College students chase their drama dreams
For several weeks, the musical theater majors at Dongseo University had been practicing for an upcoming college musical competition held for the first time nationwide.
“It was our first big performance held outside the school,” said Mr. Kim, 24. “But apparently our professor wasn’t satisfied.”
Unfortunately, neither were the judges from the GM Daewoo National College Musical Festival. They did like Mr. Kim, however: he was named “best actor” in the competition when the judges announced the contest winners last Monday.
Along with a trophy and some money, the winners were given a chance to go to Broadway for a short training course. “It was my dream to visit Broadway,” Mr. Kim said beaming. “Even our stern professor was shouting for joy when she heard that I’d won.”
His luck didn’t end there. Producers liked him so much that he won a part in a professional production of the musical Miss Saigon, scheduled for next year.
It may seem natural that good actors would find work more easily, but those in the theater business say it’s rare for a student like Mr. Kim to have much professional luck. In the past, the only way into professional acting was to work your way up the ranks over many years.
“Sure, the auditions are open to everyone, but producers just don’t like choosing college students for their shows,” said Choi Eun-kyoung, a planning department director at Seensee Musical Company, the only arts company here with a specialized theater for musicals. “It could be just prejudice [that students are less talented], but we can’t blame producers who opt for actors that are already trained and ready to go.”
Although modest compared to musical scenes in the United States and Britain, the number of musical performances has steadily increased since the 1960s. Yet no certified college bothered to teach students about musical theater until 2000.
Paekche Institute of the Arts, a two-year college in North Jeolla province, was the first to offer classes in musical theater. Dongseo University in Busan, a four-year college, soon followed suit. Next year, Busan Arts College and Mokwon University in Daejeon are also expected to open classes.
With little experience teaching musical drama, the departments had to work hard to attract students. According to Cha Soon-rye, dean of the performing arts division at Dongseo University, it was just as hard to keep the class going as it was to start it.
Formerly an opera singer, Ms. Cha said she found herself at a loss after she was “ordered” to create a new program for musical drama majors.
She traveled to Broadway, then to London’s West End. She said she watched over 20 musical theater performances to better understand how the genre works. When she thought she had a pretty good understanding of the performance, she invited professors and professionals in the field of music, contemporary dance and songs, and launched the class.
Problems surfaced, however. The curriculum was a mess and the professors had little knowledge of musical theater.
“Now we have directors who worked at musical companies to give tips to our students, but it was up to students to learn from their mistakes,” Ms. Cha said.
When given an assignment to stage a show, Mr. Kim said he spent hours with his classmates to think about how they should perform.
“Its really up to us alone to create a good show,” Mr. Kim said.
He said that it was only when he got a job at a Daehangno theater during school break that his acting improved. The theater, located in the epicenter of Seoul’s drama scene, offered him the chance to play the main character in a small independent musical.
“I came back from being with professional performers, and people were like, ‘Wow, you really got better’,” Mr. Kim said. From then on, he was typically offered star roles in school performances.
So do a lot of students seek chances like Mr. Kim to go perform with professionals? Not necessarily.
“Maybe it’s because [most schools offering drama classes] are in the provinces and Daehangno is not an easy circle to break into,” Mr. Kim said.
But while students at drama academies try hard to get into auditions, Mr. Kim’s friends in the musical drama department doubt that they have chosen a wise career path. He said many of his friends in drama have changed their major or even transferred to other schools.
“They know that this isn’t a job that you can get just by graduating from a musical department,” he said. “A lot of my friends have gone on to study something else.”
Investors change tune on musicals
Once derided as a home to starving actors, the musical business is now considered the fastest growing cultural field. In 2001, around 500,000 Koreans went to musicals, but this year nearly 1 million tickets have been sold, the industry estimates.
Potential investors are taking notice. As the genre gains popularity, it has also generated investor interest. Major companies, such as CJ Entertainment and KTB Networks, these days are eagerly backing musical performances.
Rick La Belle, vice president of sales and marketing at GM Daewoo, said the company decided to hold a competition for college musical majors this year, the first time it has done so. Not that GM Daewoo is interested in musicals ― only those in Korea, because the industry is growing so fast it has become what the company calls an “investment object.”
“The project is not at all profitable in terms of immediate benefits,” said Jung Jung-yoon, a staff member at GM Daewoo’s marketing service. “But this is all a part of marketing means, and we see potential in the young actors.”
CJ Entertainment has perhaps been the company most interested in financing musicals, not surprising given its business. The company has co-produced 34 musicals since September 2003. The investments have paid off ― the musical “Mamma Mia,” for instance, earned the company 4 billion won ($3.9 million) in net profit, while another musical, “Jekyll and Hyde,” managed to earn 1 billion won despite the show’s costly royalties.
by Lee Min-a