Interviewed by Soon-Ja Hur
Theatre Director Sohn (b. 1947) is Founding Artistic Director cum President of the Michoo Theatre Company. He has directed and produced over 80 plays of various genres and origins, including the annual Madang-nori performances in which indigenous cultural traditions are harmonized with contemporary aesthetics of the theatre. Truly an open-minded artist, with a humanistic vision and near-religious attitude towards the theatre, he has also dedicated himself to many international exchanges of theatre, as well as to some memorable cultural events. As a visiting guest director, he has staged a number of productions both in Japan and China, including a world premier of Ariel Dorfman’s The Other Side for the New National Theatre of Tokyo in 2004.
You have been doing a great deal of work not only in your group but also at international festivals and abroad. For the international theatre critics of Critical Stages, I’d like to start the interview talking about the general characteristics of your theatre.
I have been working consistently on revitalizing icons of the traditional theatre for the modern theatre. Like many others, I started my directing career working with modern Western plays, but eventually came to agonize over the identity of the traditional Korean theatre. I started looking into the heritage of the Korean theatre, thinking that there must be basic theatrical icons that our ancestors inherited. For instance, if there are musicians such as Brahms and Chopin in the West’s history, there is also gukak, which is Korean classical music. Therefore, I started studying Korean masques, puppet plays, pansori (solo sung narratives) and gut (shamanic rituals). As a result, I found my future direction for “directing Korean-style plays,” which aims at modernizing Korean traditional theatre. Even though the given subject, “Korean-style theatre,” could be seen as nationalistic obstinacy, the prerequisite for my work is “the universality of Korean theatre.”
You often liken theatre to a religion, and have firm conviction that theatre can save the world. I now ask you about the so-called “Madang Spirit”—in other words, the inherited philosophy or values fundamental to your work.
I went into a directing career because I liked the arts—such as literature, fine arts, dance, and music—so much, and thought I could be close to these forms if I did theatre that integrated the arts. In the meantime, I asked myself what theatre means to me. The origin of theatre is ceremonial worship. Ceremonial worship is the desperate prayer of humans to God. I considered theatre as a prayer for salvation since the worship ceremony must be a prayer for salvation, too. This can be understood as the basic spirit of my theatre or, to put it another way, the “Madang Spirit.” In short, the madang spirit means seeking a humane life “here” and “now.”
We are living in such a confusing era—is theatre still a meaningful act?
The aim of theatre is to make human beings human, and to make sure of the love for humankind. The social utility of theatre is to find the value of human life and to help people share such values. The epic theatre of Brecht motivated my serious deliberation and introspection. I agree that theatre should be fun but it should also be able to diagnose society’s ills. Good theatre is the best medicine for curing the corrupt world. Theatre must prove that its basic values, and existential values regarding humankind, never change. The values of the theatre are desperate now, since theatre exists to make human beings think at a time when everyone is seeking financial benefits. Some people argue that the theatrical industry is facing a crisis, but it is quite in the nature of things to bring up issues whenever a paradigm changes. I am sure that theatre will last forever because it is the most long-lived of the arts and because it is analogue.
You say you feel very attached to the chang-geuk form, even if it ultimately fails in execution. Tell us about its potential, or issues with it.
Chang-geuk is a kind of theatre that has been developed from pansori for the modern performing arts.Pansori is a performing art unique to Korea—one that moves people with a mixture of literary, musical and theatrical content. A singer with a fan in hand performs a long story with a song, narrative and movements following the beat of a drummer. I condemn the reality that Koreans undervalue pansoriwhile eulogizing the kabuki of Japan and Peking Opera of China. But one thing clear is that chang-geukis an incomplete genre which still requires examination and research to establish its own style. Therefore, I direct a chang-geuk piece by converting its stage into an open one and dramatically developing it within a pansori structure, keeping close to the nature of pansori. The current issues are that people are so accustomed to the old-style chang-geuk that they do not have much desire for this novelty, and that not that many directors have a good understanding of pansori‘s characteristics. I believe chang-geuk is the most competitive genre among our performing arts and I have realized its possibilities through numerous overseas productions.
You are credited with creating madang-nori, now growing as a representative national genre, as well as with the revitalization of chang-geuk. Will you introduce the aesthetic principles, methodology or values of madang-nori?
I have already explained the meaning of madang, and nori means theatre. Madang-nori is a Korean-style theatre which modernizes the inherited traditional theatre. The Korean traditional theatre consists of four stages: gilnori, gosa, bonnori, duipuri. At dawn, after performing a ritual ceremony, people receive God with a bell hanging on a rod, and walk through the town with musical instruments. Upon arrival at the theatre grounds, people offer worship for the respect of the elderly and peace for both audience and performers, after which they begin a bonnori (or main theatre performance). Bonnori originated from a ritual to drive away ghosts and, with humor and sarcasm, it addresses the tyranny of the ruling class, the poverty of the working class, discord between wives and mistresses, and ridicule of the yang-ban(government officials) and apostate monks. At the end of the theatre, duipuri is formed, when everyone dances and shares a community spirit. In this regard, madang-nori is special in that it is theatre that cannot be without its audience.
You are also known for your broad theatrical spectrum. Besides the genres I mentioned above, you are also involved in international theatre exchange programs. Please tell us your experience with foreign actors or theatre staff.
The basic spirit of theatre is collaboration. There are not many differences or difficulties in working with people from different backgrounds. But performers should grasp their society, since theatre mainly addresses human issues and people are part of society. Although many think Korea, Japan and China have lots of things in common, I have felt that our cultures are distinct. The outcome of working together has not only been finding similarities but also differences.
There was clear sign of change occurring in the mise-en-scène of your productions, from a visually stylized stage to an empty or minimal one, particularly since the middle of 2000. Would you explain the aesthetic change in your theatre?
My earlier productions tended to be visually striking, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. However, as I continue my stage work, I feel that stage decoration is quite cumbersome. I feel that… something of origin is buried under the ornaments of the stage. So, I now pursue minimalist tendencies—distinct moderation and poised calm—in the staging of the works I present, rather focusing much more on the acting or narrative, and relying much more on the audience’s imagination.
How does Korean Theatre communicate with the rest of the world? Will you evaluate the current Korean theatre from an aesthetic or philosophical perspective?
The characteristic of Korean traditional theatre lies in the spirit of theatre which expresses exaggeration and talkativeness full of energy, and the spirit of comedy which overcomes every kind of pain and hardship, and transforms it into laughter. However, Korea experienced an identity crisis after the introduction of Western theatre from Japan. Korean theatres haven’t been free from the 1st-generation framework due to misconceptions about realistic theatre. Now it is time to endeavor to establish a theatre having a national identity, and globalizing a theatre with general impact. There also need to be policies that support and enable Korean theatre to communicate with the rest of the world.
Will you introduce us to your recent works?
Because this year celebrates the 30th anniversary of madang-nori, I will give more of my attention to its works. King Lear will go to the BeSeTo Festival, and B-Class Trial (working title) will be staged in October. B-Class Trial is about the absurd violence that happened from executing war criminals after the Pacific War—that is, Japan’s war of aggression. War still breaks out around the world, and people have been victimized by ruthless and merciless violence. By shedding new light on buried history, I would speak out against the violence and inhumanity of war.
Fairy in the Wall made a good impression on the theatre critics who participated in the IATC Seoul Congress in 2006. Do you have any last words for them?
Such a nice compliment! I really appreciate it. With the language barrier and for geographical reasons, Korean theatre people have had a hard time meeting foreign theatre practitioners. Although we do theatrical works actively in our country, we don’t have the kind of aggressive willpower to advance our works abroad. However, it should be noted that we have a theatre district, called Dae Hak Ro, with a concentration of more than 130 small theatres—plus we have about 70 colleges or universities with theatre departments. You may not see this in cities or countries anywhere else. The Koreans have an exceptional thirst for theatre, I ask for your continuous interest in Korean theatre for international exchanges, and hope you will visit Korea again some time.
 Hur is a theatre critic and faculty member of the Department of Theatre, Seoul Institute of the Arts, Korea. Formerly Vice-President of the Korean Association of Theatre Critics, she is currently serving on the Board of a number of professional organizations. Her publication includes Korean Theatre in the Age of Internationalization (2008), Ten Influential Men of the Korean Theatre (2005), and many other writings and translations.
Copyright © 2009 Jin-Chaek Sohn
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