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How to Keep the Theatre Ecosystem?

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 8 / Day 5


10 am. The office of the National Theatre Company of Korea (NTCK). It’s very quiet with no trace of yesterday’s disaster – the Korean government’s announcement about the re-closure of public theatres, galleries, museums and parks from today, 29 May, for two weeks.

My colleagues seem to have got used to suddenly cancelling performances as we have already cancelled so many shows one by one since 25 February. The first cancellation was the season-opening performance, celebrating the 70th anniversary of NTCK, Hwajeonga: Song of Spring Blossoms, written by BAE Sam-sik and directed by LEE Sung-yul, the artistic director of NTCK. It was cancelled during the dress rehearsal, three days before its grand opening at Myeongdong Theatre. It was the time of the first closure of theatres and galleries due to Covid-19 in Korea, and I was shocked by the news. Nobody quite understood the situation with the virus, so my colleagues sent the actors home but worked in the theatre until evening. It was only the next day when all the staff at NTCK realised that we need to lock down our three venues for two weeks. So, we stopped all the three productions in rehearsal for the NTCK’s 70th anniversary season.

A photo taken in April when the cancellation announcement was made, at the last dress rehearsal of one of the 70th anniversary productions from the old NTCK repertoire, Mansun – Full Boat, written by CHEON Seng-se, directed by SHIM Jae-chan, set design by LEE Tae-sup. Photo courtesy of M.J. Chung.

The Korean government never forced a lockdown. Public theatres, museums, and libraries were closed, whilst some of the independent theatres and commercial theatres continued their runs with drastically reduced audiences. The NTCK restarted rehearsals from mid-March after preparing body temperature reading cameras and lots of masks and sanitizers, and disinfecting offices and theatres. The closure of the state-run cultural organisations and schools in Korea was extended by a week or two at a time. So, our rehearsals went on, hoping to do at least one live show in order to make payments to the creative team and the actors, who must have needed the income desperately. But most productions were cancelled at the last minute due to further extensions of the closure of public theatres and schools which continued until 6 May.

This year’s first live performance at the NTCK was a one-off staged reading performance of a new play, organised by my department on 11 May, and the second was a children’s theatre show, Young-Ji, which opened on 22 May but is closed from today. It will have three more YouTube streamings, thanks to the TYA team who already prepared five online streamings for the worst-case scenario. So far this year, our live audience has been 300 in total, due to reduced capacity to keep social distancing measures, and our total box office income this year is only around £3,000. And we do not know when we can sell the tickets again! How can we survive with this level of income? And how should we plan for next year?

Maybe the NTCK will be alright this year as we have some saved funds from last year’s box office and sponsorship income. But what about next year? With all the emergency funding, the Korean government is running out of treasury funds, and I already heard that funding for the arts shall be cut by around 10% next year. I also heard that some Korean public theatres that heavily depend on income coming from venue hire, and restaurants, shops and parking, started struggling to make ends meet this year because they have had almost no audiences.

We need a back-up plan to survive! Online live streaming is an option, but not for everyone. I read that NT Live earned£6.4 million for the 2017-2018 season, and Broadway League started a discussion on live streaming service at $29.9 with Amazon Prime, Broadway HD, Microsoft and Disney to save closed theatres. But it doesn’t seem to be a realistic goal for most theatres due to a lack of potential repertoire and audiences even if they find a partner for the digital platform. I asked my assistant to check with Naver TV, which is run by a South Korean online platform, providing the most popular search engine in Korea about the possibility. The answer was a simple “No.” In the past few years, Naver TV has been running theatre online streaming services for free in association with many Korean public and independent theatres. But they never thought of charging for the service in Korea. We simply cannot make money from it.

So, I called a theatre director, a producer, and a dramaturg – all of whom I want to invite to my theatre forums on ‘How Do We Do Theatre Now?’ in June. Park, the director who runs the Applied Theatre Laboratory, told me that he couldn’t see any bright future for theatre. Hesitating to say the word, he said theatre must be dead now. I told him that I couldn’t agree with him more. What we should look for must not be CPR steps to save the dying conventional theatre. He and I agreed that we would need to find out about the possibility of giving birth to a new form of theatre, probably a hybrid of live performance, digital theatre and online gaming. And he agreed to come over to the second session of my theatre forum for ‘Theatre Goes Online?!’ on 29 June.

Then I phoned my old friend, Ji-sun, a producer who worked with several German digital theatre-makers for workshops and lectures last year. She was delighted to be invited to the forum to talk about a new way of making theatre, incorporating digital media, animation, game and film. Online streaming cannot be a substitute for theatre, she said. In fact, according to the Arts Council England (ACE) report From Live to Digital in 2016, “audiences do not believe Live-to-Digital is a substitute for live theatre; they believe it is a significant and distinct experience.” In other words, it is a genre created using theatre and film.

Ji-sun said that even before Covid-19, there were many innovative theatre-makers in the UK and Germany who created exciting new forms of theatre incorporating animations, the internet or AI technology, and who tried different ways of meeting and communicating with audiences, including digital theatre as done by Rimini Protokoll, or VR theatre by Cyber Rauber, mobile app theatre by Jan Linders to name a few. There is even AI machine improvised theatre. She and I agreed that maybe we could brainstorm what kind of hybrid or collaborations would be available as ‘untact’ theatre in the age of Covid-19.

Last, I talked to Lim, a dramaturg interested in Online theatre. He told me that he would like to talk about possible small theatrical acts and events online during this lockdown. “Theatre people still can meet without audiences in empty theatres in Korea. We can try a small-scale reading, a short sketch or some kind of theatrical acts and put them online in order to provide opportunities for theatre-makers who have no jobs at the moment”, he said.

Theatre is dying with the virus. But we need keep our theatre ecosystem. We need to help playwrights, actors and theatre directors survive to find a new way of making theatre, to experiment with a genetically modified theatre. State-run theatres must pump new blood into dying theatre, rather than generously sending out a series of video archives for free, while sitting in closed theatre buildings.


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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