God Bless the Queen: My Paper on Changgeuk in the RASKB Transactions

Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Vol. 88Some month ago I had presented a paper on “Recent Experiments in Changgeuk” at the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch Colloquium. I expanded a bit on the topic and wrote an article for the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch. Since 1900, when the RASKB was founded, the Transactions have been published as an (almost) annual journal that covers many different aspects of Korean culture and history. It is probably the oldest English-language periodical still in print. Among others, the McCune-Reischauer-system for the romanization of the Korean language was published here in 1939 (Vol. XXIX, pp. 1–55).

So I felt quite proud when I found the package with five complimentary copies on my doorsteps.

This is the table of contents of the current volume 88:

  • Alex Švamberk, Czechoslovakia in the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission
  • In Memoriam: Alan Heyman (1931 – 2014)
  • Wayne Patterson, Christianity, American Missionaries, and Korean Immigration to the United States, 1903-1915
  • Bill Streifer, 1945: Korea Faces a Post-Colonial Industrial Future
  • Jan Creutzenberg, From Traditional Opera to Modern Music Theatre? Recent Experiments in Ch’anggŭk
  • Jill Matthews, Symbolism and Literary Reference in Traditional Korean Gardens
  • Hank Morris, Korea in the Asian Crisis of 1997 – 1998: the IMF Crisis in Korea
  • Gigi Santow, Jean Perry: Twenty Years a Korea Missionary
  • Brother Anthony, An English Chemist Visits Korea in 1899
  • Robert Neff (ed.), Robert Thomas’s First Trip To Korea
  • Recently Published Books about Korean Studies
  • Annual Reports

Issues of the Transactions are available from the RASKB. The individual articles might also be available online in the near future. Additional material on my paper, which might be interesting for readers who’d like to dig a bit deeper into changgeuk, can be found in this blogpost.

– 30 June 2014 (月)

  • Jan Creutzenberg, “From Traditional Opera to Modern Music Theatre? Recent Experiments in Ch’anggŭk”, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch 88 (2013), pp. 87–102.
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Tales of Three Sisters (Taroo’s Pansori Hamlet Project, part2)

The Pansori Hamlet Project (판소리 햄릿 프로젝트) by Taroo had begun with an unusual encounter: Pansori singers meet actors, Hamlet meets us, today. An inquiry into Shakespeare’s piece and its protagonist, this first stage was about how we can understand Hamlet and his dubious intentions in a modern context. (For a more detailed review see my earlier post)

The next stage was about why we should be interested in Hamlet in the first place, featuring three women discussing their reasons to adapt this classic live on stage.

Pansori Hamlet Project: Story of Three Women (판소리 햄릿 프로젝트: 세여자 이야기) © Taroo

Pansori Hamlet Project: Story of Three Women 판소리 햄릿 프로젝트: 세여자 이야기 © Taroo

In the summer of 2013, half a year after the first presentation, Taroo held a workshop to further develop their project. The results were presented as a free one-hour “showcase” at the Seoul Theater Center (서울연극센터) in Daehangno. We arrived in the lobby just in time as the performance was about to begin. There were maybe about thirty or fourty people, young and old. I can’t say how many had come on purpose, as some might have just stopped by the Theater Center to buy tickets for another show. I had found out about this event through Facebook, only one or two days earlier.

Song Bora, Lee Weon-gyeong, Jo Ella (left to right) © Taroo

송보라, 이원경, 조엘라 (left to right) © Taroo

The main title of the showcase was straightforward: Story of Three Women (세여자 이야기). The setting was likewise simple. Three women in their late 20s to early 30s, wearing skirts and high-heels, were casually sitting on bar chairs in the lobby sipping ice coffee, kind of like in a talk show. The three faces were familiar: The singers Song Bora (송보라), Jo Ella (조엘라), and Lee Weon-gyeong (이원경) of Taroo. Music director Jeong Jong-im (정종임), sitting a bit apart, occasionally played the drum and controlled the videos shown on three flatscreens. There were scenes from classical Hamlet- movies and later short interviews with random people about their opinion on a pansori-version of Hamlet.

© TarooThe piece is composed of three only losely related parts. First, a discussion starts about the question “Why Hamlet?” Spoiler alert: At first all three singers are against it. They rather would like to sing about their own lives than about a fictional prince, quite understandably, although one singer mentions that playing Shakespeare might get them an invitation to England. The drummer, however, insists. In the whole piece, he has almost no dialogue, but here he shouts “Hamlet! Hamlet!”, again and again, from the sidelines, finally “convincing” the others.

Then the focus turns on the three singers themselves, who introduce themselves as three young singles “living alone”. Each one of them presents a short solo number that deals with her respective situation.

이원경 © Taroo

이원경 © Taroo

Jo Ella talks and sings about how she fears to become like her mom, who sacrificed everything for her family. Lee Weon-gyeong presents her life as an aspiring pansori singer, stuck between Jejudo (her home), Jeonju (where she can learn from a great teacher), and Seoul (where she can perform). Song Bora talks about her dating life in Hongdae, where she met a guy who doesn’t answer her messages but writes about her on his blog. In short: Everyday situations in the life of twenty-somethings are elevated to narrative material for pansori storytelling. Several repeated phrases work as choruses, such as the three choices Lee Weon-gyeong faces (Seoul-Jeonju-Jejudo) or a short catchword from some gag program (“살아있다, 살아있네”, lit. “It lives!”) that received much laughter.

Finally, the singers unite for the “To Be or Not To Be”-song. While the singers have shown their pansori-skills in their respective solos, this earwormy piece could have come straight from a Hamlet-musical. But the chorus, sung with slightly shifted melodies, is a nice closing for this showcase.

A post-performance collage, via Facebook © Taroo

A post-performance collage, via Facebook © Taroo

The first part of the Pansori Hamlet Project was a cross-over of theatre and pansori, but this second part rather took a side-step and reflected on the existential conditions for the whole project in a light-hearted manner. Switching between open rehearsal and confessional potpourri, it focused on the people behind the show. Although the choice of Hamlet still remains a little bit opaque, I’ve learned a lot about the three singers and their different relations to their profession.

After the well-earned applause, the singers ask the audience to like their Facebook-page (you should do, too!) and come see the final piece in February next year (that is, 2014… review coming up!). I’ll certainly be there, but I’d also like to hear more of their very own stories, preferably in pansori-style!

– 15 Aug. 2013 (木)

  • 국악뮤지컬집단 타루, <세 여자 이야기>, 작: 공동창작, 연출: 박선희, 소리꾼: 송보라, 조엘라, 이원경, 음악감독: 정종임, 조연출: 전승훈, 기획: 문효원, 정경화, 장소: 서울연극센터 (로비), 2013년 8월 15일 (목), 오후 3시 ~ 4시, 무료입장.
  • Gugak Musical Collective Taroo, Story of Three Women, collectively authored piece, directed by Bak Seon-hui, pansori singers: Song Bora, Jo Ella, Lee Weon-gyeong, music director: Jeong Jong-im, assistant director: Jeon Seung-hun, production: Mun Hyo-weon, Jeong Gyeong-hwa, venue: Seoul Theater Center (lobby), 2013–08–15 (Thu.), 3–4 pm, free entrance.
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My Pansori Teacher’s Full-Length Premiere


I took this picture after Gang Seung-ui’s (강승의) first full-length presentation. It shows her with her teacher Song Sun-seop (송순섭) and the drummer of the second half, Bak Geun-yeong (박근영, the first drummer was Gang Ye-jin 강예진).

The concert was very special to me, as I had learnt the (short) pansori song Sacheolga (사철가, “Song of the Four Seasons”) from Gang Seung-ui last summer but had never seen her live on stage.

She performed Jeokbyeok-ga (적벽가, “Song of the Red Cliff”) at KOUS (한국문화의집). Without real intermission, except for the flying change of the drummer, she sang for almost three hours. I knew the general plot of Jeokbyeok-ga, a war epic set in China, and had seen other full-lenght performances (I wrote about one of them by Yun Jin-cheol 윤진철 for the Jeonju Sori Festival’s blog, you can find a recording of, presumably, the exact same performance on Youtube), but it was great to hear this rather rare piece sung by a familiar voice. Especially the “Fight Song” (싸움타령), an energetic depiction of a raging battle by the soldiers (pansori can be quite “meta”!), was fascinating. Also, it seems that this piece in particular has been transmitted (or edited) in quite different versions, as many parts sounded unfamiliar. (You can find the lyrics of some versions, inc. English translations, online, courtesy of the Jeonju Sori Festival)

There were many famous pansori singers present, too, including my teacher’s teachers, Song Sun-seop (송순섭) and Kim Hak-yong (김학용). Kim Hak-yong is a member of the National Changgeuk Company (국립창극단) and I’ve seen him in many performances. Song Sun-seop is one of the most esteemed singers alive and has a very distinctive sonorous voice (and a stylish beard). When he came on stage to congratulate his student—and to receive a deep bow from her—, he mentioned that he didn’t call any chuimsae because, if I understood him correctly, that would have been too stressful. After all, he is well over seventy (you wouldn’t know that from his performances, for example a short part from Jeokbyeok-ga he sang earlier this year; there are also some excerpts from earlier full-length performances available on Youtube, looks like someone digitalised some old video tapes).

The other audience members, including the members of Gang Seung-ui’s pansori-club Sori Maru (소리마루) , where great at chuimsae-shouting and the atmosphere was great! An important step for my teacher and a wonderful performance for everyone else.

– 17 May 2014 (土)

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Memorial Day: Accumer Riege Revisited

This is a 2010 remake of an earlier short documentary I shot when visiting my grandparents back in 2006. Fours years later, nothing seems to have changed much, at first look. In fact, my grandmother had passed away and my grandfather, then living alone, would soon follow her.

I have spent long summers in the house Accumer Riege 59 when I was younger, some days in spring and fall, too, and even a few Christmas eves (although it’s really cold there in the winter). Since living away from home, I’d visit occasionally, about once every two years, later even less. The small village is difficult to reach by train and bus, and usually I would join my uncle in Hanover.

In 2006, I dropped by while living in France. In 2010, I was preparing for my trip to Korea. This summer, I’ll visit my grandparents’ graves and I hope that I can also spend some time at Accumer Riege.

– 6 June 2014 (金)

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Playing Faust

Peter Lee and Benjamin von Blomberg at Nolgong

Peter Lee and Benjamin von Blomberg at Nolgong

After almost one year of production (and even more time in development-hell), the game Being Faust finally kicked off with a short showcase this Friday night. The project is a cooperation between the Goethe-Institut Korea and the game developers from Nolgong (놀공발전소, see also their Facebook-page). The “Faust Game” is a live-action game based on Goethe’s Faust (파우스트) and uses the internet and cell phones as game devices. The showcase was very promising and the final game will be open to the public this July. This is a short video trailer for the game:

Last summer I did some translation and interpretation when, in the early stages of the project, German dramaturg Benjamin von Blomberg visited Seoul to support Nolgong with some theoretical inspiration on the original drama. Benjamin collaborated with director Nikolas Stemann on the monumental Faust I + II project at Thalia Theater Hamburg (see a video-trailer). I really enjoyed the time with Benjamin and the Nolgong-team, who have a wonderful studio stuffed with all kinds of books and board games. The picture above shows Peter Lee, head of Nolgong, and Benjamin debating over the neverending question: Is there some Faust in all of us? And who is our personal Mephisto?

It soon became clear that the game shouldn’t follow the Faust-storyline, but rather allow the participants to reflect on their own desires and ambitions—and how they’d be willing to pay for attaining them. The final game will offer some psychological challenges to make us reflect on the way we live.

my personal values

Back then, we also did some experimental test games to work out possible game mechanics. One of these games included quantifying one’s own personal value system—to determine the prize of these values when the devil makes an offer. The picture shows my decision (this is probably the most personal thing ever posted on this blog). I wonder what I’d receive for sacrificing, for example, my time…

– 30 May 2014 (金)

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Theatre Libraries in Daehangno

Seoul Theater Center

Books at the Seoul Theater Center

Today I spent some time at the archives. After the last of my students at Sungshin Women’s University (성신여자대학교) had finished her midterm exam, I had a short lunch and took the bus to Daehangno. This neighborhood has the highest density of theaters in Seoul, over a hundred in total, from the public-run ARKO Arts Theater (아르코예술극장) to dozens of smaller, private basement (or rooftop) stages like the Guerilla Theater (게릴라극장) or the Hakchon Theater (학전극장). The streets are covered with posters for upcoming shows (for example, this upcoming “Shakespeare and His Children” festival… see image below) and ticket vendors ask if you are in search of a show (공연 찾으세요?) on every corner. But there are also two major archives on theatre and performing arts—that’s where I was heading.

Shakespeare and his Children (festival)

Shakespeare and his Children

But first I briefly dropped by at the Book Stage (북스테이지, for some impressions see this blog), a bookshop on the ground floor of the Daehangno Arts Theater. Despite the small size, they have a good selection on theatre, music, dance, and arts in general. There is also a 10% sale on everything and everytime I’m surprised when I have to pay some odd amount, like the 2,700 ₩ for a small book by/on dramatist Go Yeon-ok today (극작수업 II: 고연옥, 국립극단 2012).

Then I crossed the street and entered the Seoul Theater Center (서울연극센터). Before going to the second floor where the archive is located, I grabbed some brochures in the lobby—the Spring Festival at Hyehwadong No. 1 about “Tradition” (혜화동1번지 2014 봄페스티벌 ‘전통’) that began in March and presents one neo-traditional performance each month sounds interesting…

Seoul Theater Center (서울연극센터)

Seoul Theater Center

Right after passing the security barrier to the archive, I stopped for the journals. They have all important Korean ones (한국연극, 연극평론, 공연과 리뷰, 춤, 몸, 객석 etc.) and a few foreign ones, including, to my surprise, the German monthly Theater heute. After checking the new acquisitions, I went over to the book shelves. The system was at first at bit confusing at first. The books are lined up horizontally, passing through the shelves (not in each shelf downwards… do you get what I mean?). So books on different topics stand above or below each other while books by the same author can be quite far away. But thanks to the labels I soon found my way. There are tons of Korean books, from drama anthologies to theory, history of theatre in Korea and abroad, to acting and directing manuals. The last shelf in the back was stuffed with printed-out dissertations. I didn’t see video material, but there was a catalogue at the counter and I suppose they can be ordered. In any case, there were a few people watching videos on the screens. I didn’t have a passport photo with me, so I couldn’t register. If you do, though, you can also borrow books. First you need to register online and then hand in your ID and a picture.

I took a short stroll through the remodeled Marronnier Park (마로니에공원). The weather was nice and there were people everywhere, some painting graffiti and others making music.

Korea National Archives of the Arts (국립예술자료원 @ 예술가의 집)

Korea National Archives of the Arts

The Korea National Archives of the Arts (국립예술자료원) is located on the second floor of the “Artists’ House” (예술가의 집), right in the park, on the opposite of the Arko Arts Theater. There is another affiliated archive at the Seoul Arts Center (to be precise: on the 3rd floor of the Hangaram Design Museum) which, I suppose, keeps material on fine arts. The one in Daehangno, in any case, focuses on performing arts.

Once again I was overwhelmed by all the books, many of them in Korean and English, a few in other languages, too. They are ordered thematically with very many subsections, which are unfortunately unlabelled, so finding specific books can be a bit tricky. There are even more journals, also some from China and Japan. In the back I found bound volumes of back issues. It was great fun to browse through the old journals and see what was on show, say, in the 70s or in 1991, the “Year of Theatre and Cinema” (연극영화의 해). There are also many DVDs of important productions from Korea and abroad and play scripts. The first one in the list is Gargamel and the Smurfs (가가멜과 스머프, 19 pages, no year), possibly this 2003 family musical by ensemble “Our Land” (우리네땅) who would produce Baebijang-jeon (배비장전) a year later (see this marvellous poster—phallic psychedelica at its best!). I read a bit and made some copies, then left at seven when the archive closed its doors.

Korea National Archives of the Arts

Korea National Archives of the Arts

Both archives are great for anyone doing research on theatre or dance. The Seoul Theater Center is run by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture (서울문화재단) that also is responsible for various artist residencies all around the city. The National Archives of the Arts, like the Arts Council Korea (ARKO, 한국문화예술위원회) that runs the Artists’ House, belong to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (문화체육관광부). At the National Archives you find some more books in general and much more in English in particular. The working atmosphere is fine in both. I find it a bit odd myself that I didn’t come here earlier, but I always relied on university libraries (and friends who’d let me in) for books—and, of course, online databases as most recent research in my field is published in journals first. But now, as I dig a bit deeper into the history of Korean theatre, having a lot of standard works (and possibly hundreds of productions on video and as scripts) within reach comes in handy.

In any case, if you are in Daehangno and have some time to kill before a performance, you know where to go.

– 25 April 2014 (金)

  • 서울 연극센터, 운영시간: 화~토 10-20, 일 10-19, 월 유관, 주소: 110-524 서울특별시 종로구 대명길3 (명류4가 1번지), 연락처: 02-743-9333, 홈페이지: http://www.e-stc.or.kr.
  • 국립예술자료원 (대학로 분원), 운영시간: 월~토 10-19, 일 휴관, 주소: 110-809 서울특별시 종로구 동숭동길3 예술가의집 2층, 연락처: 02-760-4596~7, 홈페이지: http://www.knaa.or.kr.
  • Seoul Theater Center, opening times: Tue~Sat 10-20, Sun 10-19, Mon closed, address: 110-524 Seoul Jongno-gu Daemyeonggil3 (Myeongnyu4ga No.1), contact: 02-743-9333, homepage: http://www.e-stc.or.kr.
  • Korea National Archives of the Arts, opening times: Mon~Sat 10-19, Sun closed, address: 110-809 Seoul Jongno-gu Dongsungdonggil3 Yesulga-ui Jip (2nd floor), contact: 02-760-4596~7, homepage: http://www.knaa.or.kr.
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One, two, three… many Hamlets (Taroo’s Pansori Hamlet Project, part1)

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

Fittingly, with Shakespeare’s 450th birthday coming up, The Pansori Hamlet Project (판소리 햄릿 프로젝트) by gugak ensemble Taroo (국악뮤지컬 집단 타루, also on Facebook) reached a climax this spring with a performance at the Guro Arts Valley (구로 아트밸리 예술극장). It was the culmination of more than one year of experiments and practice. In a three-part series of posts, I will track the development of this piece, one of the most interesting theatrical experiments that I’ve seen in recent times.

It all started in a basement rehearsal room at Doosan Art Center (두산아트센터) in late 2012. This first attempt of staging Hamlet in pansori-style was part of the Doosan Art Lab (두산아트랩). Consequently, the stage resembles a workshop: Small props and several music instruments are standing around and there are six hangers with clothes, each with a sign attached: Hamlet, his lover, his father, his mother, his uncle etc.

Before the performance: The workshop stage of the Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

Before the performance: The workshop stage of the Pansori Hamlet Project

The six performers include Taroo members trained in pansori as well as actors of the ensemble 플레이위드 (“Play with”). That team had an indie-hit in Daehangno with the multimedial-documentary two-man show India Blog (인디아블로그) in 2011 (see their blog and a NCTV newsclip for some impressions). All performers are dressed in neutral black jeans and hood-T-shirts and, while playing “themselves” throughout the performance, will from time to time put on the prepared costumes to temporarily take the respective role.

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

© Taroo

First, in just about five minutes, the pansori singers briefly retell and pantomime the main plot of Hamlet, reduced to its basic episodes. Then a young man enters. He is slender, tall, and dressed in old-fashioned clothes, just who one would expect as Prince Hamlet in a conventional, slightly uninspired performance. He is indeed the protagonist of this play and the performers start to ask him all kinds of questions—Were you afraid of the ghost? Why didn’t you act earlier? How do you feel about your mother? etc.—which “Hamlet” can’t answer.

In the following, the performers stage key scenes from the play: the wedding, the reunion with the ghost of his father, mad-talk with Ophelia, the mouse-trap play, the death of Polonius, the graveyard , the final duel. A short aniri (아니리, narration), accompanied on the buk (북, drum) introduces each scene pansori-style. Then the actors, switching their respective roles constantly, enact the scene. At one point or another the “Hamlet”-character begins to sing pansori and joins the play. It is obvious that he is one of the actors and not trained in pansori. Afterwards, the other performers (now as “themselves”) ask him again about his opinion and the reasons for his actions in the particular scene.

Two scenes in particular stand out:

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

© Taroo

An early moment between “Hamlet” and pansori singer Song Bora (송보라) as “Ophelia”: While she is singing a song that could come from a musical, the amateur sorikkun calmly sings the “Love Song” (사랑가) from Chunhyang-ga (춘향가)—a weird, beautiful, and exciting duet of two different voices. Then she joins him and in the end they embrace each other.

In the infamous graveyard scene, two performers (as “Hamlet” and “Laertes”) run away to an adjacent room to fight. Thanks to a semi-transparent wall and the lighting in the room behind, their struggle is visible. At the same time it is projected as a video on the back of the stage, a distanced double-pantomime that, in its abruptness and violence, contrasts with the calmer acting-storytelling parts of the piece.

In these and other cases, various means of pansori, classical experimental theatre, and more popular performing arts are used to create a new interpretation of Hamlet.

Curtain Call: Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

© Taroo

The charm of the Pansori Hamlet Project is the personal approach to the classic, including discussions about its relevance today, and the do-it-yourself-aesthetic that creates a spontaneous mood that in a way combines traditionally-relaxed gugak improvisation and contemporary art that is close to everyday life.

This was the first stage of the Pansori Hamlet Project. Back then, I also wrote a post in Korean for the Jeonju Sori Festival-blog. Just ignore the picture, it has nothing to do with the Hamlet Project.

– 13 Dec. 2012 (木)

  • 국악뮤지컬집단 타루 & 플레이위드, <판소리 햄릿 프로젝트> (2012 두산아트랩9), 두산아트센터, A연습실 (지하 B1), 2012년 12월 13일 (목), 오후 4시~5시10분, 무료입장.
  • Gugak Musical Collective Taroo & Play With, Pansori Hamlet Project (2012 Doosan Art Lab 9), Doosan Art Center, Rehearsal Room A (basement B1), 2012-12-13 (Thu.), 4–5.10 pm, free entrance.
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