South Korea

Following The #MeToo Movement In Korean Theatre

In the past few months, the Korean theatre scene has been under intense public scrutiny as artists—mostly women—publicly shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Adopting the #MeToo and #WithYou hashtags that motivated similar revelations in other countries, the victims called out prominent theatre artists and celebrities such as Lee Youn-taek, Oh Tae-seok, Jo Min-ki, Jo Jae-hyun, and many others. Multiple accounts of Lee’s behavior, including allegations of rape, and the normativized culture of power-based violence within his company, Yeonheedan Street Troupe, were especially earth-shattering, due to the abnormal demands forced on young female company members. However, news...

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Electra Takes Revenge into Her Own Hands

In Han Tae-sook’s Electra (LG Arts Center, April 26–May 5, 2018), the mourning daughter doesn’t sit around waiting for her brother to take revenge. Wearing short hair, combat boots, and a pistol at her hip, this Electra (Jang Young-nam) leads a rebel army against the usurper Aigistheus (Park Wan-gyu). She holds her mother Clytemnestra (Seo Yi-sook) prisoner in an underground bunker while her soldiers prepare extreme measures—a biochemical bomb strapped to a suicide vest—to win the war at any cost. Like Sophocles’ drama, however, revenge and justice run along parallel tracks, never to converge. Han’s latest project resembles her...

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Bronze Statues And Memories: Returning Home In “The Musician And The Girl”

Busan. Once a small, quiet town and the Joseon Kingdom’s first open port, it changed completely in the Japanese colonial era. The city expanded rapidly, serving as Imperial Japan’s foothold into the Korean peninsula. Japanese culture inundated the streets. But frankly, that culture soon became another facet of Joseon. If Busan’s destiny changed when the harbor opened to foreign interests, it flourished during the Korean War. War refugees flocked to the city, including high officials, intellectuals, artists, and industrialists. Of course, there were also ordinary citizens and foreigners from every corner of Korea seeking freedom and survival. They depended...

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Searching For Lost Artists In “A Song Of Dewdrops”

I went to the Seoul Donhwamun Traditional Theatre in early November, the night of the first full moon after the Chuseok holidays. After getting lost in the maze-like neighborhood, I was pleasantly greeted by the traditional hanok architecture of the new performing arts center. The entrance lay between Changdeokgung Palace and Jongmyo Shrine, two historic sites in the heart of Seoul. Inside, there is a beautiful yard surrounded by a low, tile-roofed wall. The performance hall was in the second-story basement, a small and intimate space where raked audience seating looked down on the stage. A Song Of Dewdrops (November...

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“Goodbye, Mr. Yi Sang”: Seoul Performing Arts Company’s New Experiment

Theatre adaptations of novels are on the rise this season. Of course, this is nothing new. Fiction, both classic and modern, have always made up a good chunk of the performing arts repertoire. It would be more precise to say that some of the most successful and discussed productions this season are adaptations of novels. Why are novel adaptations generating such buzz right now? One reason might be because theatre artists have changed their approach to adapting fiction. Previously, adapters were too concerned with preserving the so-called “fragrance,” “beauty,” or “perfection” of the original novel’s language and structure. In...

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SIFA’s “Trojan Women”: An Allegory For Modern Times

Euripides’ play Trojan Women has been adapted and performed numerous times around the world, from a version written by Jean-Paul Sartre to American playwright Charles Mee’s 2003 adaptation that included Holocaust and Hiroshima testimonials. This time, it has been given a Korean pansori makeover by SIFA Festival Director and Cultural Medallion winner Ong Keng Sen in a collaboration with the National Theatre of Korea and performed at Victoria Theatre, Singapore. Ong conceived and directed this luminous and mesmerizing Korean opera while the pansori was composed by Korean “living cultural asset,” Ahn Sook-Sun (pictured below), with music composed by Jung Jae Il. Pansori, a Korean folk musical storytelling...

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Finding Common Language: Paul Tate DePoo III Brings His Set Design For “Titanic” To Seoul, South Korea

I love Titanic, the sweeping Broadway musical with a book by Peter Stone and a score by Maury Yeston that originally opened on April 23, 1997, at The Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York. I also spent the better part of 2015 designing musicals in South Korea, an experience that I found to be both fascinating and daunting. So when I learned that Scenic Designer Paul Tate DePoo III had transferred his set design for Titanic at The Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia to Seoul, South Korea, I was eager to discuss the experience with him. How did he reimagine Titanic for a new generation and how did he go about moving...

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Leaving For Good: Two New Plays On Korean Immigrants And The Cold War | Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part article. Read Part 1 here. From Caregiver to Citizen The Nurses, Who Do Not Return Home, written and directed by Kim Jae-yeop, also depicts Korean migrants who no longer see South Korea as their home country. The play is also based on the memories of actual immigrants; Kim interviewed a group of Korean-German women during a year-long stay in Berlin. But while A Room deals almost entirely with painful memories, The Nurses, which premiered at Seoul Arts Center’s Jayu Theater, focuses on the happy and liberating experiences of several Korean women in West Germany,...

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Leaving for Good: Two New Plays on Korean Immigrants and the Cold War | Part 1

The word dongpo, a term that refers affectionately to the sizable Korean immigrant community worldwide, literally means of the same womb. This etymology reflects the belief that the Korean diaspora—estimated around 7 million—falls within the imaginary boundaries of Korean peoplehood. Immigrants supposedly still have their roots firmly planted “here,” in Korean soil, even though many of them left the country decades ago, fleeing war or seeking employment, and have seldom visited since. This emphasis on kinship beyond geography may provide cultural and emotional support for some migrants, but it also creates blind spots. The unique experiences of dongpo lack attention...

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Sculptures Reflect On The Space They Occupy In “Ten Years, Please”

In 2007, visual artist Jewyo Rhii and curator Hyunjin Kim held an unusual exhibition titled Ten Years, Please, in which some visitors took one of Rhii’s pieces home with them. Rhii’s work often entailed international travel, and she couldn’t afford long-term storage for her ever-growing collection of sculptures and installations at the time. As a temporary solution, they asked willing participants to hold on to one of the objects for a decade. After that term, the artist would reclaim custody. Ten Years, Please wasn’t an auction, it was an orphanage program. The appointed “guardians” signed contracts agreeing to take care...

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The “KPOP” Invasion In A New American Musical Part II: Interview With Jason Kim And Helen Park

To read Part I of the series on KPOP, click here. For the article, I spoke with Jason Kim and Helen Park. Jason Kim who conceived the piece with Woodshed Collective and wrote the book recalls his inspiration for the piece: Jason Kim: A few weeks after I moved to the U.S. [at age 11], I opened my lunchbox at my elementary school cafeteria to find a delightful surprise. Kimbap [Korean rice roll]. My mom had packed my favorite dish, something that every Korean child grows up eating. Unable to find any chopsticks, I reached for the roll with...

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The “KPOP” Invasion in a New American Musical Part I

In the last few months of 2017, K-pop (Korean pop) has made it into U.S. news reports in two dramatically different ways. First, the Korean boy band BTS (Bangtan Boys) became the first Korean band to perform at the American Music Awards in November. With a remix of their song MIC Drop, featuring Steve Aoki and Desiigner, they also became the highest charting K-pop act in the Billboard Hot 100, rising to number 28. While K-pop has been acquiring a huge fan base in the US and all across the world with several artists such as Rain, Wonder Girls,...

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Clowning Around: An Unconventional “Heungbo-ssi” Misses the Mark

Audiences laughed throughout Ko Sun-woong’s new work Heungbo-ssi (written and directed by Ko Sun-woong, pansori music and libretto by Lee Zaram, National Theater of Korea Daloreum Theater, April 4–16, 2017). After his previous piece Madame Ong (premiered June 2016) succeeded domestically, it traveled to France, promoting Korean changgeuk—sometimes called Korean opera—abroad. Ko appreciates pansori and has experience directing musicals and operas. Still, it is remarkable that his two changgeuk productions have caused such a sensation since he does not fully understand the genre. Heungbo-ssi and Madame Ong are not original works; they are based respectively on one of the five...

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Playwriting Education In South Korea: In Conversation With Ko Yeon-ok, Part III

Award-winning South Korean playwright and educator Ko Yeon-ok reflects about her teaching practice in a conversation with Kee-Yoon Nahm. This is Part III of a three-part article.  Go back to Part I here and go back to Part II here. Nahm: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the relationship between the playwright and the director. I’ve always felt that there is a dilemma in the title “playwright” itself. As a writer, you have a sense of ownership over your own creation. On the other hand, the theatrical medium requires that you depend on others to realize your work. What audiences...

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Playwriting Education In South Korea: In Conversation With Ko Yeon-ok, Part II

Award-winning South Korean playwright and educator Ko Yeon-ok reflects about her teaching practice in a conversation with Kee-Yoon Nahm. This is Part II of a three-part article.  Go back to Part I here and read Part III here. Nahm: Do you think there are still certain rules in playwriting today? Ko: Modern drama is moving in the direction of breaking dramatic rules and traditional plot structure. A lot of students are interested in deconstructive writing. But I’ve thought about this a lot, and I believe that the basic structure of kiseungjeonkyul is still largely intact [1]. That’s how stories are...

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Playwriting Education In South Korea: In Conversation With Ko Yeon-ok, Part I

Award-winning South Korean playwright and educator Ko Yeon-ok reflects on her teaching practice in a conversation with Kee-Yoon Nahm. This is Part I of a three-part article.  Continue on to Part II here and read Part III here. Nahm: First of all, could you briefly go over your career as a Playwriting teacher? Ko: I’ve taught in two kinds of settings. One is in university courses and the other is in playwriting workshops with people who have potential as playwrights. To my knowledge, there are two schools in South Korea with independent playwriting departments: Korea National University of Arts...

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Why Do We Hate?: Censoring the Minority 2017

Namsan Arts Center’s 2017 season opened with Censoring the Minority 2017 (written and directed by Lee Yeon-joo), a revival of a production that was originally part of the Project for Right 2016 festival. Many wondered if the piece would be relevant outside of the Project for Right initiative, as the context changes depending on whether it is staged among a series of productions about censorship or presented on its own. As I did not see the premiere, I am unable to compare the quality of the two versions. Yet I saw no problem in staging Censoring the Minority separately....

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A Journey for Lost Truth: Won Muintel

May 5th, 2017. I am at the Algwahaek Theatre in Daehangno to see a show. But who am I, this person sitting in the theatre? On one level, I am a university professor who writes papers and books for a living. I am also a middle-aged father who supports a family of four people and two dogs, who has to save up for his children’s college tuition and home mortgage. Am I a public intellectual concerned about the times and our reality, or am I just a normal guy worried about keeping my family afloat? Maybe the split ego...

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A Place to Remember: “Oedipus – Those Who Want to See”

It has only been one hundred days into President Moon Jae-In’s administration, but the new government has already done more for the families of the Sewol Ferry disaster victims than its predecessor, which, in line with other forms of media control, had blacklisted artists that dealt with this incident. However, Sewol trauma still runs deep in South Korean society—fears that the state is more likely to forget rather than save lives in danger. These fears inform the debate around the “memorial classroom” originally set up at Danwon High School, whose students made up most of the casualties. Ten of...

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Interview with the Playwright, Director, and Translator of “Sister Mok-Rahn”: How an Authentically Korean Story Crosses Over to New York

Eunsung Kim is a South Korean playwright and the Director of Dalnara Dongbakkot Company. He was born in Bosung in 1977 and lives in Seoul. He received his BFA in Directing at the Korea National University of Arts. His debut play, Shidong Rahsah, was awarded with the Korea Times Award for Best Play in 2006. Kim is the recipient of multiple awards including Daesan Creative Writing Funds, Dong-A Theater Award for Best Play, Doosan Artist Award, and Cha Bumseok Play Award. His major works include Sunshine Warriors, Sister Mok-rahn, Mother Yonbian, Hamik, Uncle Soon-woo, Lunar Soap Opera, Tideland (Bbul),...

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