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At War with the Virus

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 8 / Day 4


On 28 May, the first thing in the morning, I checked the Covid-19 Dashboard and was shocked by the number of new cases in South Korea. It was 79, which was 67 more than yesterday due to a new mass outbreak of the deadly virus in a fresh food delivery service centre located near Seoul. Most of the new cases were from the metropolitan area, including 24 new cases in Seoul itself. It was very bad news.

South Korea had shifted from ‘Social Distancing’ to ‘Distancing in Daily Life’ since 6 May, and public theatres were finally allowed to open after more than two months of closure. Since then, we had days with zero new cases or a dozen at most. The Korean government thought it was safe enough to reopen schools. Last week the third-year class of high schools reopened to keep the schedule of the university entrance exam (an equivalent to A levels in the UK). Yesterday, all the rest of the schools, including nurseries, welcomed returned students. Only one day later, we have a surge of new cases. Teachers and parents in the metropolitan area must be panicking.

Quickly checking the news, I started to make a list of the current projects I am running, in order to see what I need to do to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Newspapers said that we might need to go back to ‘Social Distancing’ at least in Seoul and its satellite cities, as 68 cases out of 79 came from the area. I could feel my stomach churning. 

First, my new research project on Theatre and Disability: a series of meetings are scheduled from today with theatre practitioners and disabled artists. They could be done on Zoom. The head researcher would have no problem in doing so as he already had several online interviews with a few members of the focus groups who were not based in Seoul. The Barrier-Free service at NTCK will start from September, so I need to organise a workshop with the front of house staff around the end of July, but I have still time for that.

Second, the publication project of 70 Years History of the National Theatre Company of Korea, commemorating our anniversary. Most of the chapters are written now and the publishing team is currently doing the fact-checking and editing. Thankfully, most of the communication with the contributors can be done by email.

However, when designing this 900-pages long book on the NTCK’s history, written by eight theatre critics and scholars along with detailed records of 400 theatre productions of the last 70 years, the publishing house wanted to have a section of ‘recreating the photography’ of some legendary actors. The idea is to have photos of young actors posing with iconic theatre performance photos from our archives in which famous stage actors appeared. The young actors would wear the same make-up and costumes as the actors in the old photos, and they would be captured in the old theatre buildings where the productions in the original photos were performed decades ago.

Now this project is too risky in the time of a resurgent Covid-19. I cannot be sure if the photography team and the hired actors would be able to visit several public buildings which once accommodated the NTCK but are now used as government buildings. I have a meeting with the publishing house today, so I would suggest that we give up the project in the worst-case scenario. The head of design will be sad, but he would understand.

Third, the 70th anniversary of the NTCK exhibition ‘The Face of Theatre’. This is our main exhibition, celebrating the anniversary. It includes newly commissioned photographs of famous actors from the NTCK’s repertory productions, and a selection from our archives, including scripts, and set models. These have been already installed in the foyers of our main house, the Myeongdong theatre, in February – though I could not have an official opening of the event due to the public theatres’ closure.

The Myeongdong theatre foyer with ‘The Face of Theatre’ anniversary exhibition, which never saw its opening since its installation in February. Photo courtesy of M.J. Chung.

The live performance section of the exhibition with young actors is scheduled to start its rehearsals from 6 June, aiming to open on 6 July. If we cannot premiere the live performance due to the second closure of the theatre, I would give up the live performance section of the exhibition. I cannot hold actors’ availability anymore, as they have been waiting for the restart of the rehearsals since February. There is no point in continuing to postpone live events when I know that the theatre can be closed by the government at any time depending on the situation with the mass outbreak of Covid-19.

Fourth, the theatre forum ‘Performing Arts in the Post-Corona Era: How Do We Do Theatre Now?’ is scheduled for 22 & 29 June and 6 July. I might be able to do all the three sessions online without live audiences if necessary. The lecturers and panels can gather in the studio theatre with a small camera crew, and we can invite audiences on Zoom. YouTube live streaming would cost more than £3000 for each day, and I would need to install temporary LEN cables to provide a more stable broadcasting service. That will be way over the budget that I have, so that option would not work. The cheaper option would be to provide a recorded video on YouTube as a streaming service. By doing so, I still will be able to get viewers’ feedback and comments. OK, I can go on with the forum as scheduled with the online option, and I should tell the panellists it will go on as scheduled.

Fifth, the Play Postbox staged reading performances on 13 & 27 July. Maybe things would get better by July? But if not, the performances can go online without live audiences, I guess. I already booked a camera team for an archive record. I can ask them to edit the video for YouTube streaming. For the audience feedback, I will need to ask my staff to prepare an online questionnaire which can be sent as a text message to the people who booked tickets for the staged reading, since everybody is asked to give their mobile phone number when making the bookings.

I wrote down all the alternative ways to save my current theatre projects using all my knowledge and information from previous brainstorming meetings and my theatre’s guidelines developed in February. I felt a bit calmer. And I was ready for a reality check. I called a couple of theatre producers to see the current situation outside the NTCK. Besides, I would like to invite them to my theatre forum.

First, I called the director of the Korean Fringe Theatre Society and then the programming director at a leading Korean musical theatre company. They told me that fringe theatres with around 100 seats or less as well as the commercial theatres with more than 1000 seats have been going on as usual with regular sanitizing of the theatre space, without ‘distance seating’. Many of them have been closed. But ongoing productions simply cannot afford the cost for social distance seating, which only allows audiences in every other seat in a diamond pattern. Fringe theatres are too small to cut down the number of the audience by half; and commercial theatres are better to close the production rather than trying the social distance seating. When the ticket sales don’t reach 50% of capacity, commercial productions lose money instead of making a profit due to the high running cost, they explained. “We just go on with the risk of the virus. ‘Distance seating’ is for only subsidised theatres. Not for us,” the commercial producer concluded.

I asked what she would do if this virus situation continues for more than a month or even for a year. She couldn’t answer. After hearing the painful silence, I suggested that maybe we could start thinking about it from today and share some thoughts with each other until the theatre forum next month. I promised her to send some articles and ideas about our possible future. Then we might come up with some ideas when we sit together with other theatre directors, actors and producers at the forum in July.

At 5 pm, the Korean government announced an emergency notice on TV: the metropolitan area in South Korea will bring back ‘Social Distancing measures’ from tomorrow, 29 May. Schools will stay open, but karaoke, internet cafes, and private classes outside of school will be restricted from tomorrow. All the public organisations will be closed again until the 14 June. Corporates in Seoul and satellite cities will be encouraged to let their employees work from home.

Even before the announcement ended, my mobile phone started beeping with the text messages from colleagues, actors and exhibition staff. My staff members were shaken. I told them the government’s announcement seemed to protect students. I asked them to wait and see how things will unfold. In a minute, an emergency meeting was summoned. The head of marketing was running to the general director’s room with the publicity manager. I hurriedly texted in the online chatting room where all the heads of departments are in “Are we closing theatres from tomorrow?” Immediately, another text message is coming from the head of TYA department. “What about my production of Young-Ji?” The general director replies in a second. “It should be closed from tomorrow, sorry!”

In a few minutes, the head of marketing wrote. “I will put up a cancellation notice on NTCK’s website in a few minutes. All the bookings of Young-Ji will be cancelled immediately, and audiences will get refunds from tomorrow. Please share this news with all the staff. No show from tomorrow until the 14 June.”

This is it. This is our new reality. We are at a war with the virus. And it is an unpredictable one. Seventy years ago, in June of 1950, the NTCK was closed due to the Korean War, just two months after its grand inaugural production. The closure continued for more than 2 years. Seventy years later, in the 70th anniversary year, we are at war again, this time with the virus.

Our theatres can be closed at any time depending on the spread of the virus. When the newly infected cases go below 50 a day for a week or two, the NTCK’s theatres might be open again. When the number goes up over 50 a day, then they will have to close again, anytime. How long can this go on? I don’t know. It could be for a year or two, probably until a vaccine is found. Fringe theatres and commercial theatres in Korea may continue running their shows with risks until a confirmed case is finally reported from their buildings. Then, they would close for a week, but they would open again for an indecisive period until the enemy revisits their territories.

We really need to find a solution. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to admit that theatre, this beautiful form of live art, is finally dead due to the deadly virus. And that will be our new reality.


M.J. Chung (Myung-Joo Chung) is the dramaturg at the National Theatre Company of Korea (NTCK), which is the oldest and largest producing theatre dedicated to dramatic arts in Korea. She is in charge of New Work Development, International Relations, Publications and NTCK’s new Digital Archive project.

She also worked as a chief producer at the NTCK (2015–2018) and at Myeongdong Theatre (2013-2015), which was merged with NTCK in 2015. MJ has been working as a creative producer, programmer and a translator in theatre for more than twenty years after studying English literature and philosophy in Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, and Theatre Management & Arts Policy at Goldsmiths College.

Her experience also includes being the Tour Producer of the Czech physical theatre, Farm in the Cave (2006-2013), the Creative Director for a new musical theatre development for ACOM International (2003-2013), the Associate Managing Director of Theatre of Nations, Seoul, Gyeonggi, 1997, the Managing Director and Programmer for the 1st Uijeongbu music theatre festival, 2002, and a producer at Seoul Performing Arts Company. She had been one of the judges of the MTM Musical Award for Edinburgh Fringe from 2011 to 2014. Myung-Joo is one of the co-authors for International Co-production Manual commissioned by KAMS and IETM. Her other publications include the Korean translation of Musical from Inside Out by Stephen Citeron and Peter Brook- A Biography by Michael Kustow. She also translated many plays including The Blue Room by David Hare (2011), Midsummer (2011) by David Greig, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (2014) and musical books for Korean productions of The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Starlight Express, My Fair Lady, and Pipin to name a few.

The National Theatre Company of Korea (NTCK) is one of the nation’s flagship theatre companies with the longest history reaching 70 years since its inaugural production, the Korean history play Wonsullang – the General’s Son in 1950. In 2010, the NTCK began a new journey as an independent incorporated foundation separated from the Central National Theatre, making a new home near Seoul Station, producing about 20 productions along with various education programs and publications every year. The year of 2015 marked another historic moment for the NTCK with relaunching the Season Ensemble of talented actors, and its return to the old home, Myeongdong Theatre. Now the NTCK has become the largest producing theatre in Korea with three theatre venues and the Season Ensemble, producing around 15 shows from world classics to new writing, along with many showcases and reading performances.


Headshot photography: CHOI Young-seok, R2D2 Studio.


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