Not Just for Stages
Vietnamese water puppetry's stage (Photo: hanoicitybreaks)
Water puppetry is one of major styles of Vietnamese culture and art, which shows the creativity of the people; being that they used their environment as the mainstay of Vietnam was the wet-rice fields. Water puppetry simply comprised of two basic components, puppets and water.
The puppets, on land, were big, bulky creations that were cumbersome to move but on the water, placed on floating barges, viewed from a distance, these larger than life puppets became magical works of art.
Thuy Dinh, the Basic Setup
Thuy Dinh is the actual name for the art. There was just as much work that went into the set up as in the performance.
First: The Water pavilion – This was basically the stage setting and generally occupied the middle of the pond. In this pavillion there was a floating chamber of bamboo closed at the three sides with a bamboo screen hanging in the front, basically a floating barge with a screen. The puppeteers stood waist-deep in the pond just behind the floating screen in order to manipulate the puppets.
Second: The Actual Stage – the front of the screen, a square water stage of about 4x4 is where there have attached low fences, which surrounded the area where the puppets performed.
Third: The Audiences Seating– At the edge of the pond, on both sides of the stage, usually underneath the trees is where the audience was seated. The water puppet theatre was the main place at festivals. The audiences would flock to the water’s edge to get the best seats, with some of the children actually going into the water.
As I said already, these performances showed the culture of the people so the performances basically told stories of:
Everyday life activities of the people;
Useful entertainments that projected political sentiment and local desires.;
As with many of the traditional puppetry uses, plays of national heroes and historical events;
Traditional operas, similar to those done in buranku.
After more than 20 years of empirical rule, the Lam Son uprising occurred leading to a succession of leadership and the ushering in of the Le Dynasty in 1428. It was during this cultural reformation, if you will, that the traditional arts were brought back in. The Le dynasty attached importance to the traditional theater arts so the traditional opera became a staple.
The largest outside theatre has currently existed in Thay pagoda (Ha Tay), built in Long Tri pond, in front of the pagoda yard in the Later Le dynasty.
Later, though Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) only focused on developing Tuong, the folkloric puppetry art that still remains and is seen regularly in the villages today.
How Far Back?
So ow old is this art form? Historians are still arguing this. The history of establishment and development has been under close scrutiny of researchers for decades. The historical documents clearly show the operation of puppetry in Vietnam from the 10th. On the basis of craftsmanship, history shows that building palaces and pagodas were followed by theaters.
Just like today, the people looked for any reason to throw a party and with that festival came entertainment usually centered around the puppet performance in order to commend the work of the people, the building of structures, leadership birthdays, births, deaths, you name it, there was a festival thrown in honor of it.
Sound in the Water?
The main music used in the water puppetry performance is the music of Cheo which is the specific traditional art in the Northern plain. In addition to instrumentalists, there are Cheo singers. Music, songs, all in combination with movements of the puppets tat lead the audiences to understand the plays.
The main musical instruments used in the performances are: