Her show must go on － and on and onThe stage actress Na Ja-myeong's interview is a performance in itself. On a recent Tuesday evening, she shows up in black jeans and timeworn fake Ralph Lauren cap, not looking anything like an actress invited to perform at this year's Tokyo International Arts Festival. Once she starts talking, however, she goes wild. She disappears for a moment to change into a purple velvet blouse, then shouts, "Today is all about being eccentric!"
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a solo performance by Na Ja-myeong.
Act I, scene 1 - a Seoul office building, 7:30 p.m.
Lying on the lobby floor of this building in Daehangno, Korea's Broadway, Na says she is an "Oktress." She shoves up her hair. For the next five hours, she cackles, yaks, sobs. Nonstop. When she talks about her work, she cries when she explains the storyline of the play she'll do in Tokyo. A minute later, she laughs hard, says her nickname is "Queer fish." "I love things that are grotesque; that's just me."
Na, 34, is the only Korean stage actress invited to this year's Tokyo wingding, which is running from Sept. 10 to Dec. 23. She will do a monodrama from Nov. 11 to Nov. 19, "The 7 Stages of Grieving," a story based on aboriginal history. The organizer of the festival, Yoshio Wada, begged her to do the play. He had no one else in mind for the role.
Na previously performed in Japan in "The Rez Sisters" as Javnican, an American Indian girl who goes insane after being raped by white men. Thompson Highway, a Canadian who wrote and directed that play, said Na "displayed versatility with explosive emotions, traits hard to find in Japanese actresses." Well, Highway is Canadian, after all.
The shower of compliments does not end there. Sato Ayako, a theater critic and professor of literature at Meiji University, said, "Such a rare talent should be recognized internationally." Na wants the same thing.
Act I, scene II - a cafe in northern Seoul, 8 p.m.
Unfortunately, Na doesn't hear many compliments about her acting from Koreans. "They call me an alien," she says sipping a coffee. Na is that rare actress who is acclaimed abroad but unappreciated at home. It's not that she has been unlucky or not been given a chance in Korea. The late Kim Sang-yeol, a famed stage director, thought so highly of Na's talent that he established a musical performing troupe for her, Sinsi Musical Company, and told her that she could do anything she wanted.
The stage troupe is now one of Korea's most prestigious, but Na has never played in it, saying it was too tainted with unfairness. "I just could not root myself down to the local stage scene," she says. "It was the survival of the least fittest. Talent does not tell when connections and nepotism are at play." Though Na thinks of Kim as a mentor, she went abroad to study stage acting instead of joining his troupe. Kim died suddenly in 1998 when Na was in London. She still feels pain over his death.
A Korean stage actress once said of Na: "I simply don't get why she doesn't appreciate all the chances that came to her all too easily. She sounds like a real cuckoo to me."
Act II - at a KFC restaurant, 10:30 p.m.
In the middle of talking about "The 7 Stages of Grieving" Na suddenly starts singing a song from the play. Pushing a broom nearby, a janitor suddenly stops, his jaw dropping. When the song ends, Na nibbles from her chicken and talks about her favorite subject: herself.
Artistic inclinations run in her family. Her father, Na Seung-jin, was a painter. She has three older sisters -- one a painter, one a singer and one a dancer. Na, the baby of the family, was considered the least talented. Throughout her childhood, she did not dream about performing onstage. She was more of a delinquent who played hooky on rainy days. "I don't know why, but I just did not feel like sitting in a classroom when it rained," she says. "It's a miracle that I graduated from high school."
The thought of her teenage days makes her eyes well up. "Life was real hard for me then," she says, mascara running down both cheeks. "I was different from others. It was painful for me to breathe." While in high school in Seoul, the dancing sister, Na Su-ran, was expelled from the country, to Germany, because of suspicions that she supported North Korea. Says Na: "I have suffered from depression ever since."
Na realized that she was a lonely reed when she watched a television show called "Botong Saramdeul" (The Normal Fellas). The drama, a family sitcom, was a comedy about the lives of normal people. But she could not relate to it at all. One day she asked one of her classmates if it was funny. "Of course, it's hilarious," the friend said, as if she were looking at some weirdo. "It's about the normal people, us." Na suddenly saw that she was not part of that "us." "My way of expressing my feelings and emotions did not work in the world," she says. "I started to stray from the right path, wandering on the street." Then one day, she went to a church where she happened to see a group practicing a Korean play called "Endless Aria." Watching a director training the actors how to be expressive, she decided she had found her calling.
After graduating from high school, she based herself in Daehangno. She cemented her career by starring in the musical "The Fantastiks," gaining the nickname "Emerging Musical Star" from the local press. But her nature as a loner kept her from maintaining connections. "A true artist is forever an outsider," she says. Trouble is, everyone else wanted to be an insider.
Being a free agent was somewhat unconventional, but it was easy for Na. "A master recognizes a master," she says of her secrets. She says the Korean stage scene blurred the eyesight of the master. "Koreans are so nice that they tend to ignore others' flaws, and sometimes they willingly help out a friend though he's got zero talent."
She had what seemed like a good opportunity on the local scene, playing Cinderella, but she refused to wear the glass slipper. Why? She'd be trapped, she says. Instead, she fled to Tokyo to study at Showa Music Art College in 1988. "I found that the Japanese stage scene was more straightforward, honest and open to something new."
Now picking up her interviewer's chicken －－ "I'm a starving artist, you must remember" -- she recounts a story about her singing practice. She would do vocal performances alone; one day she found two women sneaking into her practice room. "Please forgive us if we disturbed your training," they said. "We just loved your voice and singing so much that we hid ourselves to appreciate the music." Na's voice is sonorant and deep, which comes across as a surprise compared with her small, lean build.
After three years in the school, Na went back to Seoul, in 1990. "I had a teacher from the school in Tokyo who offered to be my supporter. She said if I gave her three years of my life she would train me to be the best actress on earth. I just didn't like the idea of being bound."
Back at home, she starred in a group of performances. She says she was shocked to find that there was no competent stage actresses in Korea. "Everyone looked like they were locked up, searching for a role that made them look pretty," she says. She was soon a hot commodity among directors looking for a versatile actress who does not hold back. She once got a five-page-long soliloquy script a day before the show, where she appeared as a lunatic. The soliloquy lasted five minutes, and she spewed out every word quickly and furiously -- and with emotion. Long applause followed.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly. But Na, the loner and vagabond, was not happy. She wanted to do some avant-garde plays, which was impossible on the local stage scene.
In 1995, she bought a one-way plane ticket to London and went on a student visa. While training at an acting studio in London, she had a chance to star in a local production of "A Chorus Line" after the director noticed her practicing alone in the studio. She rejected the offer politely because it was not what she wanted to do. In 1997, the director of the Korean musical "The Last Empress" flew to London to persuade her to star as the lead actress. Her answer to the flattering offer was "No, thanks." The musical made it big on Broadway. Says she: No regrets.
Act III - on the main street of Daehangno, 12:30 a.m.
Wandering along a sidewalk, wrapping her arms around her velvet blouse to keep warm, Na is surprisingly quiet for a moment. After she went back to Seoul in 1999, she gained fame as an eccentric figure who lived true to her principles as a starving artist. Many Koreans still don't know her. Other actors barely tolerate her.
With a faraway look, she says, "I never did anything that I didn't want to do. That's what matters."
More in Features
Sculptor Joo Hoo-sik finds inspiration in the Year of the Cow
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?