Youngseok Lee[1]
(Director and Producer, Shinzangno Company)

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Résumé :

Le metteur en scène Lee Young Seok explique comment il a travaillé pendant les répétitions pour la mise en scène du roman de George Orwell, Coming up for air. Grâce à une technique de devised theatre, création collective, les acteurs, le dramaturge, le scénographe et le metteur en scène ont adapté le roman à partir d’improvisations sur des passages du texte  choisis et testés par les acteurs.

“Two men acting one character on an empty stage”: This is perhaps the simplest description of our sixth project, Coming Up for Air. We are very lucky to meet people who not only liked this not-so-fancy show but responsed well, with amazement, standing ovations, questions and discussions. Critics also welcomed this play. The judge of the 11th duodrama festival awarded us first prize, and Patrice Pavis nominated the show as an exemplary case of “tellacting” in the contemporary South Korean theatre. Above all things, I enjoyed seeing the passion and enthusiasm of both actors, who, in spite of sweating buckets, did their best in every performance.

We are very lucky because many projects in South Korean theatre have often failed to get the audience’s attention, no matter how sincerely they tried. We should raise a question, however, if this humble gesture is something more than empty rhetoric, how does this sincerity work? Looking back on the whole process, I try to describe the project in more objective terms for further discussion. Of course, I should admit that the director’s own description cannot be totally objective; let the critics provide that. Instead, reading against what is described or suggested in this article, and disputing it with other sources is most welcomed.

I call this article an “afterword” because it is a retrospective account based on personal memories and a few surviving notes. Here I examine four major aspects that correspond to each phase of rehearsal: 1. from novel to theatre; 2. characters and actors; 3. telling and acting; 4. the empty stage and the imagination of the audience.

1. From novel to theatre: an adaptation

1.1. Preproduction

Coming Up for Air began with the duodrama festival in 2011, the theme of which was “staging masterpieces.” At that time, our company came to know that this lesser known novel by George Orwell had been recently published in Korean translation, and we agreed that it was good enough to call his “hidden masterpiece.” This quick decision was followed by the question of staging: How could we make this full-length novel into a stage performance? What is more, how could we adapt it for just two actors?

Before the rehearsal, five members of the company, Seungeon Kim and Jongmu Lee (actors), Deoksu Kim and Seungtae Im (dramaturges), and I, as director, had three weekly meetings to create the adaptation. At the beginning, we set out two basic principles: firstly, this would be a collective adaptation; and, secondly, our adaptation would eschew realism. We had doubts about the realist style that had been tried in South Korean theatre in recent years. We wanted to focus more on the performative aspects of a production and active communication with the audience. Then we focused on how to present the text; which provides a detailed illustration of British society during the interwar period in a non-illusionistic, pro-theatrical way.

Collaboration among the members became our guideline, from the preproduction and throughout the entire rehearsal period. We agreed that the actors should take initiative for the adaptation, rather than any other members, because we believed that the true living performativity—the longing for which was not cliché at all—could be gained only with their active participation. Moreover, their trust in the script was most crucial for this totally actor-centered project. Thus, the text for the performance was decided mainly in the rehearsal room, rather than at the dramaturge’s desk. What we aimed for was not to get a perfect and comprehensive stage version, but to respond to Orwell’s text in a theatrical way.

In order to solve this puzzle, making a stage adaptation for two actors in a non-realist style, we had to focus on the minimal conditions of the theatrical situation. Our answer was in the characters, and the first person narrative of the original text also supported our choice. So, three staging principles emerged:

  • Two actors play one character,
  • This character sometimes tells the story and other times acts out the scenes,
  • The performance emphasizes playfulness.

1.2. Preparation

When we began to rehearse, both dramaturges decided to change their roles, becoming creative assistants to the director and the actors, who would create the script during rehearsals. The process described below was repeated for the final version:

  • The dramaturge (Kim) took an excerpt from the novel.
  • Lines were rearranged and redistributed to the actors during rehearsal.
  • The director updated the script based on the daily rehearsal.
  • Sentences were adapted for speech first by the dramaturge (Kim), then by the actors with the director.
  • When a scene was made, another dramaturge (Im) gave comments.
  • Group discussions were often held to solve any problems.

This was only a loose guideline, however. All the members could give their opinions on every matter, and no-one insisted on full control of his part. In fact, the actors took an extensive role in creating the play. For example, not only did they avidly read the novel, but both actors also proposed extra episodes that they considered worthy of inclusion. Moreover, they offered a lot of creative ideas during the rehearsing of scenes, anticipating the possible good and bad responses of the audience. Finally, we decided to include no dramaturgy in the credits, but gave them the dramaturges the new title of “adaptation assistants” instead. We believed it was the most proper and accurate way to portray our working process. This attempt was very new to us, and,fortunately, we found that the potential in our group creativity went beyond personal talent.

2. Characters and actors: the theatre of playfulness

In creating a theatrical version of the novel, our first task was to establish the relationship between the characters and the actors. In naturalist theatre, the presence of actors is not supposed to be in the foreground; rather it is supposed to be hidden within dramatis personae. By contrast, in the theatre of playfulness, the actors show themselves to the audience, and their role-playing itself acquires an artistic quality. We created a prologue and epilogue  in order to frame it as a play telling a story about George Bowling. In the prologue, the actors introduced him with some comic gestures, which we hoped would warm up the audience and make them focus on the story to come. His personal history was briefly repeated in the epilogue in order to provide emotional resonance for the audience.

A more difficult challenge we faced concerned impersonation. How should one character be represented by two actors? How should they deal with the other characters George Bowling meets? These questions led us to ask about their ontological status; is it possible to determine who one is acting at a given moment? We did not want to make the play less attractive by dividing George Bowling into a typical two-part structure like good and evil, exterior and interior, thoughts and deeds, positive and negative, and so forth. A fixed allocation, in which one actor played Bowling, while the other played the rest of the characters, would not differentiate our work from the average multiple-role strategy, nor harmonize our principle, “two actors playing one character.” After several rounds of discussion, we came to a structure, which I quote here from the rehearsal note that day:

Coming Up for Air: The fourth sketch (11 Oct. 2011) 

  • There are two George Bowlings on the stage.
  • These two play a game about telling a hometown.
  • They use past tense, but their acting remains present.
  • Each scene is semi-independent.
  • One is mostly responsible for storytelling.
  • The major task of the other is of making images, thoughts and feelings.
  • They still tell a story and build images together.
  • Both mutually exchange their energy and feeling all the time.

We began to rehearse based on this structure, and the final role definition is this:

  • Actor one (Lee): George Bowling
  • Actor two (Kim): George Bowling and everything that he encounters

Accordingly, what both actors did on stage was to introduce George Bowling, to tell his story to the audience, using their own bodies to create aural and visual effects, and sometimes to represent what he experienced. The actors came to use and combine all the possible means of physical, verbal and oral expression: narrating and impersonating characters; making images, like the trembling of a train cabin or the breathing of a sea-turtle; acoustic effects, such as the sound of a train and a bomb falling. By including these, we tried to achieve playfulness, which led, in turn, to a focus on the presence of the playing actors.

3. Storytelling and acting: from separation to integration

One different aspect between novel and theatre that we found during the rehearsal period was that of the listeners. In the novel, George Bowling speaks to virtual, or model, readers. When one reads, Bowling is not talking directly to “the very reader.” There is a necessary gap between his words and the actual readers. So he is able to talk in as many ways as he wants, such as meditation, self-talk, rough talk, insistence, self-conviction, and so on. However, these are risky in the theatre, where the actors meet the audience face to face: meditation could arouse boredom; self-talk, alienation; rough talk, offence; insistence, discomfort; and conviction, pressure. In addition, the presence of the actors on the stage always makes the audience think of the characters they are assuming.

The audience is always a basic element in the theatre. Moreover, they were invited to our play as an essential part of every scene because the actors were continuously talking to them. Thus, we grouped the lines into three specific modes:

  • Face-to-face speech
  • Speech to the generic audience
  • Expression in the fashion of speech, but more focused on the character’s own thoughts, memories, and feelings

All these modes were alternated in order to enhance theatrical flow, for which texts were sometimes relocated, and even a few lines were inserted. Awareness of speech directionality also led todiverse actor-audience relationships. We called it the “opening and closing” of the actors towards the audience, which has become a major criterion for determining speech modes and blocking. With the establishment of the open/close strategy, we were able not only to avoid the boring atmosphere of the simple binary opposition narration vs. representation, but also to unify words, blocking and body status.

It is worth noting that this process allowed talking to the audience to become acting itself. Proper emotions or, in Stanislavski’s term, “subtexts” in each sentence were found during speech practice. Furthermore, their acting also obtained corporeality when they explained the scene with movements and gestures. Narration and description overlapped when one told of a situation while the other supplied imagery with his voice and gestures. It was probably because of this integration that Dr. Patrice Pavis mentioned Coming Up for Air as an example of “tellacting,” a new term for the coexistence of storytelling and conventional character acting (at Namsan Theatre Forum 2012).

We became more aware of the inter-relationship between expression and reception; the modes of human communication, such as narration, verbal and gestural description, and representation, are not mutually exclusive. The border is not clear and they are easily interchangeable, even when separated. Indeed, the audience had no difficulty in receiving the multi-channel expressions because they were already fully accustomed to this multiple reception. Thus, the division between realism and non-realism, psychological and physical, or epic theatre and image theatre has no importance; coherence of styles is not a matter of choosing one of them, but of discovering how to connect all of them. I realized that a stage director is not a person who picks out his/her favorite style, but one who builds a performance in a given space with the tools of communication.

4. The empty stage and the imagination of the audience

We believed that an empty stage was most suitable for capturing the playfulness of Coming Up for Air. Even though it could seem “null and void,” we expected that the emptiness would help the actors to concentrate. More importantly, we assumed that the neutrality of the empty stage would be better for preparing the audience to imagine the frequently changing places of the story. The interaction between the actors and the audience transformed the blank stage into different places. Of course, lighting made an important contribution to this effect. Watching the first rehearsal, the lighting designer proposed “simply white,” and I had no reason to disagree. Not only did the lighting give the play an overall simplicity, but it also helped to create a proper place and atmosphere in each scene. When the actors were doing some shaving gesture, for example, the stage became a bathroom; when they squatted and swung their upper bodies back and forth, they looked like they were sitting in a train cabin; when Seungun Kim was making tree branches and a butterfly with his hands, the green light helped the audience imagine a forest. When the actors leant against the upstage wall, dim light provided the last scene with a cinematic impression.

The playfulness we aimed at was only to be realized by the reaction of the audience. We hoped they could see the empty stage as a space of infinite possibilities. Fortunately, they really did this, with their own imaginations.

***

Currently, it seems clear that Coming Up for Air will represent a turning point in our  work. However, I should admit that it never comes out of nothing. Staging prose narrative was already attempted in anétude (Christmas Carol, 2005). We tried to encourage the imagination of the audience in our first professional production (Between Us, 2008). Synchronization of speech and corporeal images were attempted in A Diary of an American Cow (2009). The sprout of Coming Up for Air had been grown from these earlier works. It will be much more difficult to find out the way to go from now on. It is certain that we should not stick to what we have found until now. What we need is reflection, trial and error, and continuous exploration.

When Deoksu Kim told us about Coming Up for Air for the first time, he said, “We have long stayed on an island called realism in the theatre ocean. We don’t have to deny the beauty of the island, but a vast ocean is now waiting for us to sail.” In which direction should we sail our boat? This is a moment full of tension, fear, and hope.

Production history

  • Nov. 9 to 13, 2011, at Jungmiso theatre, Seoul. The 11th Duodrama Festival, best play award
  • Nov. 18 and 19, 2011, at Art-3 Theatre, Chuncheon. Little Theatre Festival “The Feel”
  • Feb. 29 to Mar. 18, 2012, at CY theatre, Seoul, Catholic Youth Center (CYC) official program “Bridge”
  • Nov. 7 to 25, 2012, at Daehangno Art Theatre 3 hall, Seoul. Seoul Foundation of Art and Culture Grant.

Translated by Seungtae Im[2]


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[1] Youngseok Lee is Director of Shinzangno (‘a new road ‘) Company which seek after actor’s liveness. Lately he has focused on devised theatre to stage young people’s voice.

[2] The translator, Seungtae Im is a dramaturge of Shinzangno Company. He is currently working on his PhD dissertation on the adaptation strategies in Korean Hamlet Productions in Seoul National University.

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Coming Up for Air: Director’s Afterword