I began with translations. My friend Phuong and I would sit in the Manager’s office discussing the nuances of our ancient text and which English words would be the best to communicate them.
“Around the mountain of Hong Linh, silver clouds disperse. The Lam River is formed by two flowing branches, one transparent, one opaque. Night falls on the river, lie and listen to the sloshing of the waves.”
The scripts were replete with such prose, heavy on folkloric scenery and the most noble occasions in Vietnamese history – battles won, maidens saved, lands conquered. Always a lotus in a distant mist, forever a drum ringing through still mountains.
Consuming these banal narratives for hours on end, it was not difficult to see why the theatre was struggling. Its substance was tired, outdated, irrelevant to Vietnam’s modern aspirations, one the fastest growing nations in the world. Hanoi and its populace were looking forward and were eager to move that way: high-rise projects across the city, iPhone case stores sprouting on every street corner, a near obsession with anything new. It is no surprise then that appreciation for thirteenth century folklore and traditional music lingered mostly among the oldest generations and tourists searching for depth and novelty in their travels.
It was painful seeing three hundred empty seats night to night, dedicated and talented actors playing their passion for no one. I proposed some ideas to the director and through a series of casual decisions on everyone’s part, it was settled that I should market the theatre to Hanoi’s tourists.
A lobby full of patrons mingles amongst each other amicably, sipping on royal lotus tea in delicate blue-white china. People soon file – efficiently but on their own accord! – into the dark arena, heavy with anticipation of the colorful spectacular about to effloresce. They had come to Ha Noi for this.
Hau, the in-house marketer, was twenty-seven and three months pregnant with her second baby. From the start she would hold my hands and arms frequently, and she began every one of her rough Viet-English translations with “excuse me.” No doubt the result of a tedious job and heavy responsibility at home, Hau looked chronically tired even through her smiles. It seemed that she was the one to take the brunt of the theatre’s failures, mostly through misguided reprimands from higher-ups and an air of lofty expectation that surrounded her every task, as if each of her singular actions had to have a tangible result in terms of increased audienceship. “Excuse me, I hope you help us,” she’d repeat in a way that was deliberate and cautious.
Hau became my point person because our roles were similar and her English was the best among theatre staff. We’d be on the street before every show, Hau in her traditional dress with a handful of flyers, and me informing oddly-shaped Westerners about details practical and abstract – how much was a ticket? Did the ornate costumes mean anything? To collide on foot – this was the theatre’s chief strategy at the time, and it was tragically contingent on the weather and general luck.
What we needed most was new promotional materials. I designed new ones, but there was no money for more than a few hundred prints. They had ordered thousands of pamphlets with more information any guest could possibly want, blocks of summaries and irrelevant details in a pale mustard hue. This would all be manageable had they been factual, the gravest error being incorrect show times and days.
This meant hours of daily extra work for Hau, printing out strips of sticky paper with the correct times, then painstakingly applying two on each pamphlet. A stack of one hundred would take over an hour to complete, and we needed them for outreach to hotels and travel agencies. We’d labor away together on this inane but necessary task, if only to best siphon our time and human capital.
The lights dim and there is a decrescendo of hushes among the audience. Suddenly the ringing of huge hefty drums reverberates through the room. Their faces are lit up green and red, and the sea of floating heads show looks of wonder and excitement. The show was beginning.
The first few weeks were permeated with impromptu meetings with random groups of men, saturated in rice wine and enveloped in clouds of tobacco smoke, who would only comment on my skin, height, weight and face. My attempts to discuss strategy and short-term action were met with hearty laughs, for it was, as it was explained to me, customary of professional dealings in Vietnam to first focus on light chit-chat and building good personal rapport with colleagues. I noticed, though, over time the theme of these meetings didn’t change.
“I’d like to give a discount to students. Many tourists think the tickets are too expensive for an hour-long show.” After a lot of smiling in my direction, one of the men got up to fetch the vodka.
We’d go back to our office without any slight satisfaction surrounding our agenda, and continue stickering.
Laughter erupts as the Mandarin’s bumbling attendants have tied themselves together 101-Dalmations-style in pursuit of a sly assailant. They’ve been tricked into drunken stupor. What comedy!
We could have said it was because of the rain, but we were too hard on ourselves for that. There were a few weeks of all-time low attendance and several show cancellations. Actors in full make-up and costume would float around the lobby, talking, smoking, playing with their kids, waiting to do a job no one was interested in. I would stand there tenuously, looming, as I felt cast in self-judgement projected onto others: Here was the foreigner who was supposed to help us, and now she’s just standing there, judging herself. Can you believe that?
Not one harsh word was directed towards me, only constant generosities and smiles – this time with a bluer flavor – but I would hesitate saying the same for Hau. By then I knew the difference between neutral and harsh Vietnamese. Besides, Hau’s sweet tired face said it all.
“What a show that was,” Fran from Minnesota beams to her son as they file out. “And pictures with the cast, too! What a show that was.”
By the end, it felt like trying to stop a colossal wave from reaching the shore. All we could really do was listen.
My contract ended in July, and I chose not to renew. On the last day I clambered up the dark stairs for one last time to say goodbye to Hau, to tell her she could call me anytime to help her sticker the mountain of useless pamphlets that sat tauntingly in the corner.
The stairwell was lined with dusty black-and-white prints of a show in action, flaunting the bold-faced greats and an age when everyone here was more alive. I followed these up to the third floor offices, now quiet and empty. Hau’s light was on.
“I’m not good at this,” she said, slouching in her chair, her eyes small and despondent. “It’s just me here, I do not know what to do.” The rotating fan in the corner became stuck and started clicking, clicking, clicking. “It’s not your fault,” I said. My eyes glazed over as I stared intently at nothing. “You know what? I’m not good at this either.” Hau smiled as she fiddled with her hands in her lap.
We sat there listening to the despairing fan as this thick truth hung in the leaden air of our office, the one of delusions lost, not really knowing what to do with it but deciding to finish the day on our own terms.∗