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Famous for comedy, fearless for drama

Mar 06,2014
Kim Su-ro started his career on stage and has returned there with his latest production. By Jeon Ho-sung
These days, the world of performing arts is chock-full of big names and productions with extravagant sets. Most of them are foreign musicals and plays, for which producers pay a lot of royalties to license in Korea.

To see original works by local creators, however, you should check out smaller theaters. They may not have elaborate production values, but they make up for it with originality, extraordinary twists and humor that audiences can relate to. Such productions don’t need to invest in casting big names or spending a lot on advertising; word-of-mouth ensures that quality works can stand the test of time.

In 2011, Kim Su-ro started the Kim Su-ro Project to help introduce new and unusual productions worth seeing.

His first production, “Cheeky Romance,” was a hit and laid the foundation for his following works, all of which were highly praised.

Kim studied at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and debuted with the Mokwha Repertory Company. In 1993, he made his cinematic debut with a minor role in “Two Cops,” and since then he has appeared regularly in movies, becoming especially known for comedies, in such hits as “Hi, Dharma” (2001) and “Attack the Gas Station” (1999). With his movie career booming, he left the world of theater altogether in 2000, but promised himself to return within 10 years.

In 2009, it was “The Lower Depths,” a play by Maxim Gorky considered to be one of the most important works of Russian Socialist Realism, that drew him back to the theater. “Even while acting in movies, I dreamed of the day I would return to the stage,” he said.

In 2010, Kim plunged into producing plays with “Lee Gi-dong Gymnasium.” Starring in it himself, it was one of the happiest times of Kim’s career, not to mention a commercial success. It was this play that paved the way for the Kim Su-ro Project the following year. Kim said “greed” was the only reason for him to plunge into the world of producing. “Besides, if I want to take on great works, as an actor you can only manage one or two pieces a year. In order to be a part of great works, I thought producing was the way to go,” he said.

On Saturday, Kim unveiled the project’s ninth production, once again taking on “The Lower Depths.” This is a rare move by Kim, who so far only produced commercial plays under his namesake project. In addition, Kim acts in the play.

“Please get rid of this,” were the first words uttered by Kim when the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, sat down for an interview at a rehearsal studio in Seongbuk-dong, northern Seoul. He was pointing to a tiny pimple near his mouth.

“It’s the result of working on a classic,” said Kim, coming across quite different from his comical, happy-go-lucky persona of a guy from Busan. But Kim, in rehearsal mode for his latest play, was a far cry from “the actor that makes comedians laugh.”



Top to bottom: Kim Su-ro’s first production “Cheeky Romance,” musicals “Coffee Prince” and “Black Mary Poppins,” the play “Lee Gi-dong Gymnasium,” “Love Generation” and the musical “Agatha”
Q. You’ve been successful with commercial plays, so why do a classic all of a sudden?

A. I didn’t want people to think I’ve gone too far that way. We got the ball rolling by picking pieces that the audience could watch easily, but now with the project being such a success it’s about time we took on heavier pieces. There are so many plays that don’t see the light of day sandwiched between comedies, and I wanted to present a classic in a way that was easy for audiences.



Why this play?

I thought of doing a Shakespeare piece first, but it’s the 450th anniversary this year, which means everyone’s putting on Shakespeare. I wanted to offer an alternative, and I’ve thought about presenting this play at a small theater for some time. When I was acting in the 2009 version at Towol Theater [at the Seoul Arts Center], I felt it a shame that the venue was so big.

I thought the play would benefit from an intimate venue. This time, everything - the actor’s breathing, tears and sweat - will be perceptible by the audience at close range. After that I hope to take on Shakespeare, Chekhov and Arthur Miller, too.



You are the producer of the play. Why did you decide to act in it as well?

I want to keep studying because I’m not letting go of acting anytime soon. Just because I’m not in dramas or movies doesn’t mean I’ve stepped away from the world of acting.



But why play an alcoholic actor?

The director thought I should play a more romantic character by the name of Pepel, but I’ve played him before. I thought if I play him again I won’t be learning anything new. The role I’m playing now was played by a college friend of mine. I remember thinking he was so great at it and that I’d like to try it some time. Because I have a macho image, I’m better suited to play Pepel, but I wanted to try something new and show a new side of me. I think you get more from creating something out of nothing rather than playing it safe.



Unlike other plays, you don’t seem to put a focus on casting big names.

I don’t have the knack for asking. I just don’t think it’s necessary to accommodate big actors in that way, with ridiculous paychecks and catering to their every whim.

I thought it more important to have actors that study more, really connect with the public; that’s the kind of stars we want in the play. Years ago at Mokwha we used to play to full houses without any big names on the bill. I know that with talented actors and a savvy producer that treats the audience right, that the big names will come and ask to take part.



At first I thought you’d pursue comedies. What exactly is it that you are interested in as a producer?

Is there anything better than trying to put on a great piece? I think the so-called color of a play is something that the viewers decide. Even as an actor I took on various roles, like espionage and thrillers. But it’s the audience that decided I was a comedy actor. Just because I have a comical public image, should I just make comedy plays? Our mission is to disregard genres and to craft entertaining shows.



You’ve been starring in the MBC variety show “Real Men” since last year. Are you worried that the public will identify you more as a variety show entertainer?

I try and live without fear of any kind. Whatever situation I’m in, I’m sincere in my pursuit, without paying attention to worries and what might happen.

Before I was famous, I lived in a tiny underground flat with my family of four for about four years. When we were out of rice, we ate ramen for six months. What is there to fear when you’ve experienced that? Whether they call me an actor or not, I live with the belief that you can start fresh anytime.

By Yoo Joo-hyun [carlasunwoo@joongang.co.kr]






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