The Inspiring Internationalists Project

The Forge & Paul Zetter

Paul Zetter visited the North East from 3rd to 8th December and was hosted by The Forge. 

About Paul Zetter and Ensemble creative training and development

Based in Vietnam for almost 10 years, the first five at the British Council in Hanoi, Paul is now a leading arts in development pioneer building on the ground breaking Lost Child performance projects of the David Glass Ensemble with new work and collaborations in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. He was also technical advisor for the innovative three year Vietnam Arts In Development Capacity Building Programme funded by the Ford Foundation.
More recently expanding the ensemble’s film making arm, ensemble films, Paul has filmed and directed three documentaries with the theme of creative transformation covering Vietnam first deaf contemporary dance company Together Higher and the Hue International Arts Festival.  

About Tony Harrington and The Forge

Tony Harrington has over twenty years of experience of working in the arts, education and cultural sectors. He has worked as an actor and a teacher and has combined his skills across the two disciplines in his career.  He is the Director of The Forge which is the Arts and Education Agency for County Durham and Sunderland.  He spent many years working in theatre in education and established the Participation Department at Northern Stage. He is a regular lecturer at Durham and Northumbria University and is often asked to contribute to conferences. He is a specialist in developing relationships between the Cultural Sector and policy makers and has been heavily involved in the development of a number of large scale Governmental arts in education initiatives including Creative Partnerships and Cultural Hubs. The Forge is a creative organisation specialising in developing high quality participatory arts projects, working with young people, artists and educators throughout County Durham, Sunderland, nationally and internationally.


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I met Paul at a public lecture at the Lit and Phil when he was in Newcastle as part of the Inspiring Internationalists programme.

I have just returned from a trip to Hanoi as part of my Cultural Leadership placement. Paul was my informal host for the week and gave me an insight into community arts practice in Vietnam that I would never have been able to access on my own. I will be writing a full report and would like to post it here if that is interesting to anyone….?

Comment by Jo Cundall

As part of my participation on the Cultural Leadership programme I was supported to do an international placement – to get an experience of leadership from outside our own region.

I wanted to use the opportunity to go somewhere totally different: politically, socially, culturally and economically. I had been to Vietnam as a tourist, so I knew what to expect of the bustling city of Hanoi. It’s a city where crossing the road is an adventure in itself – Hanoians notionally drive on the left, but not if there is an opportune gap on the right!

I first started writing up my experiences as a diary, but it sounded so dull and it didn’t convey the amazing learning experience that I had. So the result is this informal blog.

I first met my informal host, Paul Zetter when he was in Newcastle as part of Arts Council England, North East’s Inspiring Internationalist scheme. He gave a talk at the Lit and Phil about his experience of living and working in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the seed was sown.

I knew that Vietnam had a time-honoured tradition of theatre in the water puppets – they have been to major international festivals around the world. I was keen to dig deeper than that though, and I wanted to challenge my roots in participatory arts practice – to see the activity that is happening in a place with very little funding, none of which is state, and almost all of which is foreign charitable foundations, foreign international development departments or Non Government Organisations. How does a country and its people square what they want/need to say with the strings that are inevitably attached to foreign investment?

So, I set off full of excitement and anticipation. I arrived (although my bag didn’t) on Saturday 7th June, after 17 hours of travel. I spent a couple of days orientating myself and fell in love with Hanoi all over again.

There isn’t a formal participatory arts practice in Hanoi. I mean it does happen, for example, Paul works directly with participants to inspire and empower them, but he also has to spend a lot of his time explaining what he does, why he does it and what the benefits of creativity can be. I met lots of interesting people from a variety of organisations – a Vietnamese NGO working to improve the lives of Hanoians; Action for the City, a German development service (DED) that aims to help people in developing countries to improve their living conditions, a co-operative massage centre that trains young blind people – of course I also had to sample the product here and had a Shiatsu massage. It turns out that this does not involve a small dog, but the application of pressure to key parts of the body to improve the flow of energy. I have to admit to some feelings of guilt that this was classed as work, but towards the end it moved away from relaxation to a kind of enforced yoga. At the point when I had my legs up near my ears whilst lying on my front I felt justified that I was putting myself out there and trying new things. And I am sure all good leaders need to find their own ways of channelling their energies!

I also made sure I had plenty of time to take in the city and its people. I visited the Ethnology Museum to take a look at a fabulous photography exhibition entitled Mirror? If the River Could Speak which empowered 17 young people to express their thoughts and feelings about the heavily polluted To Lich River. I hung around at the Goethe Institute and I attended the ubiquitous Water Puppet Theatre. This is a proper little tourist trap, situated on the northern edge of Ho Kiem Lake. They churn out 5 shows a day, something which was quite obvious from the look of boredom on the musicians faces. The audience was entirely made up of tourists, of which I was obviously one, but it is of course important to see the traditional theatre practices. It’s something I was to come back to later in the week, as I learnt more about the government’s attitude to theatre, culture and arts.

When I headed to the British Council for a meeting I was greeted by a great big photograph of the Angel of the North behind the reception desk. This made me smile, but not as much as the guy who was manning the desk when I asked if I could take a photo of it. I explained that it was because it was from where I lived, but he thought that was even stranger – ‘why take a picture of a picture if you can go and see it whenever you want’. I guess he had a point.

I also had a meeting with Hanoi Youth Theatre. I don’t know where to start with this – Truong was so kind and accommodating, his English wasn’t great but you could totally see how passionate he was about theatre, and providing a programme of work for Vietnamese audiences. But, the state’s control was all consuming. Hanoi Youth Theatre is the only organisation I met with who were directly funded by the Vietnamese government. Truong told me about his recent productions and one thing stood out, they were all European classics. He explained that the government have identified 100 great texts; Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen……and they are pre-sanctioned as not being subversive or threatening to the state. I asked about Vietnamese authors, new writing, up and coming play wrights, and was met with a response that I think, in many ways, exemplifies the politics of it all ‘but we know Shakespeare is good, with these new people, we can’t tell if they’re good or not’. Of course, they do present some Vietnamese work, and the Water Puppets are heralded, but these are traditional pieces which have not been allowed to grow and evolve. In a state that still has culture police, with the power to close down a show, it isn’t surprising…. …It left me with so much to think about.

This was further compounded the next day when I went to watch (and ended up taking part – like all good workshops, there was no opting out!) in a workshop led by Paul with the staff of CWD – Centre for Women and Development. These people will be in direct contact with women who have been the victim of domestic abuse. There was quite a lot of work to be done in moving them away from the idea of reconciliation and conflict resolution. The Vietnamese attitude towards the sanctuary of family and marriage; that it is all important, was pervasive and palpable. The sense of self, and of empowering oneself; something that most of us will take for granted, was alien.

All the things we talk about as being key attributes of a leader, things that have come up time and time again; vision, innovation, risk taking must be much harder to achieve in a political environment like Vietnam. It is a country that is politically communist, and yet really it is operating as a capitalist society. But it is happening. Paul is visionary in what he wants to achieve, Hai at Action for the City talked emphatically about the need for strategic planning, expansion and growth are vital. It seems more impressive given that the structure (let alone the training) is not in place to support it.

By the end of my week my over riding feeling was of how flippant I had been. I had constantly told people that I wanted to go somewhere ‘culturally, economically, socially and politically’ different. But I think I had underestimated what this actually meant and I was shocked – not by the lack of provision, which Paul had continually warned me about – but by the ingrained state attitudes. I should clarify that this isn’t a criticism of the Vietnamese people, who are some of the warmest, most generous, accommodating and inviting people I have ever met. But it made me realise how much I take for granted, not just as someone who gets to work in a creative, supported and inspiring environment that allows me to feel good about giving opportunities to disadvantaged communities and young people, but as a person who has the chance to travel and absorb other cultures, access to a wealth of cultural opportunities and freedom of speech…….

Jo Cundall
Participation & Programming Co-ordinator
Northern Stage

Comment by livepoetry

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