The Future of the Arts
Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 8 / Day 2
Job interviews, from 9.30 am. Thankfully, I was asking the questions as one of four interviewers for recruitment at the government agency, the Korean Arts Management Service (KAMS). It is a public foundation for arts administration running supporting programmes for artists and arts groups as well as the Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) and Seoul Performing Arts Festival (SPAF).
I went to the main building of KAMS near the theatre district called Daehangno, one of my favourite places in Seoul with its hundreds of stages, and back-streets filled with restaurants. But I suddenly realised that the interviews were in a temporary hired office called With Space, near Seoul Station. If any of the candidates had the deadly virus, ninety-two staff members of KAMS would be isolated, and its building – shared with a performing arts college and an arts centre – would be locked down for days. So the recruitment team at KAMS had decided to hire outside space for the interviews.
I arrived there, panting, just two minutes before the orientation for the external interviewers started. And I went through the new routine of the Covid-19 era: the body temperature check, hand sanitiser, and a questionnaire regarding if I had visited abroad, or been in any Korean towns or clubs which had mass outbreaks of Covid-19 in the last two weeks. This process is required for all visitors to government buildings, art centres, galleries, and gyms these days. Quickly checking three ‘no’ boxes in the questionnaire, I peeped through the glass wall of a large waiting room where I saw five job seekers with masks on, sitting politely on chairs which were two meters apart from each other. They looked quite tense and even uncomfortable despite the generous personal space that they were given.
When I entered the interview room, the arts managers from KAMS, a director from the national traditional music broadcasting service, and a director from a regional arts council were waiting for me. All with masks on, we shared awkward greetings with elbows and discussed what questions to ask. Then five young women with masks marched in and the first interview began. We had seven group interviews with five candidates each, over seven hours. There were only two young men among the thirty-five. Obviously, women are becoming the major force in the arts – though I was the only woman among the interviewers.
It was not easy to remember who was who, as their faces were covered with masks. So I made notes about their hairstyles and what they said. With the group applying for the publicity department, we discussed which online platform is the most popular these days. Some said YouTube, some said Instagram. One clever looking woman with long hair dyed ash brown chose the right moment to summarise: YouTube is for teenagers whilst Instagram is for a wider range of users, even people up to their forties. And, she added, YouTube is not the best channel for KAMS because the arts foundation does have more text-based content and information which cannot be provided as videos. I asked another group if they had any good ideas for using Big Data in the arts, such as with ticket sales. One with a ponytail suggested linking the times and dates of ticket purchase with weather and traffic forecasts for the audience’s convenience. I wondered if the weather did matter when I went to the theatre.
At that moment, my phone buzzed. It was my artistic director, Lee. In a hurry, I declined his call with a message that I would call him back soon. And, in the next break, I did. Lee wanted to discuss how to differentiate the second and third day of the Forum, ‘the performing arts in the Post Corona Era: How Do We Do Theatre Now?’, next month. He emphasised that the second one will be about ‘theatre and digital media’, so the third day’s talk shall be focused on how to continue live performances in the time of Covid-19 – for instance, keeping the distance between audiences and dealing with new circumstances such as the reduced box office income and additional theatre facilities for sanitising.
He continued, but it was time for me to return to the interview room. So my replies got shorter with a simple yes, and then with double yes even before he finished his sentence. I just hoped it didn’t sound too rude. Finally, I managed to end the conversation with Lee and got back to the meeting room to meet the group applying for the ‘connection’ programme, which supports international research by performing artists.
I did the interview in English because the job would need English communication skills to work with various international arts organisations. All five were surprisingly fluent, and four of them had English accents, so they must have been to English schools. In Korea, young people these days are so well educated, thanks to their parents’ passion for – and insistence on – education. I feel lucky to be born two decades earlier than them when there was much less competition in getting into university and finding a job in the arts. I started working in theatre because my professor of English literature asked me if I would be interested in working with his new theatre festival. I said yes, and got the job just like that. If I were sitting on the other side of the table today, I would have no chance.
After selecting the final seven candidates, six women and one man, we completed the marking papers. While the recruitment staff checked our marks, the arts managers talked about the recent free online streaming service of performing arts, and we wondered if there is any possibility to charge for online theatre in the near future. And I thought that theatre might need to find out how to keep its essence as a live performance even online, not in the way of TV or film but in some different way of communicating with the audience. I will need to discuss this in the forum next month. I thought of more theatre directors for the discussion panels, then headed to my office to ask my assistant to contact them and to check the budget.
Five more plays to read before tomorrow’s review meeting, so no long walk tonight. Instead, l take my housemate’s cocker spaniel, Chelsea, for a short stroll around the badminton court in the woods on the hill behind my house. Sadly, I will not keep my record of consecutive 50 days with 10,000 steps every day any more. But Chelsea wouldn’t care less, I guess.
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.