organised by the municipal People's Committee of Đà Nẵng and the Việt Nam Stage Artists' Association. The festival was an excellent showcase of the passion and dedication of the hundreds of artists who are devoted to one of the traditional art forms of Việt Nam.
Playwright Phổ was one of the most prolific and respected playwrights who contributed to the development of tuồng. He was bestowed posthumously with the Hồ Chí Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996, the highest award for such endeavours.
The festival gave me a rare opportunity to study his works and to view the works of six professional and 14 amateur tuồng theatre companies from different parts of Việt Nam. It was also an opportunity to visit Đà Nẵng's Nguyễn Hiển Dĩnh Tuồng Museum and Theatre at 155 Phan Châu Trinh Street, which hosted the 11-day festival.
What most impressed you at the festival?
I had many impressions of the festival. The Việt Nam Stage Artists' Association plays a key role in the promotion and protection of the tuồng theatrical genre. The event provides an opportunity for the Tuồng Theatre to present its works at a national level.
It is an honour for the amateur groups and an affirmation of their hard work and achievement in practicing the art form that does not attract young audiences.
The quality of productions varies as some lack resources and consistent training as seen from their simple props; inability to print brochures and make attractive costumes; and their lower level of performing skills.
The professional groups generally produce better shows supported by good orchestras, strong acting and singing. These productions are enhanced by good stage designs, too. There are also some outstanding actors and actresses among the amateur groups.
There are clear regional differences among the tuồng groups in musical styles. For example, I notice that the percussion of An Tư Công Chúa (Princess An Tư) by the HCM Tuồng Theatre was markedly different from the Việt Nam Tuồng Theatre of Hà Nội. The songs and music are not the same as those from northern Việt Nam.
The two productions from the central province of Thừa Thiên-Huế, Lâm Sanh-Xuân Nương and Ngô Vương Quyền (King Ngô Quyền) too, have distinctive musical styles.
There are the two types of repertoire including indigenous stories like Ngọn Lửa Hồng Sơn (Hồng Sơn Flame) and Sơn Hậu that have similar themes about loyalty, honesty, justice and perseverance in the traditional theatre of other Asian countries, like the Chinese opera traditional theatre, Indonesian wayong wong or khon of Thailand. These stories reflect the historical perspective of Vietnamese artists and the social issues with which they were concerned, as well as their cultural values.