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Theatre for Phono-Sapiens?

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 8 / Day 6


Saturday, 9 am. A triple espresso to wake up my exhausted body and brain. Which made me realise that I don’t need to go to the office today because my theatre is closed. So, my monthly duty as one of the senior managers to attend the weekend productions of the National Theatre Company of Korea (NTCK) is not necessary. I went back to bed and started searching YouTube. These days, most Korean media and arts organisations run their own YouTube channels, and more than half of Koreans watch YouTube instead of TV – I heard this on a YouTube clip. I am one of those who watch TV news on YouTube.

I found more than a hundred talk programmes on ‘Post-Covid-19 Age’ on Korean YouTube channels. It seems like every Korean media company is running a series of discussions about the pandemic. I too am preparing a forum on theatre post-pandemic at NTCK. So, it is not surprising to see all the TV channels and newspapers are doing so as well.

I remembered one of my recent phone calls with a theatre director, Park, who said that Koreans are so in love with fortune-telling that they are now chasing all the renowned scholars in epidemiology, anthropology, sociology, economics and business to ask their opinions about what we should do, as they look for a fortune-teller to solve a crisis. But fortune-telling in the middle of the virus storm could hardly be objective, though listening to words from wise people could make you feel slightly relieved, he added. Thanks to this idiosyncratic Korean method of looking for solutions, I could find countless predictions, forecasts and imaginations on the Post-Corona Age from Korean academics and experts from various fields. I listened to wise words about our near future up to 2040, but I didn’t feel relieved.

From the talk series on ‘Post-Corona Age – Novo Sapiens’ presented by a Korean News Jockey, CHUNG Kwanyong on the Korean Christian Broadcasting Service (CBS), I found some interesting keywords for our time: Digital Platform, Phono Sapiens, New Hippies, untact lifestyle, and vulnerable class.

There were a couple of interesting Korean anecdotes and analyses. An old brewery of Makkeolli, the Korean traditional fizzy alcoholic drink made of rice (highly recommended), had an amazing increase of sales, thanks to the maker’s young son who set up an online sale system. It was on a tremendous scale that his father had never dreamed of. The possibility had been there since the development of online marketing more than a decade ago, but the success was achieved when the son of the brewery owner became a young man who was not afraid of using the digital platform. There was also a Korean blacksmith who had-international success on Amazon just by selling one of the most common Korean farming tools, Homi, a traditional Korean hoe. His small factory producing handmade Homis couldn’t cope with the orders flying in from abroad. That was the power of the digital platform and globalized market.

With Covid-19, middle-aged and senior citizens have been forced to use the digital platform for their online lectures and business meetings. Even the arts went digital with online museums and streaming service of operas, concerts and theatre shows. A professor, CHOI Jae-boong from the Service Convergence Design Institute at Sungkyunkwan University, explained that this forced use of the digital platform must be painful but a worthwhile training for a generation over 50s who are not used to it. This is how the fourth industrial revolution is accelerated in the post-Covid-19 age.

Young people who have used smartphones from early teenage years have no problems, as they do almost everything on their smartphones. In Korea, they shop for their clothes, electronics, computer chargers, phone cases online. They even order a cup of Americano using a smartphone delivery app: I was amazed when I saw one of my office staff was getting just one cup of coffee delivered. This new generation is called ‘Phono Sapiens,’ the professor summarized, the expression first introduced in the Economist in 2015.

This generation made the Korean Covid-19 tracking app only a few days after the first mass outbreak of the virus. In my theatre, they put up performance cancellation notice on the NTCK’s webpage less than half an hour after the government’s announcement of public theatre closure. We might have hope in these young people for our future with the virus, which will mutate and return every few years, as many scholars say. I hope that young theatre people who know how to use the digital platform well can find various ways to make a new theatre which is sustainable in the virus age.

Then, I think that theatre online is the only sustainable form of live theatre in a future with the virus, which will require ‘untact’ lifestyle, minimizing contact with other people. Will we face a future when nobody visits live theatres any more due to the danger of catching deadly viruses from others around 2040? Then all the actors and theatre-makes who already fell into the ‘vulnerable class’ with almost no income surviving with the emergency fund from the state this season would lose their jobs completely. Would that be our grim future in twenty years?

One film reviewer said in a CBS talk session that we will see some New Hippies in the younger generation soon. According to her, like young people in the wartime in the 1960s, some of these new hippies will look for deeper contact with other humans and nature. Particularly the kids who are experiencing lockdown culture from early childhood would grow up yearning for contact, she concluded. They will appreciate the blessing of going to parks, concerts and theatre when they can to meet people and share emotions much more than older generations, she predicted.

I was relieved to hear that. Theatre may survive even in 2040, but the number of theatres may be fewer. Probably some theatres might move further to the fringes. Still, the exciting live form of art has a future with deadly viruses which would live with us for decades. Anyway, theatre has been never a mainstream culture in comparison to cinema and pop music: theatre has survived like an old grandmother, who always says that she is going to die soon but never actually dies.

If I can visit my younger theatre colleagues doing rehearsals in a small room in a rundown part of Seoul in 2040, I will be more than happy. I started feeling a bit relieved, as if I saw a vague light in the long dark tunnel that we are in. So, I got changed and dragged out my housemate from the bed and his dog for a night walk by the river, under the motorway to see ducks and the grey morose-looking herons, who are always socially distanced 50 meters apart from each other, because it is their nature

Flying herons in Gyeongju. Photo by J. Patrick Fischer (Creative Commons).


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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