Shake-up behind the curtain

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Shake-up behind the curtain

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National Theater of Korea chief Lim Youn-churl, second from left, and artistic directors from different sectors talk at a press conference at the National Theater of Korea in central Seoul last Tuesday. [YONHAP]


The National Theater of Korea marks its 60th birthday this year after decades of preserving and staging traditional Korean performing arts.

And this year it’s going to undergo a major modern makeover, one that will shake the foundations of the theater’s programming and even extend to its personnel, all in the service of returning to that noble, original purpose.

The state-run theater’s Chief Executive Officer Lim Youn-churl said in a New Year’s press conference last Tuesday that the organization’s three Korean traditional artistic companies - dance, orchestra, and singing and acting (also called changgeuk in Korean) - will force its existing members to go through an audition process for the first time. Those who fail to pass will suffer disadvantages including lower wages.

The first wave of auditions will start with the orchestra on Thursday and Friday.

Hwang Byung-ki, artistic director of the orchestra and known as a Korean traditional music guru, said the national theater has been criticized for its absence of any kind of filtering system for existing members.

On the carrot side, the dance and changgeuk companies will designate lead and second lead performers who will receive incentives in addition to their regular salaries, a system the orchestra already implements. So far, members were paid exclusively according to the years they had worked for their respective companies, and their artistic capacities were not taken into account.

“We aim to improve working conditions for those outstanding company members through this major overhaul,” said Lim. The longtime journalist-turned-theatrical manager took the helm at the venerable institution in January 2009.

“The introduction of a lead and second lead system will be a breath of fresh air,” said Bae Jung-hai, artistic director at the dance company.

“The annual auditions will make it possible for anyone - even the new members - to take the top position and will help the company grow into a competitiveness-based organization,” Bae said.

The national theater originally had four companies. But this year, its drama company is set to be spun off as an independent foundation - a plan long favored by the Culture Ministry. Although the foundation will still be under the control of the ministry, Lim said the launch will be finalized by the end of June, when the theater will be celebrating its 60th year.

Lim also said that the separation is expected to give a boost to the theater’s pursuit of its original goal - producing modern recreations of traditional arts.

The theater’s drama company once served as a breeding ground for Korea’s most famous dramatic actors, but it has faded from prominence in more recent years as old-fashioned plays lost steam and company members fell into complacency due to near-permanent employment.

Chief executive Lim has expressed his hope that the theater’s new independence will motivate “qualitative improvement.”

And precedent is on his side, as another Korean artistic body has experienced a renaissance after being spun off.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, which became a state-run foundation in 2005 after spinning off from the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, controlled by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, is said to have experienced a remarkable revival, according to local music experts.

After taking the helm at the orchestra five years ago, maestro and music director Chung Myung-whun similarly held full-scale auditions, and up to 40 percent of the older members were replaced with new ones.


By Seo Ji-eun [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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