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Nov 10, 2023 / 16:49

Water puppetry thirsty for young audience

The traditional folk art is trying to win back its place in the hearts of the young audience in Hanoi.

Water puppetry, which once drew a large audience, now seeks for younger generation, requiring efforts by both artists and regulators for this ancient kind of arts.

The indifference of young audiences

A water puppet performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Photo: Hanh Pham

Once being a spiritual type for the people of the Red River Delta and Vietnam, traditional water puppetry now struggles with the sad truth that it generates little attention, especially among the young population.

"I think there are now so many forms of entertainment and alternatives for young people to choose instead of traditional arts like water puppetry, especially when the plays of this art form have been the same for hundreds of years, which makes people less interested," said Quynh Chi, a student at Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

According to Minh Ha, an employee of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, customers who buy tickets for water puppet shows are predominantly foreign tourists and occasionally a few curious domestic travelers on holidays such as Vietnam's National Day on September 2 or the Mid-Autumn Festival.

In today's globalized world, exotic cultures have found their way to Vietnam, somehow changing the local taste for performing arts. Young people now have more alternatives to enjoy the arts, alienating them from the traditional ones, including water puppetry.

Finding a new appeal

 A scene from a water puppet show. Photo: Hanh Pham

Some have argued that the first step in attracting young audiences to traditional performing arts, including water puppetry, should be promotion. Communication is of paramount importance to making the young audience understand the art form. With it, young people and adults will likely come to traditional art theaters.
Water puppeteer Phan Thanh Liem believes that it is crucial to integrate traditional arts into schools to acquaint children with them. Children would be exposed to and inspired by traditional arts, including water puppetry, from an early age.

In the past, some water puppet troupes have promoted water puppetry in schools, but most were unsuccessful because they targeted high school students. The earlier young children are introduced to traditional arts, the more they will identify with them. Not only in cities but also in rural areas, the cradle of many ancient performing arts, young people show little interest in them.

 Young spectators enjoy a water puppet show at Dao Thuc Village, Dao Thuc Village, Dong Anh District, Hanoi. Photo: Roi nuoc Dao Thuc

Besides adding a contemporary touch to old plays, experts have said that water puppetry must also explore fresh, topical and exciting themes. The storyline is a vital element for water puppetry, not only to be entertaining but also to convey ideological and humanistic messages that will stay in the hearts of the audience for a long time.
Liem noted that no mechanism can keep young audiences hooked on the art forms other than the artists' true dedication and passion for the work.
In addition to better promotion, innovation and creativity are very important.
Meritorious artist Nguyen The Long, deputy director of the Vietnam National Puppetry Theater, said that in the era of Industry 4.0, there is a wealth of technology that can be applied to puppetry, such as sound and lighting equipment.

 Water puppet characters. Photo: Roi nuoc Dao Thuc

"LED lighting has never been used in puppet shows before, but we are using it to enhance the visuals and better convey the message. Although there are various ways to innovate, the variations must still retain the soul of the nation, the soul of water puppetry," said Long.
How can the quintessence and values of the nation's traditional culture and art be preserved and spread to a broader audience, especially young people? It is a question for artists and State cultural management agencies and those who love and cherish the nation's traditional cultural values.
According to craftsman Phan Thanh Liem, to preserve traditional values, we must distinguish between what can be innovated and what cannot while maintaining traditional values. If every artist deviates a little, the original values will disappear in a few years, and children won't know what traditional art is like.
"The traditional art goes hand in hand with creativity, but creativity should stay within the bounds.

 Artisans from Dao Thuc Village are preparing for a water puppet show. Photo: Roi nuoc Dao Thuc

Water puppetry is a traditional form from the 11th century Ly Dynasty. Villagers in the Red River Delta and other rice-growing regions in northern Vietnam staged water puppet shows to celebrate the end of the rice harvest, religious festivals, and other important occasions.
The villages of Thach Xa and Dao Thuc in Hanoi and Rach and Nguyen Xa in nearby Nam Dinh and Thai Binh provinces, respectively, are some of the earliest known centers of water puppetry.
Traditionally, water puppet performances depicting the daily lives of Vietnamese peasants (farming, buffalo herding, and fishing), community entertainment (swimming races and dragon dances), or historical legends (such as Le Loi returning the precious sword to the Golden Turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake) have captivated audiences for centuries.