[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]Theater maestro finds Godot once more

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[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]Theater maestro finds Godot once more

Lim Young-woong, 72, is one of the leading theater directors in Korea. He is also the president of Sanwoollim Theater Company, and one of the main figures in Korean drama. Such is his standing, in fact, that it would be no exaggeration to say he is the invisible hand that guides the domestic theater industry.
Mr. Lim derives much of his power in the business from his vast array of contacts. Yun Ho-jin, head of the Korea Musical Association and A-com International, which produced the musical “The Last Empress;” Park Myung-sung, the head of Seensee Musical Company, which produced “Mamma Mia!” and “AIDA;” Sim Jae-chan, a senior official at the Arts Council Korea, and famous actresses Park Jung-ja and Yoon Suk-hwa are just some of his “people.” Also, he retains an energy and enthusiasm for his work that would put men half his age to shame ― ensuring he remains one of the most important figures in the industry.
A key figure in Mr. Lim’s long career has been Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Mr. Lim introduced Korea to both Beckett and absurdist drama by staging “Waiting for Godot” here for the first time in 1969. And to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Beckett’s birth, the Sanwoollim Theater near Hongik University will be showing “Waiting for Godot” again starting on Sept. 12. The JoongAng Ilbo interviewed Mr. Lim to hear about his thoughts on the drama.

Q. Koreans must have found the work of Beckett and absurdist drama pretty peculiar back in the late 1960s.

A. A multi-purpose theater with 350 seats was built at that time. The lighting facilities weren’t that great, but there were only a few theaters in Korea. So, I had to choose a play that didn’t require a spectacular setting or many characters on the stage, and “Waiting for Godot” [which has just five characters] was perfect. It took fully three days to read the script in Japanese [there was no Korean translation back then], and I realized the play would be really tough. But I decided to challenge myself. Beckett was actually awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature while we were preparing the show. As a result, the five-day shows were all sold out and they created a sensation.

Can you share some interesting anecdotes from that time?
When we first staged “Waiting for Godot,” the actors practiced for about 18 hours, from 1 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next day. They practiced so much that they couldn’t even walk as their soles were discharging pus. Oh, and this was very funny: One day, we sent the [intentionally ragged] costumes to be cleaned. When we got them back, we found that the laundry had very kindly sewed up all the rips!

What’s the attraction of “Waiting for Godot”?
Critics call it an absurdist drama, but I like to talk about people. The characters have a sorrowful fight to kill time. They look like clowns, talking in contradictions, abusing each other and never coming to the point. I think we, who are living in modern society, are doing exactly the same thing. We are wandering, feeling isolated and sometimes losing our balance in our lives, so the audience can empathize with the characters.

You have staged “Waiting for Godot” several times abroad.
A critic from Ireland watched the performance in 1988. He said the show took the legitimacy of the original work and appropriately added Korean color. His comment encouraged me to participate in the Avignon Off Festival in France in 1989, and the Dublin Drama Festival in 1990. I was terribly anxious as to what the response would be after the first performance. I bought all the newspapers the following morning, and we got very favorable comments, including one saying, “It was worth waiting for Godot from Korea.” Having my production recognized in the home of Samuel Beckett was so meaningful for me. We also performed in Poland in 1994, Tokyo in 1999 and the BeSeTo Theater Festival in 2002.

It’s been almost 40 years now since you first staged the play. Do you think the piece is still relevant?
I officially staged “Waiting for Godot” 17 times in Korea. A play usually becomes worn out if it is staged about 10 times. But each “Waiting for Godot” production has been new and fresh. The stage directions continue to test the director as if he’s doing a puzzle. A masterpiece isn’t restricted to any period. The drama will go on as long as the audience comes to see it.

Some people say you’re preoccupied with Beckett.
I don’t think you can pull off the complete version of a play after just one production. Some say that I just rehash his work, but what they don’t know is this: The quality of a show gets better and better when it keeps being refined and practiced. A drama lives up to the actors, the sense of the times and the audience. Some think I did too little to adopt trends in drama after Beckett, but that’s a job for other creators.

These days, the finer points of “Waiting for Godot” can be lost on younger viewers, who often seem to be watching it as if it were the equivalent of a modern Korean comedy show: lighthearted and undemanding.
Beckett once said, “Laugh heartily, but it’s up to you whether to think about life after going back home.” I want the audience not to take the drama seriously. I hope they can relax while watching it and enjoy themselves. But the piece itself involves far more than just laughter. That’s the power of Godot.

It’s already been 21 years since the Sanwoollim Theater opened. What does the future hold?
Along with “Waiting for Godot,” some of the representative works of Sanwoollim are “A Cinquante Ans Elle Decouvrait La Mer” by Denise Chalem and “Letter to a Daughter” by Arnold Wesker. The theater should stage one of them a year. For me, an ideal year would include one production of a Korean creative drama, a new foreign drama and one of our own specialties. I want to bring the Sanwoollim up to the level that audiences feel they have to go there to see the best drama in Korea.

by Choi Min-woo
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