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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.

Soul of Seoul

I have discovered many things throughout my stay in this great city. Firstly, it is a mistake to call Seoul “Westernized” because this city is definitely Eastern, with its strong sense of Confucian values and Buddhist background (despite a high number of Christians) However, I have seen first hand that the West is no longer alone with its balance of democratic and capitalistic values, human rights, technological innovation, arts, and culture, as well as its rich historical foundation. It has certainly met its match in Seoul (as well as in many other Eastern capitals such as Tokyo, Taipei and Hong Kong). What used to be solely the “American Dream” now co-exists with many other similar versions, whether you see it at Lotte World (the Korean equivalent of Disney World) or walking along the Cheong-Gye-Cheon canal on a Friday night. Incidentally, until 1955, the Cheong-Gye-Cheon had become an extremely polluted sewer upon which refugees from the Korean war built their huts. In the 1950’s and 60’s a massive project to underground the stream and cover it with an elevated freeway was undertaken. Then in 2001, the Mayor (perhaps influenced by the banks of the river Seine in Paris) began a project to remove the freeway and restore the river. Without hesitation, they demolished the highway and by 2005 had turned the area into a beautiful place for weekend promenades. You can see pictures of the before and after at this link: http://www.preservenet.com/freeways/FreewaysCheonggye.html

Interestingly, this extremely livable city offers great opportunities for Westerners. For starters we are rare. I was very surprised, to discover, upon venturing to the Royal Palace to take pictures of the changing of the guard, that my two-year-old daughter quickly became the star attraction with her blonde curls and blue eyes. Forget the Royal guards—Everyone wanted to take photos of her, to say hello, to hold her hand—

Here in Korea there is a great market for “North American” students and grads to come and teach English as a second language. English Academies are booming, and they are seeking “Authentic” English speakers. Young people who come here are often able to save enough money to pay off their student loan debts in only a few years. I was told (but have not confirmed) that these students can easily save between $20,000 to $30,000 per year, because all costs are covered, including housing.

In order to get a job here, there are a few requirements. Firstly you have to be open minded. Meals may be included, but if they are, they are bound to be Korean food. If trying different foods is not your thing, you may do best staying at home. Not that there isn’t a great variety here. You can find everything from Starbucks to Paris Baguette, to McDonalds, but one latte from Starbucks may cost you between six and ten dollars, while you can eat an entire meal for under four dollars. Another piece of info young people need to understand is the importance of manners. Manners are important in the majority of the world, and in all of my travels, I have found that apart from a few differences, most things, such as saying please and thank you, are universal. In fact, one of the things I will be doing when I return is adding a “basic etiquette” unit to my Professional Aspects class, in which I will be teaching everything I assumed most people knew. Up until now, I focused on the etiquette necessary to be successful in the Entertainment Industry, but recent feedback about a student in an internship, coupled with my observations about the high level of respect students have here, made me realize the necessity of this.

Additionally, to get a job in Korea, you need to get a background check by the FBI. They used to hire much more liberally, but a pedophilia scandal led them to be rightfully much more vigilant. Another important detail, is that here, there is no such thing as sick leave. If you call in sick, you may find yourself out of a job. Better to show up and let them know you are sick and often they will give you time off (it may go into your vacation time though) You have to understand that Korean students here study very hard. After school, they attend numerous academies in order to be at least one grade ahead in Math, reading and English. High school students are actually forced to stay at school and study until 11pm every weeknight. Entering into a university is based on one exam that takes place in November every year. Executives often book vacation time to coach and help their children pass this test well enough since it is their one make-it-or-break-it chance to go to university. The upside to this system, is that they are churning out extremely well educated people. The downside to this intensity is a very high suicide rate among young people—lately even affecting elementary school age children. ESL teachers are not worked that hard. Their hours are usually between 3-9pm, but taking a day off is frowned upon, unless you are in the hospital. If you are interested in doing this kind of work, you can check out the following website: http://www.worknplay.co.kr

Soul of Seoul



A working vacation is always my favorite experience because you actually get to know the culture.  Much as we loved the first days of sightseeing, it was exciting to get down work!  Kookmin University’s sprawling campus is nestled in the mountains and surrounded by trees.  At its center is a large soccer field and basketball courts, which are always full of students playing– even now, though school will not be in session until the end of August, when their “second” semester begins.  In other words, their semesters are reversed from ours, with graduation happening at the end of this coming semester.
Kookmin’s modern buildings are decorated with various sculptures and fountains.  This university is ranked twentieth in South Korea and is home to twenty five thousand students.  The theatre building is also the home of Art, Dance and Film, and the rehearsal space is a blackbox space located in the basement the theatre building, and not unlike our own Studio theatre.
Everyone, from the Head of the Program, to the students, is extremely welcoming.  Our first rehearsal was primarily a chance to do introductions and introduce the directorial concept.  The students were extremely receptive, and respectful.  Korea is a Confucionist society so hierarchy is extremely important.  People will often ask your age and give you special respect even if you are only one year older.  Even among students, this is the case.  Juniors will bow to Seniors and do what they are told.  Koreans will not question authority, even if authority figures make a mistake–which will be interesting in this process, since our student Stage Manager is only a Junior and the cast are all Seniors.
Professors are treated with utmost respect in society.  Teaching (at all levels) is considered extremely prestigious, and according to a friend of mine, people will frequently pay large sums to become tenured Professors, when qualifications do not suffice.  There are always numerous students ready to help you with anything you need, and they bow each time you walk by.  I could see how this could easily go to your head!At the first rehearsal, We had the time to read through Act One and begin text analysis on the play.  The students were able to grasp the physical actions we proposed and follow direction quickly, thanks also to the great work of our translator, who sat between us and captured all the subtleties of what we were trying to say.  I was amazed by how well we were able to follow along, and even note discrepancies between translations.  For example, when Bottom is introduced to the character he will play in the play the Mechanicals are preparing, he says “what is Pyramus, a lover or a tyrant?”. We noticed that the actor was not playing the very funny antithesis between “lover” and “tyrant” and discovered that in translation the text said “what is Pyramus, a tyrant?”. It turns out that there is no word for lover in Korean!  Though we are continuing to search for a word whose characteristics are so evident in their poetic and passionate culture.

The Soul of Seoul

Cornel Gabara and I arrived at Incheon Airport in S. Korea yesterday afternoon after a fourteen hour flight. To give you some background: We have been invited to spend six weeks directing an MFA Master’s Thesis production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (in Korean!) at Kookmin University.

We opted to take the subway into Seoul (a cheaper and more interesting way to observe local culture). Among my first observations: Infrastructure!
In addition to being beautiful and cosmopolitan, Incheon Airport is extremely practical, clean and everything works! They have some great touches, such as bathroom stalls equipped with special high chairs to hold your toddler still–something I appreciated deeply, since we had our jet-lagged eight and two-year olds in tow.

The subway system is very new, clean and air conditioned. The edge is completely enclosed with a glass wall and glass doors, making falling onto the track virtually impossible. I have lived in New York and Paris and these trains put both their subways, which I always admired, to shame! Granted, those systems are much older, having pioneered service around the turn of the twentieth century. South Korea built its first line in 1974. In fact, South Korea, began really modernizing itself in the 1960’s and has completely transformed its economy and infrastructure at breakneck speed. It has become a world class economy and a democracy. Some estimates put its per capita income on par with that of the European Union.

We are staying in a skyrise in the Insadong district, a vibrant, artistic center at the heart of the city of Seoul. This sprawling metropolis boasts a population of eleven million in the city proper, and as many as twenty five million, if you include all the suburbs.

Insadong is full of streets and alleys plastered with all manner of cafes, restaurants, and everything in between. This is clearly a gastronomical city and in addition to traditional fare, there are international restaurants and American food chains all around. Shops containing fashionable clothing, art supplies, musical instruments and art galleries fill the spaces in between and skyscrapers tower over our heads. I wish I could tell you more about the city, but unfortunately we have had little chance to explore thus far.

In the evening, I gazed out at the alternating skylines and bright lights which were reminiscent of Times Square. We went to bed very early, but got little sleep. I don’t suffer from jetlag, but our sleepless daughters kept us all awake. As they tossed and turned, my attention was caught by a lonely police siren which wailed momentarily and then stopped, almost shyly. It made me aware of the silence.
I continued to listen…
No cars honking, no sirens, no shouts, no music.
None of the familiar big city sounds that I have become accustomed to in my travels…
This was a Thursday night, in the heart of downtown–and I know Koreans like to party–yet unlike any other large city I have been in, there was no sound to be heard.
A curious observation, perhaps indicative of the combination of hard work, discipline and passion that it has taken to build up this country almost overnight–or perhaps not.
It is after all, Friday today.
I guess we will find out tonight!