Theater troupe works to emphasize diversity

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Theater troupe works to emphasize diversity

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Jung Won-hee

Three wheelchairs sat idle on a darkened stage. On the left, four actors dressed in white shirts shared two of the chairs, their despair apparent, while four actresses wearing black dresses surrounded one of the wheelchairs on the right side. Two of them stretched their arms straight forward, while one girl simulated choking the other.

The scene, part of the play “Therese Racquin,” from the French writer Emile Zola’s novel of the same name, was adapted by Theatre Zit this January in a show that ran over several days.

The plot centers on a love affair between a woman who was pushed into a marriage she detests and a man who is a friend of the family. The production takes the audience through a tidal wave of different emotions - including love, hatred, wrath and despair - and ends with a fatal twist.

But ultimately, the local troupe aimed in “Therese Racquin” to explore and embrace the term “disability,” using it as a means for its art, and creating and giving performances that the disabled and non-disabled can both enjoy.

In Korean, the word zit means to act using bodily movement.

The play was reinterpreted, with actors - about half of whom have disabilities - expressing the emotions of each character through all the senses, working as one another’s eyes, ears and mouths if acting in an ensemble.

The play was reborn through the efforts of Jung Won-hee, a Seoul National University student studying business administration. Jung, who will turn 24 in the coming weeks, established Zit last year in a bid to provide plays for disabled and education for arts. Jung herself has cerebral palsy.

“Disability arts is not an art that person with a disability performs, but a genre that uses disability as another tool and a motive,” she said.

Zit has nearly two dozen members, though not all of them are disabled. Jung didn’t want to limit the troupe’s performances to stories about people transcending their disabilities. Rather, she wanted to present tales with a universal value and aesthetic.

“In [Korean] society, disabled persons are separated into two types - those who succeed after studying and those who are incompetent and lethargic,” Jung said. “But through this play, I wanted to show that point in-between, and to show those with disabilities as just like anyone else.”

When going to SNU, Jung considered becoming an accounting specialist, but it was her experience as an actress - in 2011, she played Ophelia in a production of “Magic Time,” working with an arts group for the disabled - that ultimately led her to become an entrepreneur of the arts.

“Although an actress with cerebral palsy can’t perform in a scene where there’s sword fighting, wheelchair cavalry battle is possible, while those who are hearing impaired can express monologues through sign language,” Jung recalled.

The company, selected as one of the Korea Social Enterprise Promotion Agency’s “businesses to promote,” is currently preparing an original play, Freak Show, and writing a script that takes disabled persons’ own experiences as inspiration. They hope to debut it this summer.

The group is also pursuing research, studying to develop applications and manuals that would make viewing comfortable and accessible in theaters for all disabled persons, particularly in terms of seating and video and audio equipment. When the book is published at the end of this year, the troupe plans to distribute it to theaters nationwide and provide consulting services.

One of the biggest inspirations for Zit so far has been the Chickenshed Theatre, a company in the United Kingdom that embraces diversity in the performance arts and has about 250 disabled actors.

“The Arts Council of Great Britain uses 2 percent of its government subsidies to support art activities for the disabled, but Korea only uses 0.2 percent,” Jung lamented.

Seo Ji-hoon, a representative for Zit, added that in Korea, society views disabled arts from a welfare perspective and treats it as inferior to popular arts.

“But in other countries,” Seo said, “like the United Kingdom and Japan, it is treated like just like any other.”

BY LEE SANG-HWA AND MIN KYUNG-WON [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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