UToledo School of Visual and Performing Arts

Soul of Seoul

We are currently a week away from opening night and the show is in good shape, though there is still much to do—Yes, we had originally understood the opening to be in September, but as it turns out, that was one of the details that got “lost in translation”. The good news, is that we will be here for the duration of the run and will be able to continue improving the show as well as witnessing the audience response.

As we get into “Tech” week, the focus will be on adding set, props, costumes and lights. Last night, the actors did a successful speed through of the play. Here in Korea, the schedule is revised as necessary, and since the Lighting Designer needed to see the show, everyone stayed until well into the evening. Ultimately, it was beneficial for all parties, since it allowed the actors the chance to understand the arc of their characters in the context of the entire show, and to work for the first time in the performance space.

The process has been excellent thanks to a combination of talent, hard work and commitment from everyone involved. Our colleague Haerry Kim (who directed Pinter’s “Hothouse” at UT two seasons ago) returned from her own performance at the Berkshire Fringe Festival two weeks ago and since that time, we have been able to work on text much more in-depth, adding deeper layers of meaning to each character. A Designated Linklater teacher, she immediately set to work making the females in the cast speak in voices an octave lower than they had previously been using. We had observed this phenomenon, but not knowing the language were unsure about the underlying cause. “It’s cultural.” She told us, confirming our suspicions. She also helped the students emphasize key words and solve speech problems, something that is impossible to do when you work in a foreign language.

Having trained with us at Columbia SOA, and knowing the nuances of both Korean and American culture, Haerry is very much on our wavelength and has been invaluable in clarifying any confusion and serving as a liaison between us, the actors and the production team. The Korean adaptation of the text is very different from Shakespeare’s original which is rich and complex. The characters love and betray each other, often in a single speech. They manipulate each other shamelessly but then have moments of self-awareness and self-discovery that lead to generosity and indeed, wisdom. The Korean adaptation focuses primarily on the “pastoral” and romanticized side of this (actually) very dark comedy. Sexual references become more nuanced, or disappear altogether and the language is muted and “pretty”. Thus the actors have a tendency to fall into sentimental or melodramatic styles of acting, something we have fought hard against from the first day. However, this has occasionally created confusion, since it requires the actors to play against the text. Haerry’s input has been essential in helping us convey our message in a way that is understandable to Korean actors and audiences.

Although Cornel Gabara directed this performance last Fall, the show has developed significantly and adapted in order to fit the society in which it is being performed. We agreed to use many elements of his concept, but we have enhanced it as well. My focus has been working on choreography and physical training and developing the concept with him. Since we know that Shakespeare’s own company performed this play in Elizabethan costumes (despite the fact that it is set in Ancient Athens) and that he used many popular references of his own time, we have strived to do the same thing in our production. Hence, Bottom transforms into the Korean singer “Psy” and a dance of the fairies is done to the song “Gangnam Style”, which can be heard and viewed at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0

We realize that taking a play that we have both worked on and know really well was a great idea, especially for the first part of the process, before Haerry arrived. It allowed us to break down the action line by line and to be able to follow along with the actors, even though they were speaking a language we didn’t understand. We could often even tell whether or not the translation was consistent with the original when we became confused as to what the actors were doing, or they had trouble taking our direction. Previous to Haerry’s arrival we had had the help of very good interpreter who enabled us to quickly create a solid rough draft of the show. Now with Haerry’s aid, we are filling in this shell with all the subtleties and nuances necessary to do justice to this great playwright.

As the show reaches the final stages of preparation, we are becoming aware of some very big differences in the way production works in Korea, in comparison to America. Similarly to Europe, here there isn’t a Stage Manager who calls cues during a performance, but rather the technicians do their own cues. The students acting as technicians have therefore been attending many rehearsals, putting together sound cues and getting to know the show as we go. Kookmin University is known for the arts, but the program was, until recently, solely a BFA Acting program. Each year, two thousand students audition and only twenty are chosen. These students’ dedication is evident by their active participation in the rehearsal process. However, the program only recently developed new MFA programs in Design, so there are no shops for building sets, costumes and props yet. It is therefore up to the designers to figure out how to do it on their own. In fact, we were told by the Costume Designer (who studied in America at Carnegie Melon) that design in Korea is a fairly new field and that generally, designers are not even paid for the work that they do. They are expected to pay out of pocket and hopefully be reimbursed at the end of the production! Despite these difficulties, the costumes and set design look great so far, so we have high hopes.

Designers also have a different role in the process. In America, they are artists who come up with their own creative interpretation in support of the director’s concept. We tend to do a lot of concept meetings and generate ideas together. Here, they are more similar to technicians, who carry out the orders of the director. This has taken us by surprise on several accounts. For example, the Lighting Designer asked us to write out the cues in the script for her, rather than the other way around. Here, the director calls all the shots. In fact, the other day, we were really surprised when we were asked at what time the performances should be–something which would be determined by the theatre and box office staff in America.

Originally, one of my areas of focus had included developing the video projection that we had conceptualized for the moon. After two very good meetings with the Video Designer, in which I outlined in depth the segments we needed, he asked me to give him the exact images that I wanted to use. I was surprised, because I am used to giving the Video Designer the freedom to interpret the concept in his or her own way, but I spent two days collecting video and stills. I sent him a great a great deal of footage and never received a reply. When Haerry arrived, she explained to me that people here respond better to very clear orders or step-by-step instructions, rather than general ideas. In order to create the videos, I would have to basically create each image myself, figure out the sequence and ask the Video Designer to simply put it all together. In addition to the fact that we were running out of time, it turned out that they did not have the proper software to do the video in the way we had conceptualized it, so we ended up cutting it out of the show. I later discovered that part of the communication difficulty comes from the reluctance of Koreans to use the word “no” which sounds very negative. When they respond vaguely that something is possible, it is often an indicator that it will not happen.

While here, we have also had the chance to go see theatre. In fact, I saw two shows including a traditional representation of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at the Myeong Dong Theatre. I wouldn’t normally go see the play I am working on, but I knew that it would be completely different and therefore would not impact our own concept, and I felt that seeing a play I knew very well would allow me to follow the action and to be able to focus on the details of the production, such as the style of movement.

I was absolutely right. The adaptation was only loosely based on the show, and I gained a lot by observing it. Exposure to international work is always inspiring because it helps broaden one’s own theatrical vocabulary—kind of like learning a new language. I am sure what I saw will most likely influence my work on my upcoming production of METAMORPHOSES at UT this November.

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