For over a thousand years, performers in Vietnamese water puppet theater have always gotten cold feet. And very wet.
Water puppetry is performed in a chest-deep pool of water, with the water's surface as a stage. The puppeteers stand behind a curtained backdrop. First performed a thousand years ago on the surface of ponds and paddy fields in Vietnam's Red River Delta, water puppetry (roi nuoc in Vietnamese) is the lively creation of farmers who spent their days in flooded rice fields. At some point, they discovered that the water was an excellent medium for puppetry: it not only concealed the puppeteers' rod and string mechanisms, but it also provided exciting effects like waves and splashes.
The water also provides the best setting for the puppeteers' theme: day-to-day village life. Water puppets bring wry humor to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children's games of marbles and coin-toss. Fishing turns into a game of wits between the fisherman and his prey, with the fisherman getting the short end (often capturing his surprised neighbor by mistake). Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history. Lion dogs romp like puppies while dragons exhale smoke and shoot sprays of water at the audience. Performances of up to 18 short scenes are usually introduced by a pig-tailed bumpkin known as Teu, and accompanied by a small folk orchestra.
Over the last decade, this ancient art has been rescued from near oblivion. Now there are four troupes in Hanoi. The Thang Long troupe will be touring United States this October, starting in San Francisco. Performances will take place in a specially constructed theatre on Pier 45, with five shows a day from October 11 to 15.
Water puppeteers have kept the details of their tricks secret for centuries. Even today, village guilds of puppeteers refer to the more complex maneuvers only by code names. A wooden puppet stands nearly two feet tall from its base and weighs 20 to 30 pounds; synchronizing its movements across the stage with their facial and arm gestures requires strength, dexterity and sometimes two or three people. In the simplest technique, the puppet is fixed to a floating base at one end of a bamboo rod about 15 feet long. The base includes a rudder and acts as a fulcrum for the strings that control the upper body.
For generations of puppeteers, the craft involved water-borne diseases, rheumatism and leeches. They endured bitingly cold winter performances with the help of strong doses of nuoc mam (a fish sauce) and ginger tea. Today the Hanoi puppeteers wear waders.