Expats stake out space on Seoul stages

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Expats stake out space on Seoul stages


Seoul Players, an expat theater group in Korea that has been active for the last nine years, is now gearing up to present its first English-language musical, called “ The 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” By Margaret Whittum

It may come as a surprise, but there are more expats in Korea with theater or musical backgrounds than you might expect. Check around and you’re likely to find a lot of talent hidden beneath the exterior of your unassuming co-teacher or fellow taekwondo classmate.

Some expats are so passionate about music and theater that when they came to Korea and weren’t able to find performance opportunities, they took matters into their own hands. Today, there are two expat groups in Seoul providing performance opportunities for actors and musicians.

eoul Players was founded in 2001 by Roman Zolnierczyk, a businessman from Australia who was living in Korea at the time. He started the group because back then, opportunities to perform English-language theater in Korea were basically nonexistent.

In the subsequent nine years, Seoul Players has put on 14 full stage productions and several one-night-only shows - such as 24-Hour Theater or Night of 1,000 Plays. The 24-Hour Theater event is a unique theatrical concept in which participants work as a group to write, rehearse and perform skits within a 24-hour period - often with complete strangers, since the groups are assigned at random. Night of 1,000 Plays is another participatory theatrical event. Writers submit original short works in advance. Then actors try to squeeze as many of those works into one show as possible. Its improvisational comedy group, Seoul City Improv, comprises comedians who rehearse and perform regularly, in the vein of “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

The group is now gearing up to present its first-ever English-language musical, “The 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Margaret Whittum, an American director and actor, is the director of the upcoming production. Whittum was a theater major in college and has produced and directed projects both in the United States and in Korea. She said being in Korea hasn’t stifled her passion for the stage.

“I’m a theater person, it’s what I majored in college, it’s what I love to do. I’ve been doing it professionally here as well as in this community group and any chance that I have to take on a project, I want to,” she said.


Camarata Music Company, which was founded in 2009 by expat Ryan Goessl, has provided opportunities for both expats and Koreans to perform classical music. Provided by The Foto Republic

Whittum, who started with the group in 2007’s “Hitchcock Blonde” show, has worked on various productions in different capacities, but says that this show has been both the most challenging and rewarding. To begin with, the group had to get the rights to perform the show from a group called Music Theater International, which holds the rights to most musicals. Then they had to wait to see if they would be approved to perform the show in Seoul. Typically, if the show is being performed on Broadway or has a tour in the country in which you intend to perform it, the application will probably be denied.

Whittum says this show was chosen because of its logistic practicality and contemporary popularity. The show has a small nine-person cast, runs under two hours and can be performed in a small space. Since this is the group’s first attempt at producing a musical, they’re offering admission for the reasonable price of 10,000 won and are hoping just to break even on the production costs. A ticket to most musicals in Korea will typically run you upwards of 50,000 won just for the nosebleed sections.

Lyle Bjorn Arnason, another Seoul Players Committee Board Member who will perform in the Spelling Bee production, says that he originally came to Korea with the hope of opening a professional theater company in Asia. Arnason, a theater and pre-med double major in college who has lived in Korea for six years, has been pushing for Seoul Players to mount a musical for three years and “just has a feeling that it will be very successful.”

In fact, the auditions for the musical brought out more hopefuls than their straight play auditions - more than 50 singers, actors and dancers came out on audition day.

Amy Mihyang, a Korean adoptee who is now in her second year in Korea, will perform the role of Marcy Park and said she was particularly interested in participating in this show.

“This show was specifically conceived in terms of having a diverse cast and I think that’s what the future of any type of show really needs to be, and it is also a very contemporary show,” she said.

Mihyang, who has a BFA in performance, said she’s been performing her whole life but working with Seoul Players “gives experienced performers the chance to experiment in a different environment and audience than they might be used to.”

Whittum said that Seoul Players plays an important part in the theater community in Seoul.

“There are a lot of expats here who have a good deal of talent and if this group didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be an outlet for them. It’s not just a creative outlet but a community building outlet with us as the expat community coming together. It’s nice to have that outlet when you’re in a foreign country, to get involved and get on stage,” she said.

Seoul Players is always looking for performers and crew members to get involved with the group. If you want to participate, you have to be willing to commit to meetings and work as a volunteer for productions. Whittum stresses that they’re looking both for performers but also production and backstage crew members. If you’re interested in getting involved, contact them by e-mail at seoulplayers@gmail.com.

From a long-term standpoint, Whittum says that, ideally, “I would like the Seoul Players to be a professional theater company with its own venue, doing maybe three main shows a year and three one-night events a year, or even more. I think that in this sort of city, with the international population that it’s starting to get, that this sort of theater would be very valuable and successful.”

Meanwhile, Camarata Music Company was founded in mid-2009 by expat Ryan Goessl in order to provide both expats and Koreans opportunities to perform classical music. Goessl has a BA in music performance from Luther College and an MM in vocal arts performance and voice science and runs his own private voice studio - his students range from amateurs to professionals from all genres, from musical theater, classical and even K-pop. Although Goessl has found personal and career success in his own right, he wanted to create a way for other people who love to sing classical music to be able to perform, even without formal training in music.

The name Camarata actually comes from the word “camaraderie” and its members reflect that concept perfectly - the group boasts an impressive roster with members from 22 different countries. Goessl attributes the “universal language of music” as the common thread of camaraderie among its members.

Less than a year old, CMC has already put on two large-scale performances. Their first production, the Christmas classic Handel’s “Messiah,” was performed Dec. 19, 2009, and over 1,000 people attended, including the American and Danish ambassadors. The second production, which took place on May 1, was a rendition of Faure’s “Requiem” and brought out over 600 audience members. Their shows involve not only the choir, but also a semi-professional orchestra and professional soloists.

Although some members of the group are professionals or have extensive musical backgrounds, Goessl emphasizes that those are not prerequisites for joining the group.

“If you can sing on pitch and have the willingness to practice and learn, you can participate in our group,” he said.

The group is currently rehearsing for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

Goessl said he was impressed by the response that he got from performers who were interested in participating in the show - over 80 people auditioned - and cast members include both expats and Koreans. The production will run in Seoul at the Seoul National University of Education on June 19 and 20. The show on June 19 is tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. and an evening performance will take place at 7 p.m. On June 20, a matinee performance will be offered at 3 p.m. Advance tickets for the show are currently set at 10,000 won, but tickets at the door may be more expensive. For tickets, contact the group by e-mail at goesslry@gmail.com or by phone at 010-9806-8655 (English) or 010-2751-9675 (Korean).

Proceeds from the ticket sales will go to recoup production costs; all remaining profits will go to Goessl’s music outreach program, which provides music education opportunities for children in orphanages or low-income areas.

According to the group’s Web site, the goal of the outreach program is to “create a children’s choir and orchestra, provide lessons free of charge (in English and Korean), purchase musical instruments for children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them, and to provide high-quality performances that are accessible to all.”

For those who are interested in joining the chorus, auditions are done on a rolling basis - you simply need to contact Goessl to arrange an audition time. Rehearsals for the upcoming Messiah performance in December will start in September.

Camarata is also in need of sponsors to help shoulder some of the expenses for rehearsal space, orchestra and publicity. For more information on how to participate or become a sponsor, visit the Web site at www.camaratamusic.com.

By Shannon Heit Contributing writer [shannon.sgc@gmail.com]
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