Where theater and nature meetGeochang, a secluded town settled at the lower edges of Mount Deogyu in South Gyeongsang province, has turned into a venue that now entices theater lovers looking for a unique experience.
The Keochang International Festival of Theatre, which begins a week from now, is an annual event that changes the normally quiet town into a boisterous party for people who enjoy nature, the theater and combinations of the two.
Every summer, various sites in and around the town’s wooden pavilion and hoary memorial halls are transformed into outdoor stages. Theaters are created out of rocks and plain stone walls. Memorial halls, normally used by the town elders to hold Confucianist services, become performance halls. Even a clearing in a forest of persimmon trees becomes an open stage.
New for this year, the festival’s 16th, is an “aquatic stage” built in the middle of a stream. Here, theatergoers can cool themselves in the waters as they watch the show, said Lee Jong-il, founder of the festival. The sounds of birds, cicadas and the murmuring brook blend in with the performance like sound effects, Mr. Lee said.
“It all becomes natural stage props,” he said, pointing to the stars.
The Keochang festival (its title uses an alternate romanization of the town’s name) starts July 31 and closes on August 17. During that period, about 100,000 people are expected to attend. That’s more than the entire population of Geochang county. Forty-two theatrical companies from nine countries will participate. They will put on a total of 150 plays; all but one will be performed in open theaters in the woods or in the center of Geochang.
The festival was much smaller when it was first held in 1989. It began as a regional event for a few local theatrical companies, but Mr. Lee, 51, decided to turn it into an international event.
“I quit my job as a high school teacher so I could fully concentrate on running this festival,” he said. “I am still personally about 155 million won ($130,000) in debt from pushing this business alone up to this point. But I never regret my decision to continue this work.”
Once, he said, he came under pressure from the local government when it came out that he was working on a play about a massacre of civilians in Geochang during the Korean War. Despite the opposition, he staged the show with his own theater company.
He worked hard, but not many people came to see the plays, which were performed in a small theater. With a total of 10 Korean and two foreign theatrical companies participating, the festival was barely international.
Mr. Lee decided he needed more ideas for improving the festival. In 1996, he packed his bags and travelled to France to get a good look at Festival d’Avignon. In that city of 80,000, he saw that the festival was making full use of the city’s Gothic architecture. About 500 theatrical companies from all over the world were performing in 115 open theaters built among the centuries-old buildings.
“I was especially awed by the fact that the city earned enough to feed the entire city for a year just by holding the festival for a month in July,” said Mr. Lee. “Geochang county and Avignon are similar in size, and it hit me that I could try building outdoor theaters among the ancient houses, traditional towers and pavillions that Geochang is proud of.”
So he went to Japan that same year to study stagecraft, working on designs for open theaters, but returning to Korea every year to hold the festival ― indoors as usual. But when he was ready to launch his new ideas, the townspeople reacted with dismay. Senior citizens scolded him for “daring to start a racket at a sacred place.” For the elders, a memorial hall was for honoring ancestral scholars.
It took Mr. Lee two years to convince the townsfolk that an open theater is not a “racket,” and could help the local economy. In 1998, the festival’s 10th year, he built two outdoor theaters. When word got around, 13 more theatrical companies signed up for the festival, including five more foreign companies. That year, the province finally offered him a subsidy of 180 million won to continue the project.
The county and the province began to offer more support after the festival was deemed a “type A business” by the Korea Culture & Tourism Policy Institute, meaning that it deserved full support from the state for its tourism potential and cultural worth. Six more outdoor theaters were built in 2001; the county and the province offered Mr. Lee 247 million won the following year, and 370 million won the year after that.
As promised, the local economy benefited. According to the Kyeongnam Development Institute, last year’s income from entrance and parking fees alone was 250 million won. With food and lodging figured in, the total economic benefit from last year’s festival is estimated at 13.5 billion won.
“I am planning to make another theater out of an abandoned mine next year,” said Mr. Lee. “My dream is to make the Keochang festival better than Festival d’Avignon.”
by Kim Sang-jin
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