Only the End of the World?!
Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 8 / Day 1
Every Monday morning the National Theatre Company of Korea (NTCK) where I work has a weekly briefing with the artistic director and all the heads of departments. The first thing I do in the meeting is to check the Covid-19 Dashboard. Sixteen new confirmed cases with one death in South Korea today. It doesn’t look good.
First, we discussed the title of the C Project, which is an additional programme in our autumn season to revive independent theatre companies’ cancelled productions from February and March due to Covid-19. My artistic director chose the one that the largest number of my company staff members voted for, There Is Theatre Again. Second, we shared feedback on yesterday’s live streaming of the new production of the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) department, Young-Ji, written by HEO Seon-hye and directed by KIM Mi-ran. It’s a new play about a mischievous girl in her early teens who is going back and forth between fantasy and reality with her new classmates and imaginary friends. The show opened its live performance from the 22nd of May in NTCK’s large studio theatre, not long after the mass outbreak of Covid-19 at clubs in Seoul, which is now reaching up to 236 cases. Therefore, the TYA department is putting on five YouTube live streaming sessions for school children and teachers who would be afraid of visiting the theatre.
According to my marketing team’s post-show audience survey, more than 60% of the audience members who visited the live performance of Young-Ji last week were in their twenties, whilst yesterday’s live streaming session was viewed by a younger audience, with 68% teenagers out of 6,056 viewers. But the YouTube viewers watched the show clip for less than 8 minutes on average. Sadly, their interest and concentration seemed not too high. The rate of recommendation of the online audience (who chose ‘I will recommend this show to my friends’) was only 16%, half of the live audience’s rate which was 35%. The head of marketing surmised that the difference was not caused by technical issues, as there were no hiccups yesterday, but by the preference of theatregoers who thankfully still enjoy live shows more than online streaming.
As the morning meeting ate into the early afternoon, my artistic director suggested a new weekly discussion session on ‘the Covid-19 solutions at NTCK’ that will cover all the issues from the budget, building management, customer service and programming, all of which have been hugely affected by the deadly virus. Listening to his voice on my empty stomach, I suddenly realized that today, the 25th of May, was supposed to be the day that I and my producers would greet the technical team from the Vakhtangov Theatre, which were planned to visit with their legendary production of Uncle Vanya directed by Rimas Tuminas. I wonder how the Russian theatre people are doing in the lockdown in Moscow. My heart sank. I might never see the Russian woman who exchanged a few dozen emails with me to make the tour happen.
In the afternoon, I read new plays from NTCK’s unsolicited script submission scheme, ‘Play Postbox’ in order to prepare the review meeting with other readers on Wednesday. One was about a young girl locked down with her zombie father, and the other was about a young soldier’s mysterious suicide case in an army base, which is not too unfamiliar a story in my country, because all the healthy young Korean men need to serve in the National Service as long as they live in the nation divided into South and North. I wonder if either of them will make it to the final shortlist for reading performances this year.
Before I finished reading the second script, my artistic director, Lee, phoned to ask how it was going with my plan for a forum on ‘the performing arts in the Post Corona Era: How Do We Do Theatre Now?’ which is scheduled for three Mondays starting on the 22nd of June. Lee urged me that we would need good subtitles for each talk session in order to give audiences a clear idea about the daily topic. I replied that I was still brainstorming about it with the theatre critic Cho who will be the moderator. Actually, Cho suggested the title of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play, It's Only the End of the World, for our first session with a Korean economist and a philosopher who will talk about the future of Korean society. But I am not sure the French play’s title would be the best choice for the session. Anyway, I should make up my mind in the next few days. Also, I should fix the panels of the second and third session with theatre practitioners on theatre and digital media, and the new environment for theatre-making respectively, after talking to the government agency, Korean Arts Management Service (KAMS) which will be co-hosting and publishing the forum in their webzine.
It’s already time to go for a night walk, which is my new hobby instead of the gym. My personal trainer must have been waiting for me ever since the sport centres reopened more than a month ago. But I am afraid of catching Covid-19 in a crowded gym, even though everybody wears masks when exercising. I cannot be too careful with the virus because if I get confirmed, all the theatre staff and actors who were in contact with me will be forced to isolate themselves and NTCK’s theatres and rehearsal rooms will be closed. I just cannot afford that. So, I am heading to the quiet night street along the river under the overhead motorway, with the stepping-stone crossings, the reeds, and the ducks.
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.