Hanoi puppeteers get out of the water to stay afloat

Vietnamese water puppetry theater artists perform at a year-end ceremony for a student audience. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

As the Covid-19 pandemic drains their audience pool of foreign tourists, Hanoi’s water puppetry theaters are making fresh overtures on land.

The Vietnam Puppet Theater in Hanoi recently resumed operations after a three-month closure owing to the pandemic. However, since foreign tourists, its main audience, cannot enter the country, the theater runs just one show a day, and this is mostly non-water performances for kids.

Earlier, two to three shows a day was the norm, and this would go up to eight shows when demand was particularly high. As water puppetry is a popular art form in Vietnam the theater is well known within the country and abroad.

Nguyen Tien Dung, director of the theater, said the number of water puppetry shows have never been as low as this, even lower than the non-water shows. Earlier, the number of non-water puppetry performances was only one third of the water shows.

The theater, in Thanh Xuan District's 361 Truong Chinh Street, used to welcome 600-900 visitors a day, but this has shrunk to about 300 now. Its turnover in the first half of the year was just a third of the same period last year.

The Thang Long Puppet Theater in Hanoi is in similar dire straits. After reopening, the theater runs three performances a week, compared to three to five performances a day. Located by Hanoi’s iconic Hoan Kiem Lake, the theater usually has a large number of foreign visitors, who accounted for 85 percent of its total admissions.

Before the pandemic struck, the theater received more than 1,000 visitors a day, but now it takes a week to accumulate the same number of visitors. It used to have a turnover of more than VND100 million ($4,300) a day, but now finds it difficult to manage that in a month.

Although the revenue is not enough for operations and overheads, the theater remains open.

"We had never imagined such a situation. Covid-19 has made us miserable. Thankfully, the theater has a standby fund which is used for essentials like repairs and paying salaries in this difficult time. But if this situation lasts for another year, we will have to close," said Chu Luong, deputy director of the Thang Long Puppet Theater.

Trying new things

With their main audience missing in action, the puppetry theaters are trying to attract more attention from the domestic audience, especially children.

This month, for instance, the Vietnam Puppet Theater has focused on performing at schools for their year-end ceremonies, allowing them to have a show almost every day.

Dung said this was a very positive sign as it shows they can still perform regularly and that puppetry is still appealing to local people.

Artists of the Thang Long Puppet Theater have also been actively introducing their shows to new audiences. They have been rehearsing and tailoring their puppets to better appeal to children. They are also performing in schools.

To boost the art’s profile, the theater has started to perform two promotional sessions right in front of the theater at 7:30 - 8:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday at 57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street in Hoan Kiem District, around the walking street area that thousands visit every week.

While the theater operators say they look forward to the return of international tourists, they also hope the domestic audience will pay more attention to the traditional art.

They are doing their best to make the latter happen.