Old guard of the avant-gardeWhen the Samilro Warehouse Theater first opened in Myeong-dong in 1971, the kind of experimental theater it showcased was little known in Korea. Named after a street that divides Euljiro 4-ga from Myeong-dong, Samilro was one of the first “fringe theaters” in Seoul.
Thirty-three up-and-down years later, Samilro remains on that same spot. And in a different way, it’s still on its own.
Jeong Dae-gyeong, Samilro’s director, sardonically calls his theater an “island.” In part, he’s talking about how distant he feels from Myeong-dong ― a neighborhood that decades ago was a center for the arts, but is now a glitzy jungle of department stores, boutiques, restaurants and street carts.
But he’s also referring to Samilro’s uniqueness. Certainly, it’s like nothing else in the neighborhood.
The theater is located at the top of a narrow hill, on the corner of Samil-ro and Myeong-dong 2-ga. It’s an area most people pass by without noticing what’s there. Ninety percent of the telephone inquiries that theater staff get before a new show opens are from people asking for directions.
The alley in which the theater is located is a short one, just off the main road of Samil-ro, sandwiched between the red brick of Gyeseong Girls’ High School and the concrete walls of the Catholic Center. But this alley is lined with some of the city’s most unusual cafes, mostly located in old slate-roof houses that haven’t seen much renovation. (One of the cafes in the area, ironically, is named Seom, the Korean word for “island.”) A bulky signboard on the hilltop indicates the theater entrance, marked with an iron gate, the theater’s name and the date of its founding engraved in marble.
In 1971, the dominant presence on the Myeong-dong theater scene was the National Theater of Korea, located in a building that’s now occupied by a bank. The theater staged popular melodramatic plays and tearjerking musicals, often dealing with family tragedies.
The arrival of Samilro, which began as a theater with fewer than 50 seats in the basement of an old house, added a new element to the neighborhood’s art scene. Soon, it was staging “nonlinear” theatrical pieces like “Figures of the Crossing,” by the young playwright Yun Jo-byeong, about the life of a railroad worker. The theater was also one of the first places to host what were known as “psychodramas” ― a combination of theater and therapy, in which patients being treated for psychological problems would act out their traumas onstage in front of an audience.
For years, the Salmiro staged works by young playwrights that had tremendous impact on modern Korean theater. “Confession of Red Peter,” which opened in 1977, was a monologue from the point of view of an ape, inspired by Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”; it attracted 13,000 people in 30 days, and made a star of actor Choo Song-woong (who owned the theater for a while in the 1980s).
During the 1970s, theater in Korea was being used as a vehicle for protest against the military regimes. Back then, Myeong-dong itself seemed to be a giant stage for social expression.
The streets leading to Myeong-dong Cathedral, a center of resistance, became a haven for protesters, creative types and ne’er-do-wells alike. The cafes and pubs were filled with hippies, artists and young delinquents who came to listen to banned albums and attend readings by dissident poets. Classical music enthusiasts were also part of the scene; a number of cafes and record shops that only played or sold classical LPs developed a strong following, and some of them still exist today.
There were other sides to Myeong-dong’s radicalism. Channel, a small, women-only cafe in the neighborhood, was the center of Seoul’s first lesbian scene; it attracted some famous actresses who, notoriously, smoked marijuana there (for which practice the cafe was eventually shut down).
As the neighborhood changed, most of these small places were replaced by shopping malls, discotheques and the like. The city-owned National Theater building was sold to Daehan Investment and Securities in 1975, after the theater moved to Namsan.
Samilro closed in 1990, and didn’t reopen until 1998. It went out of business again last year, and was reopened in March of this year by Mr. Jeong, a composer.
Currently, the theater is attempting to revive its avant-garde tradition with what it’s calling the “Off Daehangno Play Festival” ― reviving works that have been performed at Samilro over the years, with emerging young directors at the helm. Among the playwrights whose works are being featured are Samuel Beckett and David Henry Hwang.
The festival’s title, of course, plays off the term “off-Broadway,” but refers to Seoul’s Daehangno district, home to theaters which, though small, are not known for being experimental. “There is a strong sense of obligation among veteran actors and theater directors in Korea to prevent this theater from shutting down,” said Mr. Jeong. “The place means a lot to them. They have fond memories of it.
“But in reality, many producers hesitate to stage their own works here, because it’s ‘off Daehangno,’ and that often means the shows attract smaller audiences,” he said.
Though Samilro’s reputation is based on its uncompromising, outside-the-mainstream reputation, its location in Myeong-dong has been putting pressure on its owners. The shoppers and tourists who crowd the area on weekends have little, if any, interest in theater or the arts, Mr. Jeong said. “I’ve tried handing out about 100 discount coupons to young couples on the streets of Myeong-dong. Not one of them came. It’s not like before, when people saw plays to get exposed to culture.”
On a good night, Samil-ro attracts about 60 people to its 150-seat theater. But average attendance is less than 30. Compare that to the theater’s heyday, when more than 250 people would squeeze into the 40-seat theater every night to see “Confession of Red Peter.” At ticket prices ranging from 15,000 won to 20,000 won, expense wouldn’t seem to be the issue ― not when some people will pay 10 times that to see a touring foreign production.
But there are glimmers of hope for a new Myeong-dong theater scene. It was recently announced that the National Theater would begin staging productions again in its original Myeong-dong building. Mr. Jeong hopes that will bring some of the old spirit back. “Thirty years ago, this is where actors worked day and night with their shovels to dig the stage,” he says. “It can’t remain Tokto (island) forever.”
by Park Soo-mee
“Off Daehangno Play Festival” continues through Sept. 24. Being staged through next Friday is Jean Cocteau’s “Voice” and a Samuel Beckett play; from Sept. 5-13, Park Sae-bom’s “Mirror of an Iron Woman”and David Henry Hwang’s “Faceless Lovers”; from Sept. 15-24, George Buchner’s “Leonce and Lena” and Vaclav Havel’s “Protest.” For more information, call (02) 319-8020.