Theater royalty eke out a living with common jobs

By Hieu Nhan, Ha Thu   March 18, 2021 | 09:30 pm PT
Canceled shows and pay cuts in Covid-19 times have forced many theater artists to become motorbike taxi drivers, manicurists and unskilled workers.

Nhat Linh, an artist with the Hanoi Cai Luong Theater, has been working as a xe om driver every morning for the past three months. If he worked from dawn to dusk and got a lot of customers, he could earn about VND200,000 ($8.67) for the day.

Linh is the theater's main performer, who plays the special roles of the kings and princes. Every year, during the festive season when there are many shows, he would make about VND6-7 million a month. But amidst the ongoing pandemic, his pay has been cut and his basic salary of VND4.6 million is not enough to meet the expenses of his small family, which includes his wife and a daughter.

He had been working as a motorbike taxi driver as a part-time job before the pandemic, but now it has become his main job.

Nhat Linh, an opera performer, embodies the role of a general lieutenant during a show in 2019. Photo courtesy of Linh.

Nhat Linh, a folk opera actor-singer, plays a general lieutenant during a show in 2019. Photo courtesy of Linh.

"I continue being a folk opera singer because I am still passionate about it. But it is very tough living solely using the theater's basic salary. And it is not just me, many other artists have also become motorbike taxi drivers whenever we don't have shows to earn more money. There is nothing else we can do since the pandemic has affected everyone," he said.

With the theater closed, Thu Huong, a performer with the Hanoi Circus and Variety Arts Theater, has been receiving a basic salary of little more than VND2 million per month. Despite having small children, she has been trying to cut her living expenses as much as possible. Whenever she is able to find someone to look after her children, she offers manicures and facials to earn some more money.

Huong graduated from the Vietnam Circus and Variety Arts School after five years of study. Before giving birth, she performed in many shows and participated in many acts, including aerobatics and magic. Thanks to her hard work, she used to earn around VND8 million each month. However, she has had to pay a price. She currently suffers from cervical osteoarthritis. During pregnancy and childbirth, she had difficulty walking around and was unable to do heavy work.

"The job life cycle of circus performers is very short. Worse, female performers like me cannot do many difficult moves after giving birth. I feel very uncertain about the future of my work."

As a single mother with two young children, Mai Anh, a performer with the Thang Long Puppet Theater, tries to earn more money by doing several things including organizing small music shows and writing scripts for shows. She said that every year, during the tourist season, she had been able to earn between VND15-18 million a month. During the non-peak season, she would earn around VND12 million per month. Since the theater cannot afford to pay salaries for staff on the payroll now, she is entitled to a paltry salary of VND3.7 million.

A medical staff disinfects a corner of Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.

A medical staff disinfects a corner of the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.

Dang To Nhu, deputy executive director of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, the postponement and cancellations of shows have affected all theater performers. She said that the theater's audience comprises foreigners, mainly. Ever since Vietnam suspended all inbound international commercial flights in March 2020, the theater has almost stopped performing.

During a period when Covid-19 outbreak cooled down a bit, the theater used to perform on the pedestrian street for free under the direction of the Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism and held a number of shows every Saturday evening. While the theater has the capacity to hold up to 300 people, only about 20 came to watch the show each day. With each ticket costing VND100,000-200,000, the theatre has been making a loss.

Since the beginning of this year, the Hanoi Cai Luong Theater and Hanoi Cheo Theater have not once staged a show.

Pham Ba Chinh, director of the Hanoi Cai Luong Theater, said the theater only had about 20 contracted performances last year.

Trung Hieu, director of Hanoi Drama Theater, said that theaters have been searching for revenue from outside sources to pay salaries for artists with short-term contracts instead of using regular funds from the state budget. But since many regular shows have been scrapped, they have no income.

"We can't add young artists to our current payroll. So we are forced to sign short-term contracts. In the first two months of this year, we have only been able to pay salaries for staff on the regular payroll and not those on short-term contracts," he said.

The Anh, deputy director of the Hanoi Circus and Variety Arts Theater, said that the theater has about 30 permanent staff, but half of them are old and unable to perform challenging feats like rope swinging and acrobatics.

"The average age of a circus performer is around 30 years for women and 35 years for men. Female performers usually cannot perform things like acrobatic acts after giving birth. At the moment, our main performers are 15 artists who have signed short-term contracts. They receive a basic salary of about VND1.5-2 million ($65-87). We are trying to maintain this payment," Anh said.

Meanwhile, Nhu said that theater staff on short-term contracts are quitting because they do not have a salary.

Thu Huyen, deputy artistic director of Hanoi Cheo Theater, said they were still struggling to try to pay the artists’ basic salary of VND2-4 million ($87-174).

"The salary payment policy for short-term contracts was only done for two months. We are still encouraging the performers to endure this hardship even as we try to borrow money from various sources to have budgets to pay them the basic salary. If the situation persists, it will be very difficult to retain young and talented artists."

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