New Drama for Astronauts?

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 8 / Day 3

Week 8 / Day 2

Week 8 / Day 1


The Korean government allowed public theatres to open from 6 May, but the National Theatre Company of Korea has no shows planned until 22 May because we have cancelled and postponed all the regular performances. So, my department’s staged reading of a new play ended up being the first show of NTCK this year.

Tragedy of X by LEE Yu-jin. Play Postbox staged reading on 11 May – the first live performance at NTCK in 2020. Photography by LEE Gangmul.

Suddenly, I had to prepare so many things that I have never done before. I had to reduce the audience number to 50 people, the half of the usual number, to make them seated on every other seat only. I needed extra staff because each audience member has to fill in a questionnaire to confirm that they have not been abroad or contacted anybody confirmed with Covid-19 in the last two weeks.

The post-show now has to be running without microphones for the audience because my front of house staff do not want people to pass around one microphone. One of my staff members came up with an idea to use the Korean group Messenger, using a notebook and TV monitor so that everybody can see the questions and comments from the auditorium. Suddenly, my technical team got busy to check such thing would be possible, digging the storage for a monitor, and double-check that the chat text in the monitor could be read from all the seats in the theatre.

Before the pandemic, I used to have a post-show drink party with writers, actors and audiences after every reading in order to provide a casual time for candid opinions. But that is not going to happen from now on because it is not possible to keep enough distance from each other in such a party. With Covid-19, things are so different now.

These were the things in my mind when I attended the Play Postbox review meeting this morning, our third meeting this year. We discussed seventeen new plays submitted from 9 March to 6 May, and two pieces were put back on the table from the last meeting. With Covid-19, the number of submissions is down by half: last year I received a script every other day. Many playwrights may have had writer’s block with cancellations and postponing of shows. Obviously, it is the worst season for any theatre-makers as long as I remember.

The NTCK’s unsolicited script submission, Play Postbox started in 2018 with the opening of the dramaturg’s office where I work now. Three readers – a theatre critic who is the head of Play Postbox, a director and me – read 173 plays in 2018, and 164 in 2019. It is a much smaller number than the Royal Court’s, which receives around 4000 plays, or the National Theatre’s with about 3000 plays every year. But considering the short history of text-based theatre in Korea – only just over 100 years – perhaps it is not too shabby. To encourage playwrights to write more new plays, NTCK provides reading performances with professional actors, and, unlike the Royal Court or the NT (which hardly produce any plays from the unsolicited submissions), produces at least one play from the Play Postbox every year.

In the last two years, we had a total of sixteen staged readings with post-show talks, and two full productions for NTCK’s large studio theatre, which is programmed as a writer’s theatre. The first work to be produced from Play Postbox was Solitary Bath, written by AHN Jung-min and directed by SEO Ji-hye. The young playwright carefully yet clearly unravels the People’s Revolutionary Party Incident of 1974 – a case of state violence which was later ruled to be an act of murder by the Court. The second work, to be produced later this year, is Variations on the Theme of Love by YU Hey-yul. Its title borrows the title of a poem of by KIM Su-young, a well-known Korean poet, much loved by the generation who were very active politically as young adults and instrumental in the democracy movement of the 1980s.

The plays are submitted anonymously to Play Postbox, so I do not know who the writers are, but I guess they are mostly young, though sometimes I hear from renowned playwrights that their friends tried the scheme but were shamefully unchosen! Nonetheless, the submitted plays vary in their themes and styles. In today’s meeting we had a story of an old villa in an outskirt of Seoul, believed to be once owned by the iconic singer Lady Gaga; a history play about a Korean king’s hidden twin sister which is imagined; a play about a writer who fights against developers to keep her green tea farm located in an old battlefield of the Korean war; and plays about Hitler reborn, Baron Munchausen, a girl in a wheelchair, and a suicidal soldier.

The unsolicited submission scheme is a great window to see the current trends in playwriting. Many established theatre writers are interested in modern histories rather than ongoing social and political issues, probably because it is easier to write about people and incidents with accumulated information and data. But young playwrights seem to be brave enough to write about our present and future. Every once in a while, I find stories about, for example, a new part-time job serving as a fake member of the family when necessary, or the unfulfilled love of a disabled teenage girl, or a family tragedy with an imported wife, or a surrogate mother hired for androids, to name but a few.

Often I receive short plays of less than 20 pages, probably written as a college assignment or for the newspapers’ Spring Literature Contest for short novels, plays and poetry, which is a Korean tradition. This year there are up to twenty-eight newspapers providing contests. The writers of these short plays might need further training for full-length works, but I am thankful for their existence, at least. I hope I can find more young talented writers who want to write for the stage. As the dramaturg at the National, I believe it is my job to figure out how to nurture them further.

From today’s meeting, another new play was selected to be read in front of audiences in July, which shall be the third reading this year because we missed February and March due to the deadly virus. My staff for Play Postbox will need to prepare body thermometers, hand sanitizers and questionnaires on recent whereabouts for the audiences, who will be seated in every other seat in a diamond pattern in the large studio theatre.

Contemporary theatre has been trying to reduce the barrier between artists and audiences, particularly in the last couple of decades, but now we should keep a 2-meter distance between the stage and the auditorium. Each audience member needs to wear a mask and sit more than 1 meter away from each other. Maybe to do a theatre show on the Moon would be somewhat like this, as everybody would need to wear an astronaut’s bodysuit and oxygen mask.

It is a time to rethink everything about theatre.