A culinary chronicleSong Seung-hwan's private office looks like the office of most people's dreams. An 11th-floor view down Gwang-hwamun road in the heart of Seoul. Luxurious, comfortable furniture to sink into. A wall of pictures of Mr. Song and the awards he's won, along with five precisely-arranged trophies. And one wall full of the international posters for "Nanta," Mr. Song's most successful production.
"Nanta," a nonverbal percussion show, has been perhaps Korea's greatest theatrical success, both on the peninsula and internationally. It has attracted 740,000 spectators in Korea, and another 260,000 overseas in 81 cities and 16 countries. "Nanta" is Korea's longest-running play, 10 years and still going, and Mr. Song is the man behind that success.
Mr. Song's production agency, PMC -- which stands for "performance, music, cinema" -- grossed 3.8 billion won (about $3 million) in 2000 and 7.2 billion won last year.
Back in 1996, however, Mr. Song did not dare to imagine he would become such a success. Back then, he was just another needy producer, trying to gather the capital to produce a musical. He managed to collect 600 million won, but wanted 100 hundred million more. Just in time, his friend from high school, Lee Gwang-ho, came to the rescue. Now Mr. Lee is Song's partner at PMC Productions, concentrating on financial matters.
Mr. Song started his career as a child actor at the age of 8, working in television dramas. He also dabbled with television commercials and acting as the master of ceremonies for comedy programs, and earned a reputation for being a solid actor.
But he was also tired of waiting to be wanted by someone else. He aspired to produce his own works, control his own destiny. In 1986, Song took off to New York to go to acting school, but spent the better part of the three and half years acting around town.
Back in Korea in 1992, he founded Whan Performance, a theater troupe, only to realize how difficult it is to make a play that's successful both commercially and artistically. According to Song, Korean theatrical circles have two distinctive characteristics. One is their disorganized production process, with a director usually serving as producer and other roles. The other characteristic is the dominance of the "auteur" theory, where self-indulgent directors follow their whims without regard to the audiences. "The entertaining performance simply did not exist," he says, "and that was what I wanted to create."
So he set out to make something different. In order to be more international, he eliminated the language barrier. "The Korean language is very beautiful, I know, but it would be of no use on stage if the spectators could not understand it," he says. At that time, nonverbal performances like "Stomp" were in fashion. Song was inspired.
Making the best of Korean traditions, Song wanted to use samul nori, a kind of Korean traditional percussion performance, as the main source. "Samul nori is all about rhythms and beating," Song says. "And the place where you see beating the most, I guess, is in the kitchen. And everyone loves to talk about food."
Song gathered staff members and actors, with whom he worked together in writing the script. So that's how "Nanta" was born.
Mr. Song wanted to make the show entertaining, even though this cut against how most directors approached theater. They preferred something sublime and artistic. Mr. Song told his directors, "I want to make something like 'Jurassic Park,' a hit even though it didn't earn any Oscars. I'm not trying to make something that will win the Palme d'Or at Cannes."
When "Nanta" opened at the Ho-Am Art Hall on Oct. 10, 1997, it became an immediate hit. "Nanta" moved around major theaters in town, until Song founded the PMC theater in Seodaemun, northern Seoul in July, 2000. Mr. Song targeted young people and did online marketing, which hit the mark. But he wanted more. He wanted to go global.
On a flight back to Seoul from Tokyo, however, on a business trip promoting "Nanta," Mr. Song felt more miserable than hopeful. He had taken a videotape of "Nanta" to Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo to meet with big-time promoters. They weren't very welcoming. "They would get a serious look on their faces, and ask the same question," he says, "about whether a country called Korea had cultural assets worth watching." Lighting a cigarette, he adds, "That was the most dejected moment I've ever had in my entire life."
"The problem was that I had never succeeded at something like that before," he says. "Everything we did, it was the first time in Korea." If a promoter cannot do it, he thought, then an able agent should do the job of promoting. So he met the Broadway Asia Company, an American agency that specialized in selling American plays to the Korean market.
The agency agreed on the potential of "Nanta" and signed a contract with Mr. Song, but under two conditions. First, it should go to the Edinburgh Festival to gain some international exposure. Second, they show needed reworking.
Mr. Song, who had never heard of the Edinburgh Festival before, agreed right away. "Nanta" performed under the title "Cookin,'" and sold out for a whole month in August, 1999.
Song grew confident. And it was time to give the play more international appeal. The Broadway Company Asia recommended three "show doctors," from Broadway. Show doctors were something then unknown in Korea, and Song found them helpful. "A good example: The show doctors found a scene where the cooks taste a dish, smacking their lips," he says. "I thought it was too unsophisticated for international viewers, so I was going to take the part out." Instead, Song made the part longer, following the show doctors' advice.
So "Nanta" began to play around the world, while continuing to do well in Seoul. The first overseas performance of "Nanta" took place in 2000, in Orlando, Florida. The troupe continued to have tours in Europe, Japan and the United States, and for now, they play only in Seoul.
Mr. Song these days is working on "UFO," another nonverbal performance, a mix of dance and circus, that's set to open Aug. 17 in Seoul.
On a recent Saturday around lunchtime, people outside the office were rushing around and business looked good. But Mr. Song looked far from happy. He had stayed up all night working on "UFO" and some other projects, including a movie "Gutse-eora Geumsuna" (Keep Your Chin Up, Geumsun), a lighthearted comedy.
He looked happy enough, however, when he talked about his ultimate goal. "To make it to Off-Broadway, that is the last stop of all this," he said with sparkling eyes, "and I think and I hope I'm almost there."
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