The play’s no longer the thingThe actor and American theater scholar Richard Nichols, in Korea on a Fulbright grant, worries that contemporary Korean plays are “drifting aimlessly” and missing “an artistic compass.”
“If the contemporary theater has found an artistic compass in the new century, the direction is not clear,” he wrote recently, quoting a Korean theater critic who said contemporary plays here wander “yeogi jeogi” (here and there) in search of identity.
Mr. Nichols’ studies merit attention as he is among the first foreigners to compile an anthology of Korean plays. A theater professor at Penn State University teaching at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University, Mr. Nichols has viewed more than 75 Korean theater productions during seven visits to Korea.
For scholars of Asian studies, Korean theater has long held a nebulous position between Chinese and Japanese theater. While scores of foreign theater critics have written about Japanese kabuki and Chinese pei-kuan, or traditional puppetry, few Westerners have cast a critical eye on Korean theater.
Yet, as Mr. Nichols, 60, notes, modern Korean theater had a two-decade heyday starting in the 1960s.
At that time, the playwrights Lee Gang-baek and Oh Tae-Seok, both of whom Mr. Nichols frequently mentions, reconstructed traditional Korean themes such as the notion of han (a feeling similar to a grudge), wartime memories, shamanism, and Confucianism, and placed them in a modern context.
Korean theater production from the 1960s to 1980s ― and plays in particular ― was prolific, centered mainly around Korea’s elite theatrical and literary circles. Due to the sensitive political dialogue in many of these plays, performances were relegated to underground theaters. Though facilities to accommodate technical theatrics were few, the diversity of audiences and serious-minded supporters encouraged original production.
Twenty years after the peak, Mr. Nichols admits that the quality of Korean plays is on a downward spiral.
The underground spaces built to evade the probing eyes of authorities have changed little in 20 years, he says, and fail to serve even their original purpose.
“They are the same small, cramped and dirty spaces we’ve seen way back,” he says.
Stand-up comedy by amateur actors, which replaced many art house theaters in Daehangno, the north Seoul arts district, are offering “cheap laughs” and “cheap scripts” with a “ninth grader’s sense of humor,” he adds.
“In the United States, plays are increasingly beginning to compete with motion pictures,” Mr. Nichols says. “I see similar moves in Korea.”
His pessimism about contemporary plays also reflects popular opinion among Korean theater scholars. A few critics have articulated that Korean plays have become “naked commercialism.” Audiences complain that since the 1990s, all they see in Daehangno, once the mecca of modern plays, are either soft porn plays or performances that wear the hat of post-modernism but are practically devoid of meaning.
Elsewhere in the city, blockbuster musicals have taken over the few remaining theater halls, their production companies sending touts to hawk bargain tickets on the street. Earlier this year, a group of alarmed playwrights and actors marched on Daehangno’s streets, urging audiences to boycott these “back street plays.”
“There is an obvious absence of humanity in Korean theater these days, which is what plays are all about,” says Sohn Jin-chaek, director of the Michoo Theater Company. “Theater acting has sort of become a ‘3-D’ job [dirty, dangerous and difficult] in Daehangno.
“There was a strong sense of dignity in being a play actor in the ’70s,” he continues. “Actors weren’t making any money, but they would still produce out of passion. Now you see very few actors at auditions, because many of them know that theater productions will never get better.”
Mr. Sohn believes the only interest of the audiences visiting Daehangno is in being “entertained,” which also degrades the quality of plays.
Ahn Chi-woon, a theater critic and editor of a local monthly theater magazine, recently wrote that contemporary Korean plays “lack philosophy,” which the author calls the overriding purpose of theater.
Mr. Nichols expresses a similar viewpoint.
“We want to elevate the human spirit through plays, not representing some mundane life on the kimchi level,” he says.
So what has led to a declining interest in theater?
Poor acting, for one thing, Mr. Nichols suggests, largely attributable to a dearth of professional training.
As veteran thespians of modern plays migrate to television or film, Mr. Nichols explains, they leave behind young actors who have no role models to emulate. The directors, who control the rehearsal environment, must act more as facilitator than teacher. This leaves many talented actors in a vulnerable position by squelching their onstage creative impulses.
“Actors in Korea have been left out of the creative process for too long,” says Mr. Nichols.
Mr. Nichols says he teaches his students in the United States how to take a role in a rehearsal and work with all types of directors, both good and bad. As an actor who believes in the “universality of voice,” he believes good acting can transcend cultural and language boundaries.
In a review of a Korean production of “Romeo and Juliet,” he wrote that actors must become active participants in their works.
“Actors can contribute to an enhanced sense of urgency in the plot, to events that have gotten out of control,” he says. “It is up to actors, in their own imaginations, to replace the cut material, so that they can help create, through their dialogue and urgency, what is missing.”
In the same review, he also criticized the use of recorded music rather than a live orchestra in musical theater productions.
“To me, a musical without an orchestra is like stage whiskey,” he says. “The canned music I have heard in Korea is too clean, too mechanical, with no energy coming from the pit. It may look like the real thing, but it does not feel like the real thing.”
Mr. Nichol’s criticism of Korean plays may be perceived by some as the arrogant assessment of an American scholar. Perhaps he is aware of the dangers.
“I am not here to judge and change history,” he says. “There are no reasons to be.” Just three years away from retirement, Mr. Nichols says he would not be here were it not for the passion and love he says he has witnessed in the Korean theater community.
Says Mr. Nichols: “I am just sharing what I see as a cultural observer. But I am aware of what I don’t know.”
by Park Soo-mee