Yun-Cheol Kim*

Abstract: The School of Drama of the Korean National University of the Arts was established in 1994. The apparent success of its educational program is very misleading. Its invisible but major failure does not come from students, but from us teachers, who are so tired that we do not challenge ourselves with creative ideas of new pedagogy; we return to an archaic authoritarianism to enjoy the luxury of unconfessed laziness. If teachers are confined to their own small field, the only solution, for the sake of students, who are—and will be—living under the multi-disciplinary arts that deny borders between genres, is to develop and facilitate team teaching, literal collective teaching. What this paper argues is the need to (re)design our educational programs from the students’ perspectives. To do so, we must first try our best to transcend our own ego. And I confess that I have not done enough to this direction in my long career as theatre teacher. And that is painful.

Keywords: Theatre program, motivating students, acting methods, teaching methods, pedagogy

When I joined the advisory committee to establish the School of Drama at the Korean National University of the Arts in 1993, I had a dream: I wanted to realize the ideal theatre education. At that time, there were only seven schools that had programs for theatre education in the whole country, but those schools were under the auspices of the Ministry of Education. Just as in many other countries, this Ministry was, and still is, the most bureaucratic and unimaginative part of the government, and it supervised the education for the theatre only as a liberal art.

Under the premise of “drama as starting point and completion of all kinds of performing arts” beyond the conventional notion, the School aims at nurturing students as “Creators,” future leaders who pioneer Korean and world theatrical art. From the Department’s webpage

Most of the students wanted to be trained as practitioners. They were would-be professionals in acting, directing, scenic design and playwriting. But they had so many compulsory classes—that had nothing to do with theatre practice—that they had no time for professional training. Many graduates of these early theatre schools dominated the Korean theatre scene—and TV dramas and film, too—but they learned their skills as actors, directors, scenic designers and dramatists through their own practical experience, not through any systematic education or institutional training. In this context, there was a strong call for a conservatory-like School for the dramatic arts. As a result, the then-government decided to create the School of Drama at the Korean National University of the Arts, and to move it from the Department of Education to the Ministry of Culture.

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The advisory committee comprised four professionals from different backgrounds: an actress, a scenic designer, a dramatic theorist and an academic theatre critic, which was me. We met every week for a year to discuss and design the basic educational direction of this new School of Drama, including the structure of the departments, the number of students and professors, the curriculum and process for selecting the students, the design of the teaching spaces, the facilities and equipment, on and on.

We reached agreements on the following four guidelines for theatre education:

  • The School of Drama will, first and foremost, focus its education on raising the students’ consciousness of their Koreanness through theatre production, while not ignoring the conventional Western systems of training and education.
  • The School will offer as many theatre-related humanities classes as possible, to help students cultivate an artistic philosophy, social consciousness and aesthetic sensitivity.
  • There will be the five departments of Acting, Directing, Playwriting, Scenography and Theatre Studies, but courses in each department should be open to all the other majors.
  • Very importantly, the School will select eighty-five students yearly through a series of three examinations: the first exam will evaluate their high school academic performance (10%) and test their practical ability (90%); the second exam will measure their practical ability, and the last exam will be only an interview.

At the time, this kind of process for selecting students was quite revolutionary; it had never been seen in the history of Korean education at the university level. It took three long weeks to go through all three steps of the process. All the other universities had just a one-day examination on several subjects, just to check the applicants’ academic performance, plus one audition for theatre students. For three weeks, in December 1993, the School’s first entrance examination took place.

To my surprise, I discerned a particular socio-psychological phenomenon among the acting applicants. The vast majority of them chose their audition piece from a dramatic text that showed anger at social discrimination, at social systems and the older generation; they preferred tragedies or serious drama to comedies. I still believe that the anger and frustration that dominated the audition pieces had much to do with social prejudices against the theatre: the theatre was so discriminated against that, when parents found their children in pursuit of a theatrical career, they tried to dissuade them and, failing to do that, they cut off financial support for their children’s education. As you may know, children’s education has long been the very first priority of parenting in Korea.

Now, Korean society has changed radically, and there are many parents who support their children’s theatrical career. But, at that time, as late as the early nineties, there was still a strong social prejudice against the theatre, and those who wanted to work in the theatre had to struggle with their parents and with society, and their struggle was reflected in their audition pieces. Today, I still see anger and frustration in my students, though, perhaps, they come from different perspectives. The young people of Korea, like in any other country, are angry at “the establishment,” with its rampant corruption, its incompetence at creating jobs and its helplessness in handling environmental disasters.

Finally, the School of Drama opened on March 1, 1994, with fifty-seven students and five professors, all recruited from other universities. From our low acceptance rate, we can see the high standards that were demanded of the students: we had more than one thousand five hundred applicants, and we had spaces for eighty-five students—but we only accepted fifty-seven.

Four years of strict training aims to nurture students as imaginative and creative actors/actresses with sophisticated acting skills. From the Department’s webpage

This would have been unthinkable for other universities, because it would have posed financial difficulties. But, as a national institution, we could stay faithful to our standards for acceptance without worrying about financial considerations. After twenty years, we now have twenty-four professors and three hundred or so students.

What we founding professors had in mind, at the beginning of the School’s history, was to realize some ideals we shared—ideals that had long been impossible in the theatre education of universities in Korea. This is why more than half of the students came either from other universities where they were disappointed in the theatre program, or from schools where there was no theatre program at all. Some students entered our School even after they had finished a Master’s Program somewhere else. This is also why we five founding professors joined the School from other universities. Even though those other schools offered a much higher salary, we were not at all happy at all with the theatre education there.

This is how we started the School of Drama, one of the six schools of the Korean National University of the Arts. The School of Music, School of Dance, School of Film, School of Fine Art and School of Traditional Arts are the remaining five schools. We started with the high aim, on the one hand, of nurturing students to a high enough

level of skill that they could work professionally right after graduation, and, on the other hand, of motivating students to become people with perspective on the zeitgeist; creative artists who could read their society and, then, put that reading into a relevant dramatic aesthetic that would be based upon national identity. 

Acting class at KNUA. Photo: Korean National University of the Arts

Starting out this way, the School was a new experience for both the students and the professors. The students were so motivated that the professors, myself included, were overwhelmed. The questions and comments that came from the students were so challenging that, if we wanted to be ready and confident about responding well, we had to prepare for classes much longer and much harder than we had at previous schools. Such student engagement was, and still is, a very rare phenomenon in Korea, where university education is considered a “must” rather than an option, and the motivation of most of the students was, and still is, very low. Thus, in the beginning years of the School, we professors were happy to have such highly-motivated students. And, in return for their enthusiasm, the professors tried their best to be less authoritarian and more open, and this was refreshing for, and appreciated by, the students. Ours is a Confucian society, in which seniority is understood to mean privilege, so that this new dynamic with their professors was a very rare experience for the students. We professors offered the students enormous amounts of homework and other assignments every day, and they did their homework faithfully at school because they didn’t have time to go home to do their homework there. This tradition of students doing their homework at school has prevailed until now, even though the amount of work the students are assigned has gradually been reduced year by year. We felt as if we were realizing those long-awaited educational ideals.

Acting class at KNUA. Photo: Korean National University of the Arts
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These ideals were reflected in the structure of the curriculum. Educational priority was given to training students to express their souls and emotions through movement, language and style that were uniquely Korean. The four-year program emphasized the need to be aware of and to adopt the Korean identity, in both the traditional performing arts and the contemporary cultural landscape. All courses on this track were compulsory; courses such as Introduction to Traditional Performing Arts, Korean Rhythm and Movement, Korean Singing and Theatrical Absorption of Traditional Performing Arts. Only three years later, in 1997, however, the curriculum was revised and many compulsory classes became electives, in order to strengthen the educational exchange between departments. Only the course Theatrical Absorption of Traditional Performing Arts remained compulsory, to help students understand the principles of the Korean performing arts and to offer ways to absorb that understanding into their work in a modern way.

In 1999, the curriculum was revised again, to accommodate the changes in our times and the new trend of multi-disciplinary arts. This third revision focused on strengthening the exchanges between departments as well as between schools; it also increased the humanities classes under the umbrella title of Culture and the Arts. As you might imagine, the emphasis on Koreanness in our program has been gradually weakened and replaced by globalized values and ideas. This shift in focus is well reflected in the selection of plays for the School productions.

The School began to produce plays in 1996, when the first students reached their junior year, with A Puppet Play, a then-student’s adaptation of a century-old traditional play. For the next couple of years, the School focused on producing Korean plays, traditional or experimental. But, since the third revision of the curriculum, in 1999, School productions have been dominated by Western classics: Shakespeare, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Machiavelli, Chekhov, Ibsen, Brecht, Genet, Annouih, Georg Buchner, Sean O’Casey, Max Frisch, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller and many others.

Through these three revisions of the curriculum, we may have aimed too high and too broadly: to nurture student artists who love the theatre passionately; who are open to any style and any kind of theatre, as long as that theatre is good; who not only know the traditions of the past, but also respond with openness and sensitivity to recent ideas and movements.

Scene from Water Station by Ota Shogo, directed by Kim Soo-Ki, 2017. Photo: Korean National University of the Arts

In order to realize this ambitious, but almost impossible, dream, we have hired quite a few local artists to direct School productions and invited eminent teachers from abroad, such as Nikolai Pesochinsky, theoretician from Russia; Patrice Pavis, semiologist from France; Michael Kirby, theorist and director from the U.S.; Phillip Zarrilli, American director and historian from the U.K., to name just a few.

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One fact that makes me very proud of my School and its education is that most of our graduates are working in the theatre as practitioners, critics, researchers or managers. Every year, two thousand or so theatre students graduate from theatre programs around the country, but the Korean theatre community is not big enough to accommodate that many. By far the great majority of theatre graduates have to find their jobs elsewhere. By far the great majority of those graduates who find or create work in the theatre are those from my School. For the past twenty years, we have produced by far the great majority of outstanding playwrights, actors, directors, scenic designers, critics and technicians, who are working in the dramatic theatre and musical comedies, television dramas and film. Our reputation is well established nationally and internationally. We try hard to participate in international university theatre festivals around the world, and when we do, we always come home triumphant, with many rave reviews from international colleagues.

Scene from All Soldiers Are Pitiful, written and directed by Park Keun-Hyeong, 2013. Photo: Korean National University of the Arts

However, do I believe our education has realized its original ideals? No. Far from it. I have to confess that we have failed greatly. Why? Firstly, our teachers have long been overloaded with teaching, on top of their administrative responsibilities. With a nearly 20:1 student-teacher ratio, our teachers have just had to teach too many classes. For example, the average teaching load for professors of the Acting Department exceeds twenty hours a week.

My long experience as Chairman of the Department, Dean of the School and Provost of the University tells me that, when teachers are suffering from chronic exhaustion, they easily become authoritarian, reluctant to be challenged by students, and that they would rather repeat what they have taught before than adopt a creative, new approach to teaching. This is exactly what happened at my School. In the beginning, we were very different from other universities in terms of curricular structure and pedagogy. However, the differences between our School and theirs has gradually blurred: firstly, because other universities adopted many of our programs; secondly, because we have repeated ourselves for too long. When we were very different, students and their needs were at the center of our educational programs, but now we tired authoritarians have taken the center. The democratic, friend-like relationship between teachers and students is rarely found on the campus, while that archaic, patriarchal hierarchy has returned.

I vividly remember the opening ceremony of my School twenty years ago, during which students were seated on the stage with spotlights on them, while the professors watched them from the darkened auditorium. That was the visual implementation of our educational philosophy. That ceremony was quite a revolution in a Confucian society like Korea, where students are expected—or should I say forced—to worship their teachers. Korea seems to have become more Confucian than China that bore Confucius. What do you think, my dear Chinese colleagues?

In addition, I think my School has failed to break open the barriers between departments. In this post-modern era, multi-disciplinary, integrated educational programming is more than necessary. It is crucial. This we knew from the beginning of the School, and we decided to open nearly all classes to the different majors, and we did start out that way. As time passed, though, teachers found this policy very difficult, very ineffective, very tiresome to implement, because the students’ level of knowledge and training were very different from department to department. They became aware that breaking the barriers meant more preparation, for longer hours; and harder, more tiresome and broader work. They became more and more reluctant to open their classes to other majors. Instead, they closed more and more of their classes to non-majors. I was so anxious to implement this initial idea of open education that I turned all compulsory classes in my Theatre Studies Department to electives, so that my students could take whatever classes they wanted from other departments and from other schools as well. This was hailed by my fellow professors, but, unfortunately, they did not follow suit. I, and my Department, still maintain this policy.

Scene from Hedda Gabler, directed by Park Keun-Hyeong, 2017.
Photo: Korean National University of the Arts

Another way to implement this integrative, multi-disciplinary education is team teaching. For example, many years ago, I proposed to have a class for theatre production that would be team taught—that is, professors would come together to teach from the departments of Theatre Studies, Directing, Acting and Playwriting. In my mind, the course would run like this: a professor from Theatre Studies gives a lecture on several cultural theories; discusses with the other professors and the students to decide the theme and subject of the class production; then, through discussions and improvisations, they complete the dramatic text. All the professors continue to participate in the discussions during the whole rehearsal period until the class mounts the show on stage. When I suggested this new form of teaching, inspired by Princeton University’s graduate program, I presumed that the class would be collectively team taught from beginning to end. Unfortunately, that was not the case. In my School, and I guess in your School, too, professors like to play solo. They don’t like to be contradicted or challenged, either by their students or by their fellow teachers. So, they just took turns at the beginning of the semester, giving their lectures alone, without attending each other’s lectures, and let the students take care of the production.

This reluctance to work together with colleagues from other fields was the main culprit in our failure to implement one of our crucial educational policies. This happened because all our faculty members were established artists themselves, and they didn’t like to compromise their own artistic ideas through discussion. They forgot they were educators, not artists, at school. Now, we rarely practice this team teaching. And I wonder how we can provide multi-disciplinary education or training when we fail to do so even in a single field like the theatre.

Many contemporary theatre pieces are an amalgam of several genres, such as dance, circus, technology, music, cabaret, etc., and a particular approach to achieving this amalgam is through collective creation. I firmly believe team teaching is the only possible way of educating students to meet the demands of our multi-disciplinary times, although it may be much more costly. When students have not had enough experience of this kind of practice at school, we cannot expect our graduates to survive in the wilderness, the no man’s land, of the professional theatre.

Finally, contrary to their attitude of openness, the professors have designed the school’s curriculum too demandingly within their own field of studies. This is largely responsible for our students’ fatigue. For example, the program our acting department requires students to complete is impossible. Oh Soon-Taek, a prominent Hollywood actor who was invited to teach our acting students for several years, observed this in our private interview.

Actor Oh Soon-Taek was invited to teach acting students for several years. Photo: Public domain (web)

Our students are struggling. The acting method they are learning now comes mostly from the U.S. On top of that, they have to take classes in the traditional styles of Asia, and, particularly, of Korea. Is that possible? This means they are learning several acting approaches at the same time, and their attention is divided much more than the typical American student.

Our students are working much harder than students at other Korean universities, too. This is why we so often find so many students falling asleep at morning classes. This is our dilemma. The real theatre world outside the School demands that our acting graduates be prepared with acting skills that can be obtained through systematic training by Western methods. Our idea, however, is to help students to cultivate Koreanness in their work. We cannot give up either one. So, we do both. I think this is a common dilemma among Asian theatre schools. There must be some way to balance the two approaches, but, unfortunately, we have not found it yet.

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The conclusion I draw from all this is very clear. The apparent success of the educational program at the School of Drama, Korean National University of the Arts, is very misleading. Its invisible but big failure does not come from the students, but from the teachers, who are so tired that they don’t challenge themselves with creative ideas for new pedagogy; that they fall back on archaic authoritarianism to enjoy the secret luxuries of laziness. If teachers are confined to their own small field, the only solution is to develop and facilitate team teaching.

For the sake of the students, who are and will be working in a multi-disciplinary art form—a form that denies borders between their various areas of skill—we need literal, collective teaching. More professors and fewer students. In the future, maybe that will be the dominant paradigm of our theatre education. It will be costly, but fruitful in the long run. We should think while bearing in mind the needs of the students.

We should design our educational programs from the students’ perspectives. Let us try our best to transcend our own egos. And I confess that I have not followed my own advice during my long career as a professor of theatre. I feel pain, and I will be happy if you share my pain. Thank you.


NOTE: Keynote speech for ATEC Convention 


*Yun-Cheol Kim obtained his Ph.D. from BYU with his dissertation on contemporary American Drama. He served as President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) from 2008 till 2014. During his presidency, he launched IATC’s journal Critical Stages, in 2009. Now, he is an honorary president of the association. He served as artistic director of the National Theatre Company of Korea for four years, from the beginning of 2014 till the end of 2017. He retired from the School of Drama, Korean National University of the Arts in 2015, where he taught for twenty years, and, now, is its honorary professor. He received the Cultural Order from the Korean government in 2008. Two-time winner of the “Critic of the Year Award,” he has published twelve books, two of which are anthologies of theatre reviews. 

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The Confessions of a Failed Educator
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