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Elephant Song

Composer Vi An Diep performs semi-autobiographical puppet play about wildlife conservation and immigrant heritage

by Matt Hanson

Vi An Diep, performer and composer at Green Fools Studio
Vi An Diep, performer and composer at Green Fools Studio
Composer Vi An Diep across from Sound Designer, Dave Clarke
Composer Vi An Diep across from Sound Designer, Dave Clarke
Composer Vi An Diep performs on a rare Vietnamese 26-string dan tranh (zither)
Composer Vi An Diep performs on a rare Vietnamese 26-string dan tranh (zither)
Vi An Diep performs in front of Green Fools' signature shadow puppetry
Vi An Diep performs in front of Green Fools' signature shadow puppetry
Vi An Diep's electronic and acoustic music harmonizes with Thai scenery and elephant puppetry
Vi An Diep's electronic and acoustic music harmonizes with Thai scenery and elephant puppetry

 

“Sometimes I feel like the elephant in the room,” says composer and musician Vi An Diep. She is one of more than 20 artists involved in creating Elephant Song, the newest work by Green Fools Theatre. The “pay what you can” all-ages shows will feature an elaborate set for life-sized hand, rod and shadow puppets. The centrepiece of the production features both live and electronic music by Diep, a local artist who immigrated to Calgary from Vietnam two decades ago. Elephant Song is inspired by Diep’s life story, and her music reflects the way humans relate to the natural world.

Writer and director Jennie Esdale has worked with Diep since 2005 (Dancing on Water) and says she always wanted to do a show with Diep as the centrepiece. The story follows two sisters separated during the fall of Saigon. Diep, a refugee, arrives in Canada and teaches herself to play the zither. Through her music, she conjures the life of her sister, raised in the jungles along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Rescued by an elephant, the sister embarks on a harrowing journey in search of a lost calf. Along the way, she saves as many elephants from the perils of modern dangers as she can.

The story mirrors the emotional bonds of an elephant family through a human story, and both share a common theme: displacement. “Elephants are like humans in that they form close bonds with their families,” says Esdale. The separation of two sisters by the strife of war is reflected in the devastation of an elephant family by illegal hunting. “Just like humans, when an elephant loses its family it forms a new family,” she adds. “Elephants share an emotional range close to humans — the audience can relate to the elephants through the human element.”

Before writing Elephant Song, Esdale travelled to Chang Mai, Thailand, eventually meeting a woman with land that’s dedicated to an elephant sanctuary. Inspired by this activism,Elephant Song takes place along the Mekong River in Thailand and Vietnam, which is part of the natural habitat for Asian elephants.

The play openly addresses the role of humans in elephant endangerment. Actor and puppeteer Nicola Elson, together with the Calgary Zoo, will provide opportunities for audiences to become involved in elephant conservation.

“The artists can represent the work of the people on the ground, the conservationists and scientists, but at the end of the day we are not the foot soldiers,” says Dean Bareham, actor and set designer. “There are a lot of people who don’t like zoos, but the fact is that zoos actually do a lot to conserve endangered species.”

Elephant Song delves deeply into the emotional landscape of both the human and elephant characters. Set design, supported by music and mise-en-scène, is crafted with an appreciation for the fascinating visual and aural communications that elephants use, including both sign language and low-frequency vocalizations. “Live puppets exhibit the relationship between the humans and the elephants, and the shadow puppets represent the inner world of the elephants,” says Esdale. “Emotion through story can be more persuasive than facts, as it can inspire hearts and minds.”

Diep’s music cultivates introspection, inviting audiences to reflect on the inner worlds of human life. “The act of physically creating a sound connects people to their own feelings and from that they relate with the rest of humanity. That’s the role of music,” says Diep. “Jennie was able to listen to my story and feel the sentiments and elaborate on it in a way that is accessible for any audience.”

Central to the production is the dan tranh, a steel-stringed Vietnamese zither, featured in both puppetry and live performance. Diep’s instrumental artistry draws from a rich Vietnamese-Chinese heritage, with respect for a cultural preservation that is in harmony with the conservation of nature. “The instrument is a part of the immense heritage behind me,” says Diep. “The Vietnamese dan tranh is the only thing that really links me to the natural world and the heritage of Vietnam.”

 

This article first appeared in Fast Forward Weekly on May 16, 2013


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