Prague Artist Sessions I: Minh Hieu Nguyen

March 10, PRAGUE—TheFeedUNeed is thrilled to announce an interview-based article series under the name of ‘Prague Artist Sessions‘. We will be featuring various content creators from Prague’s diverse art scene. To start with, this month we shine our spotlight on a personality from the field of theatre.

Minh Hieu Nguyen

On what it really means to conduct research for theatre

In the literal translation from Japanese, ‘Hikikomori’ means “pulling inward, being confined”, i.e. “acute social withdrawal”. In 2015, theatre troupe Farm in the Cave produced a theatre composition focusing on the social phenomenon of Hikikomori, which later went on to win Czech Dance Platform’s Best Dance Production of 2016. It was on a particularly warm afternoon when I sat down with Minh Hieu Nguyen, a French-born performer of Vietnamese descent, over a vegetarian meal to talk about a play entitled ‘Odtržení/Disconnected’, of which she is the main protagonist. It is a theatre experience which finds itself somewhere on the verge between an art installation, documentary theatre, and physical theatre.

By wearing dangly earrings and clothes that compliment her femininity, she contrasts her ‘boyish’ haircut. “I had to cut my hair for the performance,” she says. She speaks to me in a French accent, looks me in the eyes when she talks and considers all of her answers carefully. She turned 33 last year but she’s so fresh-faced and carries such a playful vibe, you’d assume she was half her age.

Minh Hieu Nguyen (centre). Photo from Farm in the Cave’s Facebook

The theatre piece discusses the mental state of Hikikomori people; essentially they are people who withdraw from the society to their houses and do not leave their homes for at least six months at a time. Paralysed by social fears, which stem from the society’s expectations, Hikikomori – mostly young men – usually live with their parents, who provide them with food. “Hikikomori has to be taken from its background, the school system in Japan, which is very very strict and competitive, and so is the society itself. The Japanese society is asking their citizens to serve the country: to be more productive, more effective, to be a better lover, a better husband; it’s pressure.” At this point, I wondered whether it was a culturally specific mental illness. “No, I think that we [Europeans] are not so far from becoming a similar society. It’s not a Japanese topic, it’s just that the Japanese named it. It is a world topic; a human topic, I think. And it has different levels, which makes it more or less visible in different environments.”

In order to conduct a theoretical research on the topic, four members of the otherwise large Farm in the Cave team spent ten days in Tokyo. “I personally liked their subway during the rush hour. It was amazing. The crowd, how it’s organised by itself… There’s never a crash.” In the megalopolis, everything became a possible source of inspiration. “The people and the city, the different atmospheres, situations, places, but sometimes just details: A walk, a laugh, a look. All of those will say something.”

“In Japan, they have a term called ‘reading the air’–which I love–everything that is not said in a conversation. Everything that is in the air. Like now, we are here, we are present, I can feel you, you can feel me. And we don’t speak about it but you can feel it because it’s just a question of how much you can go into the space of the other person, how much you can feel intimate or distant, cold or hot.”

Apart from observing the environment and soaking up inspiration, they visited Hikikomori centres where they were given the opportunity to interact with the Hikikomori people. “How was the air with the Hikikomori students?” “It was very specific,” she smiles.“Very sensitive.” Suddenly, Ti finds herself not fully able to verbally define what happened. She starts waving her arms around as if searching for words through gestures. “It was strong.”

It soon became clear to the research team that the process of interviewing subjects for the purpose of the theatre would be different from other interviewing techniques. “For example, you ask, ‘Do you have any dreams?’ or ‘What were you feeling when you were in the room? What was your sense of time and space?’ All of this is helping us to create the situations.”

“What happened after you came back from Japan?” “We shared our material: videos, photos and testimonies. We started to create material. Whatever, according to what touched you.” What followed was a nine-month rehearsal phase, with breaks for when they performed other works from the group’s repertoire. They managed to create a theatre piece that reflected on the current demand from the Czech audience as every single show was completely sold out; and all there was, in the beginning, was a simple idea: “A proposal from Pilsen 2015 to make a project that would involve a Japanese topic. We slowly narrowed it down to the Hikikomori issue more than any other ones.”

After experiencing her strong, yet delicate and precise, performance, I met the warm persona of ‘Ti’ (Minh Hieu Nguyen’s nickname).

“I will never call myself a dancer,” she laughs, “or at least not now.”

She hugs me at the end, puts on her sunglasses, makes an elegant turn, and walks away with a graceful bounce in her steps.

If you find yourself wondering how the issue of Hikikomori can be adapted for the stage, 2017 dates for ‘Odtržení/Disconnected’ in Prague’s DOX Gallery are April 9 and April 10.

Source of the featured image.

Written by Huyen Vi Tranová.