Behind the scenes with members of Dragonfly Theatre, Saigon’s professional English language theatre troupe
“We’re here because we love what we do. Everyone’s in it because they love it,” says David Delves, whose passion for the theatre is undeniable. Originally from London, where he went to school for the performing arts, David is currently one of the board members of Dragonfly Theatre Company. Dragonfly Theatre was founded in 2010 by theatre-loving expats Jaime Zúñiga and Aaron Toronto. Jaime is originally from Nicaragua, while Aaron is an American filmmaker. Their goal was to put on professional quality English plays for audiences throughout Ho Chi Minh City. Their first production was The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People by Oscar Wilde. It was a breakthrough in the English-language theatre scene—a professional play in Vietnam with paid actors—and a major success, bringing with it the exciting prospect of ongoing English-language plays in Ho Chi Minh City.
There are a handful of English language theatre troupes in the city, one of which is Saigon Players. They are a non-profit community theatre group that regularly organizes shows and serve an important role in developing the skills and confidence of the theatre community. Saigon Players also introduces new audiences to theatre as an art and a pastime. However, as a community theatre group, they are limited by their selection of who to select as cast and crew and this is where Dragonfly comes in. They have the opportunity to bring the next level of theatre productions to Ho Chi Minh City.
Sitting in a cozy café with a few of the other board members is Belinda Smith. She’s been associated with Dragonfly since its inception eight years ago. “Dragonfly Theatre was born out of not just wanting to do amateur dramatics. We wanted to raise the level of quality of the shows being put on here,” says Belinda. Because they have the resources to hire paid actors, Dragonfly is able to work with trained professional actors in putting on captivating and sensational shows.
Dragonfly’s shows are held all over the city. “We started in Vietnamese theatres. Later, we held shows at Cargo Bar, Saigon Outcast and Soul Live Project. Our next show will be at an international school. Finding a venue for each show is very difficult and we also have to obtain licenses in order to put on each play,” she explains. The process is an arduous and time-consuming one because the cast and crew don’t have a central location so it requires a lot of flexibility on the part of everyone. Until now, Dragonfly still has not found a suitable location to hold rehearsals and productions, but this hasn’t stopped the highly motivated and passionate team to continue trekking on and overcoming any obstacles to doing what they love most—performing for audiences to enjoy.
“We hold auditions for all of the shows,” David says. For every upcoming show, Dragonfly sets up public casting calls and auditions to find talented actors for each role. In addition, each of the board members themselves performs roles, such as acting, directing and producing. The casting calls are usually posted on their Facebook page.
While the shows are in English, theatregoers need not be fluent in the language to enjoy themselves. Dragonfly has tried displaying Vietnamese subtitles during a production, but it didn’t work out so well. Producer Son explains, “We tried subtitles once. It just doesn’t work. The audience has to look away from the actor. It’s live theatre we’re talking about.” Trying to read subtitles on a screen does indeed ruin the “live” part of the show. It is impossible to watch the intricacies of each scene and the actors’ subtle cues while at the same time try to read the subtitles on a screen offstage.
The members of Dragonfly believe that watching theatre isn’t just about knowing English; body language, props and interactions between actors onstage can fill in the gaps. To them, theatre is an art that is underappreciated and underrepresented here. To that end, they hope that more Vietnamese will come to the shows.
Dragonfly puts on two to three shows a year. How do they decide what show to put on? Board members will get together and brainstorm ideas soon after every production. Usually they will put on shows that have already proven to be popular overseas. Belinda explains, “Because the theatre scene is still young here, it’s easier to get an audience to a well-known play.”
The result of their hard work and dedication is an entertaining experience that is hard to forget. Past productions have included: The Importance of Being Earnest, The Last 5 Years, Lovesong and Dangerous Liaisons. Belinda reveals why performing is so rewarding, “It’s the connection that you get to an audience while performing. The journey that you and the audience go on together.”
In recent years, there has been a surge of development in Vietnam, with the focus mostly on the economic and academic sectors. Dragonfly Theatre is actively trying to change that, they want the younger generation also embrace, enjoy and participate in the arts. And as a result, they have been organizing theatre classes and workshops to teach children, some as young as five, singing, dancing and acting skills. The classes are hosted at different schools and academies across the city.
Dragonfly Theatre’s next upcoming performance is tentatively scheduled for September of this year. The play is called Mr. Stink and is based on a book written by David Walliams that was adapted for the theatre by Maryam Master. This performance will be a great introduction to theatre, especially for young audiences because it will feature teenage actors.
Images Provided by Dragonfly Theatre