A long history of abusing power

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A long history of abusing power


Forcing women to massage his groin, touching their bodies, stripping them naked in the pretense of discipline, raping them and leaving them no choice but to abort the pregnancy that followed - these are the allegations raised by a total of 16 female members of the Street Theatre Troupe against director Lee Youn-taek.

The arts and entertainment industry has been the center of Korea’s recent Me Too movement, with new victims of sexual misconduct coming forward nearly daily with testimonies of how they were sexually harassed in the past by some of the most well-known names in the business. From actors and movie directors to poets, the ongoing streak of accusations has revealed some of the darkest and dirtiest secrets from all corners of the arts and entertainment world.

Although it’s hard to say whether one incident is worse than the other, the revelations surrounding playwright Lee were undeniably the biggest story to come from the theater world in the new year. The stories not only lit a fuse to what would become an explosion of similar stories in the news, its impact was also felt due to the sheer number of victims who came forward.

The first testimony came on Feb. 14 from Kim Su-hee, leader of a theater group named Miin, who posted an account of a night when Lee pulled her hands near his genitals some 10 years ago. Many others followed with their own stories, each one equally as horrifying as the next.


During a press conference on Feb. 19, Lee made a formal apology. He stated that his sexual misconduct was the result of “a horrible misdeed that has been habitually performed over the last 18 years.” The troupe disbanded on the same day, and Lee was summoned by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on March 17 and 18 to answer questions. When reporters asked him whether he had seen the victims’ testimonies on Sunday, Lee answered, “I don’t know about them.”

The question is, how did something so horrendous and illegal go on for 18 years?

The JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, interviewed three actors who were members of the theater troupe, and two people in the theater industry well acquainted with Lee, all of whom wished to remain anonymous. The following are excerpts from the interview which gives insight into how Lee’s misdeeds went forgiven for all these years.

Different and special

Each of the five people interviewed had something to say about Lee, but when it came to his personal life, everyone agreed that his mother “thought very highly of him.”

Lee was born in 1952, and had a father who would only come home once a month because of his job as a traveling merchant. His mother was left to take care of Lee all on her own, while working to make ends meet as a street vendor at a local market.

His mother was an outgoing and domineering person, according to those interviewed, but always referred to her son as doryeonnim, or little master in Korean, and spoke to him as if he were her senior. “You are different from others” was her favorite line to tell her son. If there was pork served at a dinner table - considered to be a cheap meat compared to the more costly and tasty beef - she would say, “Get this away from the table. My son only deserves beef.”

Lee recorded an instance he remembers from his childhood in his autobiography, the title of which translates to “It’s Life Eventually,” of his mother publicly displaying her affection for her son.

“When I was three or four, I went to the market with my mother and somebody came up to me to stroke my head saying, ‘He’s such a handsome boy.’ My mother slapped the person’s hands, telling them that they had ‘filthy hands’ and shooed them away,” wrote Lee.

“Lee had this very elitist view of himself, that he was above others,” said one of the actors. “When we would go to him to confront him about his ‘bad behavior,’ he would bow his head down [apologizing] one moment, and then say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m special. So let me off please.’”

Selfish to his core

Lee was known for his eloquence, so much so that some reporters would say that they could write an entire article just by writing down what he says. Although one’s eloquence is often attributed to their choice of vocabulary, his logic was straight and to the point as well. “He was so good with his words that he would play with people’s minds very easily,” said one of the theater insiders.

Another talent Lee had was managing money. Aside from founding the Street Theatre Troupe in 1986, Lee also ran numerous other troupes and theaters across the country, including the Miryang Theater Village, the Gimhae Doyo Creative Studio, the Seoul 30Studio and the Busan Gamagol Theater. Even though many of them received funds from their regional governments, it was still a big feat for someone who had made a career out of acting, not management.

The reason he could run so many theaters and still make it work was because he would not hesitate to take part in something that was worth even the smallest amount, according to two of the actors. Members of the troupe were not only actors, but also worked as staff at events, and were a cheap labor force that was ready at his command. The members of the troupes were forced to make everything that was related to the plays, including stage props and costumes, as well as the promotion posters.

“The troupe was divided into three main groups that were always busy, the performance team, practice team and event [organizing] team,” said a member of the troupe. “We had to practice our performance in the day and make the stage at night. We were exhausted by the time we went to sleep.”

Despite the fact that the work was too demanding, all the members were actually happy to be a part of the troupe, and happy to be working for a small return. “Other theater troupes only pay you when you’ve been on stage. But we felt proud of the name value that came with ‘Street Theatre Troupe,’ as well as the fact we had a steady income - even though it was small,” said one of the actors.

After starting his troupe in Busan in 1986, Lee came to Seoul in the early 1990s with his experimental style of theater. The members were then divided into the Busan group and Seoul group. Lee would often try to aggravate competition between the two groups by calling members of both troupes “dumb” or “rude.”

Although members of Lee’s troupe were happy to work under their teacher despite the hardship, Lee refused to help push any of them towards stardom. “Lee often said, ‘Actors always leave when they get big,’” said one of the insiders. “He was selfish to his core.”

Hell in disguise

In 1999, Lee traveled south to Miryang, South Gyeongsang, where he sought to build a small community of himself and 30 other members from his troupe inside a shut-down school. There, they would fix up the abandoned building and make it a place for everyone to not only practice, but also to eat and live in.

They knocked down the walls between two classrooms to make a big studio, and use the remains of the faculty dormitory and the janitor’s room to sleep in. Every step of the process of creating a work, from writing to practicing and performing, was conducted inside the walls of the school.

“One’s life should not be separated from one’s performance,” was Lee’s theatrical philosophy. And it seemed to work, as his pieces were praised by people all over the theater community, and the Miryang Village was praised as an ideal theater community.

But now that the secret’s out, it turns out it that it wasn’t a creative haven or the ideal performance space, but instead hell in disguise.

“Because we lived by ourselves, secluded from everyone else,” said an actor who was interviewed, “Lee was like a king that oversaw everything we did.”

According to the members, Lee frequently pushed himself onto female members of the troupe asking for massages, saying, “I might die at night if you don’t take care of me.”

“We thought back then that it was natural to give him a massage, because he had been shouting at us all day, trying to teach us,” said another actor.

Even though some of the actors in Miryang were harassed, they had either grown numb to the sexual crimes that were happening, or just turned a blind eye in order to save themselves from losing their jobs.

“If there was someone who went into [Lee’s] room and came out crying, we would just think, ‘The old man’s gotten his way again,’” said one of the actors. “We were actually worried what might happen if word got out and Lee’s family found out.”

It wasn’t until 2012 that the idea of giving Lee a massage was posed as a problem inside the small community. Lee bowed his head to some of the victims and apologized to them, saying that he would “never do it again.”

But that was not the end of it. His massages were then turned into what the members called “vocal training.” Lee would call female members of the troupe into a room alone with him, and then touch them inside their underwear. One of the victims testified that she was stripped naked inside a makeup room just before a performance, while she was on her period.

“I agree to a certain point that his methods really did help [us] find our voices in a way. His method of surprising our bodies really allowed us to have more sincere voices. But if it was training, it should have been done in public, not while we were alone in the dressing room. It was downright harassment,” said one of the actors.

According to another actor interviewed, Lee constantly threatened the members of his troupes so that they would stay under his command, often saying, “You think you can make it out of here?”

“It was beyond scary that it would be hell if we left, almost like we were brainwashed. It was unimaginable that we would share the sexual misconduct we faced if we did not want to leave the theater world.”

BY CHOI MIN-WOO [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]

아들에 "도련님" 극진한 모친···이윤택, 어떻게 '괴물'이 됐나

서지현 검사의 폭로 이후 문화예술계 등 한국 사회 전반에 걸쳐 ‘미투 운동’이 강하게 일어나고 있지만, 여러 증언을 통해 드러난 연출가 이윤택(66)의 행적은 성폭력의 정도, 상습성, 피해자 규모 등에서 여타 사건과 비교가 어려울 만큼 충격적이다. 인간 이윤택은 어떻게 ‘괴물’이 됐나. 그가 창단하고 운영한 극단 연희단거리패는 어떤 곳인가. 단원들은 왜 이씨의 이 같은 행각을 은폐하면서 연극을 해왔을까. 그리고 이에 대한 대안은 무엇인가.

대했다고 전했다. 이씨는 1952년 부산에서 태어났다. 아버지는 떠돌이 장사꾼으로 한 달에 기껏해야 한두 번 집에 들어왔고, 어머니가 행상하며 외아들인 이씨를 키웠다. 어머니는 괄괄한 성격이었지만 아들에겐 도련님이라 부르며 늘 존댓말을 썼다. 너는 남들과 다른 존재다란 말을 입에 달고 살았고, 식탁에 돼지고기가 올라오면 이딴 거 치워라. 우리 아들은 쇠고기만 먹여야 한다고 했다. 어머니의 유별난 아들 사랑은 이씨가 쓴 책 『결국 삶이다』에도 기술돼 있다. 서너 살 무렵 어머니와 함께 시장을 지나갈 때 누군가 다가와 ‘아이고 잘 생겼네’라며 저를 만지려 하면, 어머니는 ‘어디서 더러운 손!’ 그러면서 탁 쳐서 물리쳤다.
단원 A는 선생님은 ‘나는 남들보다 뛰어나다’란 선민의식이 강했다. 예전에도 ‘몹쓸 짓’ 때문에 따지러 가면 고개를 숙이다가도 ‘미안한데 난 특별하잖아. 그러니 좀 봐 주라’라고 눙쳤다고 전했다.
#스타 용납하지 않는 에고이스트=이씨는 기자들 사이에 말하는 대로 받아쓰면 다 기사가 된다는 말이 나올 만큼 달변이었다. 말을 잘할 뿐 아니라 핵심을 콕콕 찔렀다. 연극계 인사 D는 사람을 하도 들었다 놨다 해, 오래 있다 보면 정신이 쏙 빠진다. 무당같다고 전했다.
이재(理財)에도 밝았다. 연희단거리패 이외에도 전국에 걸쳐 밀양연극촌·김해 도요창작 스튜디오·서울 30스튜디오·부산 가맛골소극장 등을 한꺼번에 운영했다. 지자체의 지원이 있었지만 평범한 연극인이라면 흉내 내기 힘든 스케일이었다. 돈이 되는 일이면 지자체 행사, 소규모 축제 참가 등 가리지 않았다.
대신 비용은 최대한 줄였다. 단원은 배우이자 스태프였다. 무대·소품 제작은 물론 포스터 디자인까지 했다. 단원 B는 극단은 공연팀·연습팀·행사팀으로 나뉘어 정신없이 돌아갔다. 낮엔 연습하고, 밤에는 무대를 만들어야 했기에 잠들 무렵엔 녹초가 되곤 했다고 전했다.
대신 월급을 지급했다. 단원 C는 다른 극단은 작품을 해야 출연료 명목으로 얼마 받지 않나. 우린 ‘연희단거리패’라는 이름값에, 작지만 꼬박꼬박 돈까지 들어오니 자부심이 컸다고 했다.
배우들 쥐락펴락에도 능했다. 이씨는 86년 부산에서 연극을 시작해 90년대 초 전통 굿을 바탕으로 한 실험극을 들고 서울에 진출했다. 극단 내부는 자연히 부산 ‘가마골 소극장’파와 서울 ‘우리극연구소’파로 양분됐다. 이씨는 무지렁이들 싸가지들이라고 양쪽을 핀잔 주며 경쟁을 유도했다.
하지만 스타를 키워내지는 않았다. ‘이윤택의 페르소나’로 불렸던 배우 김소희 역시 단역으로 출연한 경우가 적지 않았다. 연극계 인사 E는 이씨가 ‘배우는 머리 크면 무조건 떠난다’는 말을 자주 했다며 지독한 에고이스트라고 했다.
#연극 공동체에서 성폭력 진원지로 전락=99년 이씨는 폐교를 활용해 보라는 제안을 받고 단원 30명을 데리고 경남 밀양으로 내려갔다. 폐교에 보일러를 깔고 벽돌을 쌓았다. 교실 두 개를 터서 연습장을 만들고, 교장 관사와 관리인 방을 숙소로 썼다. 여기서 같이 먹고 자면서 작품을 만들고 연습했다. 일상과 연극이 분리돼선 안 된다는 게 이씨의 철학이었다. 게다가 만드는 작품마다 호평이 쏟아지자 밀양은 이상적 연극공동체로 주목받았다.
하지만 이제는 이윤택 성폭력의 진원지로 전락하고 말았다. 단원 C는 외딴 곳에 우리만 따로 떨어져 살지 않나. 선생님이 우리의 모든 것을 관장하는 군주 같았다고 했다. 성폭력은 안마를 빌미로 행해졌다. 이씨는 자주 너희들이 돌봐주지 않으면, 나 밤에 자다가 죽을지 몰라라고 말했다고 한다. 단원 B는 종일 우리 연습시키느라 소리 질러 힘드신 선생님이니, 그때는 당연히 안마해 드릴 수 있다고 생각했다고 털어놓았다.

성추행에 대한 문제의식도 약했다고 토로했다. 단원 C는 방에 들어갔다 나와 우는 애가 있으면 ‘노인네 진짜 주책이야’라고만 생각했다. 혹시 소문 나서 선생님 가족이 알면 어떡할까를 우리가 걱정했다고 전했다.  
안마의 문제점이 내부적으로 공론화된 건 2012년이었다고 한다. 당시 이씨는 일부 단원들 앞에서 다신 그러지 않겠다는 공개 사과를 했다.
하지만 그러고 나선 발성훈련을 빙자했다. 속옷 밑으로 손을 넣고, 공연 직전 생리 중인 여배우에게 남자 분장실에서 옷을 홀딱 벗겼다는 증언도 나왔다. 단원 B는 신체를 깜짝 놀라게 해 발성을 트이게 하는 선생님 방법이 나름의 효과가 있다는 데엔 동의한다. 진짜 소리가 터져 나오기 때문이다. 그럼 공개적으로 해야지 왜 분장실에서 둘만 있을 때 하나. 명백히 추행이라고 했다.
이씨는 야, 네가 여기 나가면 잘될 것 같아라는 말을 자주 내뱉었다고 한다. 단원 A는 나가면 × 된다는 건 공포를 넘어 세뇌가 됐다. 연극계를 아예 떠날 생각이 아니면, 성 추문을 떠드는 건 상상할 수 없었다고 전했다. 이씨는 지난해 미국에서 ‘미투 운동’이 불어올 때부터 내심 불안해했다고 한다. 단원 C는 사건이 터지자 ‘난 이제 감옥 갈 테니 너희끼리 잘 해봐라’는 말을 했다고 전했다.
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