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Meet Little Peanut, the Star of Hanoi's Experimental Puppetry Performances

Some weeks ago, on a fine autumn day, I was lucky to witness Little Peanut taking her first steps in the attic-cum-rehearsal-studio of the Hanoi based experimental theater group Mắt Trần Ensemble.

Lovingly crafted of papier-mâché and bent wire, she sports a messy woolen bob and, with her inquisitive eyes, she stars as the main protagonist of the ensemble’s latest production Little Peanut & the Sneeze Theory. As she explored the room, the puppeteers shared a singular breath, leading her to discover her playful movements as she jumped from surface to surface. The group was excitedly preparing for their premiere at the Goethe Institut of Hanoi, and with new members and a very different working method, this piece has proven a milestone in their artistic development.

The Mắt Trần Ensemble was founded a little over two years ago, initiated by artist, director and conceptual story-teller Linh Valerie Pham upon her return to Vietnam after studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. The project combines her two main interests: the exploration of experimental theater and the use of performing arts for socially engaged purposes. The marriage of these elements has led to the formation of the ensemble’s two central and guiding principles, the conception of high-quality theater productions and the creation of generous and inclusive environments in which to show them.

“I grew up professionally in the environment in experimental theater. Theater that is quite bizarre and has its own audience base,” Valerie tells Urbanist Hanoi. “Target Margin, La Mama...I grew up in that environment and loved it, so I always have this need to experiment with what theater is and what puppetry can be...and I have a lot of interest in social engagement and working with communities, its two different ideals that I think can merge and can converge.”

During the first year of the collective, Valerie assumed a strong directive role, writing the scripts herself and leading performers through the production process. But as the group evolves and matures, the journey of creation has become shared in a more horizontal manner, moving the group closer to true “ensemble” work. “Ensemble” means “together” and in the sense of a theater collective implies not only the act of performing in a group but having each individual participating in every step of the production from character development and conceptual input to the hands-on building of puppets and props.

“Our process is different from others,” puppeteer Hyang Chu shares. “We spend more time developing the script and we also do a lot of physical exercises together to discover our movement. This time is a good way of working. We can sit down and talk and analyze the script. Puppeteers can understand deeper about the story and character of our show. It is more flexible and easier to connect with the puppet. Before that I didn't really understand the script that much and Valerie always had to explain and try and tell us to find the movement. I found it hard to really understand the meaning of the script and also of the puppet.”

With this latest work, the group of young women reintroduces the main character of last year’s performance Dearest Little Peanut, where the 10-year-old protagonist explored her secret dream of becoming a pilot. In Little Peanut & the Sneeze Theory, Little Peanut is faced with adolescent growing pains, such as discovering the realities of loss and death. “In our culture, children talking about death is not so common because the parents don't want that. And that is really a strong feeling, really painful, so we really want to acknowledge that,” says puppeteer and co-producer Ngụy Kiều Trinh. “There are so many things that children can express when they are young. When we are children, we try to build different universes and planets where we can live. Growing up is some kind of collapse, thinking about the ideals of people in our heads, and these ideals collapse.”

Trinh has worked as a puppeteer and co-producer of this piece and also assisted in last year’s Vietnam-wide performance tour as part of the NGO iSee’s work with ethnic minority communities. “I started with Mắt Trần last year for the tour because one person in the show could not go and they were trying to find someone to replace them. Before this I did not know much about Mắt Trần or puppetry but I did really care about social issues and especially working with indigenous people. At Mắt Trần we also work with different ethnicities so it is really fascinating to join a tour like that. Since then I realize I really like this kind of storytelling. I also created the performance [last year] and it was the first time that I found art is a very powerful way to tell a story.”

The group’s will to create inclusive spaces for viewers is informed by collaborations with organizations that work in the fields of human rights, not only in ethnic minority communities but also those supporting activities for children with learning and physical difficulties. In Hanoi, events that are both physically accessible for people with low-mobility and tolerant to different levels of attention capacity are rare. Providing cultural activities that take into consideration sensitivity to different sensorial input is nearly unheard of in mainstream popular culture. But Mắt Trần hopes to influence these norms, actively seeking physically accessible spaces and supporting works with sign language interpreters, while being mindful and accepting of all possibilities of interpretation. Providing these experiences hopefully will alter the status quo of traditional theater experiences that can exclude and ostracize some viewers from a very young age.

“We are not giving any solutions or answers. We really want to open a space after the performance to raise [the] interest of people on the chosen topic. People can join in and give their ideas,” says Trinh.

As the Little Peanut performance came to an end at the Goethe Institut last month, the ten women that performed and produced the piece stood smiling, wearing playful matching rompers. In this unified line, one could observe the prevalence of dissimilar personalities and yet Mắt Trần finds itself in a singular position in the contemporary theater landscape of Vietnam, a community that, though active, remains small in numbers, often performing to a public that has little experience with experimental works. In Hanoi, their popularity is without question, and their dedication to showcasing new puppetry works offers young and old audiences rare opportunities to experience art forms that, albeit commonplace in other parts of the world, are novel in the Vietnamese context.

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