Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 8 / Day 7
Sunday at noon. A text message from my assistant at the Dramaturg’s Office at the National Theatre Company of Korea (NTCK). My head was still heavy from crying until 6 am – watching a Korean Netflix drama series about hospital doctors with big hearts. It was this year’s big hit in Korea with a ‘tear gas effect’ portraying ordinary doctors (showing slightly unrealistically high levels of humanity) saving vulnerable people’s lives. I started watching it mainly because the heroine of the doctors’ story was the theatre actor who did Mona for the NTCK’s production of Oslo written by J.T. Rogers and directed by my artistic director, LEE Sung-yul. I hope to have a re-run of the show next year, so I wanted to check if the drama has potential to go for the second season. If it does, the actress will not be available for us next year. Well, that was my excuse!
My assistant’s message included the design proofs for the poster for the theatre forum that I am preparing: ‘How Do We Do Theatre Now?”, scheduled for three days in June and July. We had three choices: the first image was a drawing of Shakespeare wearing a blue mask; the second was an illustration of five chairs in a row with only one coloured in green, and the other four in grey; the third illustration was showing the extended distance between a theatre door and the word, ‘audience’ written in English. All three designs were quite interesting, so I asked my assistant to forward them to the artistic director. A few minutes later, still in bed, I was in a text discussion with my assistant in the office and my artistic director probably at home, forgetting it was a Sunday afternoon.
We concluded that the one with an image of Shakespeare with a mask is a good concept but not ideal for Korean audiences, unless we replace him with a Korean alternative. The second one with chairs was also good but a chair could be a symbol for cinemas and concert halls too. So, we decided to develop the third one, my assistant’s favourite, with an image of our theatre building and the audience, replacing the English text with Korean characters or with an image of an audience.
The three of us continued texting to finalize the panellists for each session. My artistic director suggested we include a theatre director, KIM Hyun-tak, who is running a theatre project on Covid-19. So, I looked up the performance news related to his theatre company, Seongbukdong Beedoolkee (‘Pigeons in a Town in the North of the Castle’). I found that KIM’s company has been running a project called ‘Immunization Rehearsals’, consisting of three open rehearsals from 26 May to 16 August.
Seongbukdong Beedoolkee (SBT) is a provocative theatre company, led by the director KIM Hyun-tak, who freely deconstruct the texts of both well-known masterpieces and modern Korean drama, such as Medea by Euripides, The Maids by Jean Genet, NTCK’s old repertoire Mansun – Full Boat by CHEON Seng-se, Bicycle by OH Tae-suk, in order to recreate them, incorporating contemporary social issues and specific incidents related to injustice and inequality. Often, KIM’s performances use a different theatrical style, such as dance theatre, melodramatic film, or physical theatre, depending on the material and topic, and most of them include active audience participation.
KIM’s new creation On the Yellow, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, reimagined by KIM Hyun-tak incorporates the racism issue in Korea. It was postponed from March until November due to Covid-19. During the ‘Social Distancing’ time, in the rehearsal room, his company members started to have a conversation about empty theatres and disappearing audiences, the Post-Corona Age, and the co-existence of humans and wildlife with immunization. Their discussion was developed into a series of open rehearsals, Immunisation Rehearsal which will be held in a small studio theatre in Seoul, with an audience of only five for each rehearsal to keep the social distance measures.
The poster of Immunisation Rehearsal project
by Seongbukdong Beedoolkee Theatre Group in Seoul.
Image courtesy of KIM Hyun-tak.
Immunisation Rehearsal has three open rehearsals. The first one is The Quarantine Menagerie from 26 May to 7 June, loosely based on The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, portraying four original characters in a Covid-19 situation in 2020. The five audience members are invited onstage in the roles of unicorns, keeping a safe level of social distance, where one of the characters, Amanda says on the phone that she is planning an open theatre rehearsal with the theme of Post Corona Age.
The second rehearsal studies ‘Theatre Direction and Acting to Maximize Bertolt Brecht’s Alienation Effect – Focussing on Covid-19’ is loosely based on Mother Courage by Brecht. From 20 June to 12 July, they will recreate Mother Courage using Brecht’s theatrical techniques such as breaking the Fourth Wall, talking from the third-person perspective, in the past tense, Identity Correction, and the Social Gestus to visualise unjust social power relationships in the Post Corona Age.
The last in the series of Immunization Rehearsals will be Wildlife Documentary Theatre from 4 to 16 August, which is expected to explore the relationship between wild animals and humans. It is to forecast how to co-exist safely with wildlife in the Age of Corona Viruses.
Hoping to get a ticket for this, I decided to invite KIM Hyun-tak for the third session of my theatre forum on Rethinking of Theatre from the Start. KIM must have things to share from his open rehearsal project. He seems to be one of the first Korean directors to take quick action when most others are still in limbo with the theatre closure. No matter how much his open rehearsals with live audiences will achieve, his attempt seems inspiring. So, by including KIM Hyun-tak on the list of panellists, I have finally completed the plan for a three-day discussion programme on Theatre in the Post-Corona Age, which I have been brainstorming with my artistic director for a month. I will need to make some more phone calls to check their availability from tomorrow.
I ended up working a lot on Sunday. But it seems a common thing in the Age of Covid-19. Without any live performances or strict timetables of meetings, mostly working with text messages and emails, I am losing the sense of time and day. I wonder how I will remember these days ten or twenty years later? Will we find a way to keep the integrity of theatre as a live performing art both online and offline? I have been asking the same questions almost every day since the mass outbreak of Covid-19, which caused world-wide theatre closure.
At least one good thing about the deadly virus is that it has taught me to ask a fundamental question, to go back to the basics in life and to look for the true value of what I live for. I think I have lived with theatre, in theatre and for theatre for a quarter of a century since my college days. I have never questioned the raison d’être of theatre because I love it and it is my life and my family. But Covid-19 has taught me that the world must go on without theatre sometimes. It was such a wake-up call.
Maybe it is a good thing for me as well as for the theatre. Covid-19 has made theatre and theatre people stop and look around the world. And this pause will make us grow. And I hope, before not too long, we will meet the audience again, with more respect and deeper love, appreciating the existence of every single member of the audience, who gives the reason for us to continue.
Long live theatre and its audience!
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.