Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to live. The nightlife, the food, the people – it’s hard to find a more fascinating, more energetic and more welcoming urban environment on the planet. But of course, there are flaws. The pollution is one, the traffic is another, and then there’s the cultural life.
We’ve all complained one time or another that apart from the more or less regular classical concerts at the Opera House, and of course the A O Show, Ho Chi Minh City’s cultural scene is nowhere close to Hanoi’s dynamic offerings. Westerners are having a hard time finding events that are not a club party.
We sat down with Jennifer Dizon Turner, director, actor and handywoman at Saigon Players, one of the city’s three theatre groups, to find out why Ho Chi Minh City is giving creatives such a hard time.
Big-Time European Theatre in Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon Players began putting on shows in 2003, which means they will celebrate their 14th (!) season this summer. It all started with a group of friends, two of whom were theatre majors, that went by the name of An Phu Players, as An Phu Ward in District 2 was where they lived and played.
From their humble start with small dramas and monty pythonesque sketches, charity was always a key element of the project, or, as Emily Huckson, a lovely and lively actor of the group put it at the end of their greatly delightful show Miss Julie by Swedish playwright August Strindberg:
“We feed our egos to entertain you, and give back everything we earn.”
The group soon started to strive for a more professional setup and today they look back fondly at early shows in various bars including Alibi French Wine Bar, Vasco's Bar & Restaurant (rest in peace), Sheridan's Irish House, the old La Habana (now on Le Lai) and even at the Lotte Legend Hotel. Today, however, their lighting and sound systems have grown bigger and better than ever.
But it was only when studied drama teacher Jennifer Dizon Turner arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 that Saigon Players reinvented itself:
“When I came on board, I wanted to do full-length plays. I noticed that Saigon Players was all about short sketches and pantos. We needed more variety. I wanted to do more of what I’d like to see on stage myself.”
And what was that? “The greats, like Sartre, Lorca or Ibsen. All of the plays we stage are really my favourites.” Big-time European theatrical culture had suddenly reached the southern Vietnamese metropolis.
Two Flies in the Ointment
But from the beginning, there were also two problems. The first one is a classic: money. “In 2009,” Jennifer complains, “it was so easy to find people who would give money.” Renault, for instance, was among the theatre group’s early sponsors. “Now we can’t even raise a hundred dollars.“ This is all the more disappointing when one bears in mind the large amount of cultural institutions around.
“I constantly try to get cultural organisations here involved. No reply, nothing!”
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s business hub and “little Singapore” to be, simply lacks support for independent troupes like Saigon Players as companies strive to be cost-efficient and invest in their own active businesses.
Downer number two: staging Western plays in Ho Chi Minh City is anything but easy. While Vietnamese theatre is flourishing, Jennifer says, “To be able to put on a show at a real theatre, like the shows the Vietnamese are putting on, you have to apply for a performance licence.” And this proved to be roadblock for any ambitious Western-style theatre project, as, other than music or dance shows, plays usually come with a strong statement that is thoroughly scrutinised and often rejected by officials.
Interestingly, Hanoi is much more open to a varied cultural scene by tradition: “Hanoi really supports the arts,” says Jennifer. You want a licence for a Western play up there? You’re likely to get it! It all comes down to the officials in charge.
Under the Radar
A “real theatre”, that would be the Opera House, of course, or the many local playhouses. Instead, Saigon Players tours through Ho Chi Minh City’s schools, bistros and bars. “We’ve played pretty much anywhere where there’s a space that we think could be turned into a theatre,” Jennifer remembers: the Australian International School, Boomerang Bistro in D7 and even empty units at the The Vista apartment building in District 2!
Saigon Players is condemned to stay under the radar; and this entails more difficulties:
“We’ve always had that problem about venues. Because of course, we go to bars or to restaurants, they’re busy, we can’t really rehearse whenever we want.”
So they do their rehearsals at home; Jennifer’s home to be precise. “All our stuff is scattered wherever we find a place for it. I store the sound and light equipment at my school,” – Jennifer works as a teacher – “come to my house and you’ll find a room full of costumes and stage props. We wish we had a place where we could do the rehearsals, organise our shows and store our stuff.”
The bottom line is, “It’s really hard for Western theatre to flourish here.” But this is not going to discourage Saigon Players to continue doing what they do best:
Entertaining the Crowd
“I think our strength is: we have our team of creatives who plan the show, choose good plays and we know our audience. That’s how we’re able to attract them.”
Who is that audience? Mostly expats, but Saigon Players also attracts Vietnamese. Jennifer is aware of Vietnamese habits when it comes to cultural shows: never. stop. entertaining. Hence their ever-dynamic shows, which involve the audience with family-friendly dinner-theatre or interactive Rocky Horror Halloween Madness nights.
Jennifer gives an example of just how committed she and her team are to their favourite pastime:
“Imagine that after our Rocky Horror show, I’m bringing home all those wet, awfully sweaty and smelly costumes of 26 people to wash them – we’re talking about G-strings and stockings here!”
When you consider the price of the tickets (they typically hover between VND 250,000 and VND 300,000), their commitment to charity projects, and the participation of surprisingly talented actors and creative directors, there's really no excuse: support the arts in HCMC, check out Saigon Players’ programme on saigonplayers.com and get ready to be entertained!