Between Preservation and Change: Performing Arts Heritage Development in South Korea & Other Papers on Heritage Development in Asia

My paper “Between Preservation and Change: Performing Arts Heritage Development in South Korea” has come out in the journal Asian Education and Development Studies. I wrote this paper early last year on winter break in Jejudo, with a snow storm outside, and now it’s available online via Emerald Insight.

The other papers in this special issue on heritage development in Asia also look very interesting — topics include, among others, cultural tourism in Japan, food heritage in Hong Kong, or Cantonese opera… (see below for full bibliographic information).

Most papers use original ethnographic research and I’m looking very much forward to read them! In my paper, classified as “conceptual”, I take more of a bird-eye view and compare the three traditional Korean genres pansori (판소리, singing-storytelling), pungmul (풍물 percussion-dance), and talnori (탈놀이 mask dance drama), as well as derived genres such as changgeuk (창극), samulnori (사물놀이), madang-geuk (마당극) etc. with regard to common patterns, divergences, and potential uses outside of protected heritage culture (e.g. political protest, commercial entertainment), as well as the underlying reasons.

From the abstract of my paper:

The purpose of this paper is to explore how traditional performers practice their arts in South Korea. The analysis focuses on the transformations of performance conventions and contexts, as well as on new genres that developed in response to heritage legislation and social change during the last 200 years.

If you’d like to read the paper(s) but don’t have an institutional subscription, let me know!

Last but not least, I’d like to thank Sidney Cheung (editor of the special issue), Sonny Lo (managing editor of AEDS), two anonymous reviewers, and CedarBough T. Saeji who suggested me for this special issue. And of course Ko Hyun Joo who let us stay at her beautiful (and wonderfully calm) place during that snowy winter!

— 7 Oct. 2019 (月)

Posted in Academia, Bibliographics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Conference Notes from Shanghai part5 (conclusion) #IFTR2019

This is the concluding (fifth) post about my time in Shanghai, covering the remaining days after the IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) conference 2019, held this summer (July 8–12, 2019) at Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA, 上海戏剧学院), had ended.

See part1, part2, part3, and part4 about the conference


With the conference behind me, I used the last days to explore Shanghai a little bit. I had made brief visits to the City God Temple (上海城隍庙) and “The Bund” (or Waitan 外滩, the “outer bank” of the river), already with some colleagues during the week. Now, on the rainy Saturday, we strolled around the People’s Square, passed by the infamous wedding market where parents (?) look for matching partners for their child, whose specs (as it would be called in Korea) are advertised on cardboards, thought about visiting an exhibition on city development, and saw a Korean restaurant, too. 

Wedding market on People’s Square

Wedding market on People’s Square

We finally decided to visit the Shanghai History Museum (上海市历史博物馆). Among the many objects, the section on early 20th century theatre and cinema in Shanghai was particularly interesting – see some images below:

Jin Yan’s ash tray

Jin Yan’s ash tray

A small highlight was the ash tray of movie star Jin Yan (金焰, 1910–83). He was born Kim Deok-rin (김덕린; 金德麟) in Hanseong (漢城, today Seoul) in 1910, then followed his father, an independence fighter, to Manchuria. After his father’s death Jin Yang came to Shanghai and later became naturalized as a Chinese citizen. There’s a book on him by Richard J. Meyer, Jin Yan: The Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai (Hong Kong UP, 2009, some samples at Google Books, full book apparently available to those with matching access on JSTOR).

There is also a diorama on the Jewish refugees who found shelter in the “open city” Shanghai during World War 2. The dedicated Jewish Refugee Museum we wanted to visit next was closing as we arrived, unfortunately, so instead we walked a bit around the neighbourhood.

Next to the museum is “Zum weisen Rössl” (White Horse Inn 白马咖啡馆), a former neighbourhood café and meeting place for the diaspora, that had been torn down some ten years ago, only to be rebuilt and reopened recently. (See the story of this place in multiple languages via Shanghai International Studies University.)

“Zum weisen Rössl” (White Horse Inn 白马咖啡馆)

White Horse Inn

After dinner on Saturday night, the others took off to the airport. Everyone I knew had left now and all of a sudden I got the irresistible urge to go to the theatre. What would a visit to China be without seeing some show? So I browsed around the internet and found several options for Sunday. The usual time for weekend matinés seems to be 2pm, so I had to make a choice. I finally decided on Letter from an Unknown Woman (一个陌生女人的来信), directed by Meng Jing-Hui (孟京辉), which was on at the Shanghai Grand Theatre (上海大剧院). (Here is information in Chinese) Thanks to some copy-and-paste action, I figured out that the production was based on a German novella, namely “Brief einer Unbekannten” (1922) by Stefan Zweig. (Here is some English information, including the interesting fact that the novella has been adapted as a movie, by Xu Jinglei in 2004.) Given that I don’t know any Chinese, I decided to read the original text (via Projekt Gutenberg) first, but only after securing a ticket. 

I had seen that there was a place selling tickets just around my corner, so I went out for a quick walk and checked it out. The door in the wall was closed, though, which wasn’t very surprising around midnight. But when I returned in the morning it was clear that it wouldn’t open anytime soon.

Majestic Theatre at night…

Majestic Theatre at night…

The wall with the closed door was part of a beautiful theatre, the (former) Majestic Theatre (美琪大戏院), originally built as a movie theatre in 1941, as I learned from a plaque across the street. Now the theatre is designated a “Monument under the Protection of Shanghai Municipality” (上海市文物保护单位), but still operating (see some images and interesting comments at Shanghai Street Stories). There were some musicals on the bill, but I was set on Meng/Zweig and didn’t have enough money, anyways…

…and day

…and day

So the next morning I went again to the People’s Square, where I had seen the gigantic Grand Theatre already from afar on Saturday.

Now the building was deserted, but the ticket booth was open. Unfortunately, the show was already sold out…

I decided not to abandon any hope and found a place for lunch, after reading Zweig’s novella in the park. It was a warm day and the wedding market was booming, there was even a foreign section. Besides some impressive social-realism art, I also saw another Grand Theatre across the street. (The English name is the same, but the Chinese name [大光明电影院] clearly indicates that this is a movie theatre.)



Anyway, I returned to the ticket booth around half past twelve. Of course, there were no tickets. All the same. But I decided to stick around. People came and went, getting tickets at the counter or from the vending machines.

While more and more people were entering, some guys, who I had seen hanging out in front of the theatre before, began to sell tickets. Those I asked didn’t want to sell me one, though. I assumed they were handing out tickets prepaid online, but wasn’t quite sure. Finally, after asking around, one told me to rest calm and wait for him. I waited, walked around, waited and waited. 

It was now five minutes before two o’clock and I had come towards the side entrance leading to the “Buick Theatre”, where the show was supposed to be. People were streaming in, footsteps increasing in pace. Some were still standing around, others started running. My man was somewhere across the court. It was three to two now. I glanced towards him, put a question mark on my face. All of a sudden he waved to me while talking to a guy who apparently had one leftover ticket. I was approaching and saw money changing hands. Suddenly I realized that I had about one hundred Yuan left. Would that be enough? The money the man had paid for the leftover ticket had looked like a 100-Yuan bill…

It was now one minute before two and the man handed me a last-minute ticket. Two hundred and fifty Yuan! Probably a great seat, but above my capacities. I opened my purse and handed over my last 100-Yuan bill, sure he would insist on the full price. But suddenly I remembered that I also had some Euro left, so I gave him another 20-Euro bill. He checked with someone else how much that would be but seemed to agree with me that this amount more or less to the missing 150 Yuan (I checked later and it was about right, fortunately). So I got my ticket, ran towards the entrance, past the safety conveyor belt, stepped on someone’s toes and was sitting the moment the announcer knocked on the microphone to announce the play. Lights went off… 

And Huang Xiang-li (黄湘丽), the only actress (remember, it was a monodrama) entered the stage with a walkman, maybe listening to music, then started to speak – in German!? I couldn’t believe it but soon figured out that she probably was listening to a recording and repeating verbatim. A great way to start the performance with a bit of alienation, which worked differently, but nevertheless quite effectively, for me, too. 

The rest was Chinese. But even though I couldn’t understand a word, I could roughly follow along the visually, bodily impressive production – so much for now, more on the play at a later time!

Later, I walked the neighbourhood boulevards, looking at overpriced accessories.

Everyday use of technology in Shanghai is also quite impressive.

In the evening I saw two performances in Jingan Park, literally back to back: A karaoke station where everyone could sing his or her favorite song. And a rock band playing to a growing crowd.

The next day, I walked through Tianshan Park and bought some tea in an almost deserted arcade.

Then I took the plane back to Seoul.

— 13–15 July 2019 (土–月)

Posted in Abroad, Museum Trips, Spoken Drama, Theatre Buildings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Conference Notes from Shanghai part4 #IFTR2019

IFTR 2019 ShanghaiThese are some notes on the conference held by the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR, 世界戏剧研究联盟) this summer (July 8–12, 2019) at Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA, 上海戏剧学院). I haven’t been to such a large-scale academic event in a while and it was a bit overwhelming at times, but thanks to a dozen panels going on at the same time, there was always something interesting going on. And I was in China for the first time, too…

See part1, part2, and part3


Some highlights from the last two days of the IFTR conference (see below for a list of the talks I attended, times are of the respective panel):

On Thursday, in the “Translation, Adaptation and Dramaturgy” Working Group, Barbara Leonesi (University of Torino) discussed a radical re-interpretation of Teahouse (茶館), a classic modernist play by Lao She (老舍, 1899–1966) that was adapted by Meng Jinghui (孟京辉, *1964). The production premiered at Wuzhen Theatre Festival last year, causing stirs (see some press coverage), and is now to be shown at the Festival d’Avignon (July 9–20, 2019), with a translation provided by Claire Conceison (who later wrote a post on the production process and the reception in France for the MCLC Resource Center). The synopsis of Teahouse on the festival’s homepage is short: “The life of a teahouse challenging the wheel of time to reveal the mutations of Chinese society and a yearning for freedom”. Leonesi’s presentation revealed the various layers of the production, from the inclusion of different texts by Lao She but also by European authors like Brecht, Heiner Müller and others, that lead to new subtexts, to the idea of the circularity and “destructive power” of time that permeated the production, visualized by a giant movable stage-construction (the “wheel of time”). Much food for thought—and the hope that this production will come to Korea, too!

Barbara Leonesi on Meng Jinghui

Barbara Leonesi on Meng Jinghui’s Teahouse

The second presentation by Giselle Garcia (University of Exeter) deals with Makbet, a production by director Nonon Padilla (based on Rolando Tinio’s  Tagalog translation) of, you guessed it, the Scottish Play (see a review by Mina Deocareza). The highly re-contextualized production (“Shakespeare localized beyond metaphor”) featured English surtitles, interestingly not re-translated from the script but reverting to Shakespeare’s original, catering to code-switching upper-class audiences who might feel more familiar (and comfortable) with the classical text than with the Filippino translation/adaptation. (I remember a similar situation, original Shakespeare subtitles for a localized adaptation, when attending a changgeuk version of Romeo and Juliet at the National Theater of Korea; of course, the status of English and the implications for theatre audiences are very different here…) Garcia interpreted the production as a “comment on the audience demographics”  and the privilege it embodies, which becomes clear in the surtitling that catches the eye. The hierarchized bilingualism the production implies, thus my understanding, can arouse both the pride and the shame of the neo-colonial frame that Shakespeare evokes, contrasting it with the realities of the ruling regime of populist president Rodrigo Duterte that is referenced.

Giselle Garcia on Makbet

Giselle Garcia on Makbet

The following discussion suggested a clear difference (also depending on place, obviously) of global and local classics. In China, Barbara Leonesi noted, Shakespeare is nowadays basically “free-for-all material” that is used to speak to Chinese audiences, while Chinese classics (such as Lao She’s Teahouse) are treated differently, almost untouchable, “protected rather than deconstructed” – which seems to be one cause of the scandal over Meng’s adaptation.

In (South) Korea, where “canonical” productions of Shakespeare (especially of rarely played works) co-exist, , localized adaptations, cross-genre works, and other derivations nevertheless dominate are on the rise (see my post on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death). With regard to modern classics of Western origin, traditional productions seem to dominate. “Second” productions of Korean original works, on the other hand, are relatively rare, as smaller ensembles rather play new works than replay existing ones. An exception is an ongoing series dedicated to the “rediscovery of modern plays” (근현대 희곡의 재발견) by the National Theater Company of Korea (국립극단). (Just now, a restaging of the play Binghwa [빙화] from 1940, written by acknowledged pro-Japanese collaborator Im Seon-gyu [임선규], to be shown this September, has been cancelled amidst the Korean-Japanese trade war).

In any case, the discussion left a lot of intriguing open questions on the role of classics, translation and adaptation, horizons of expectation etc. in Asia and non-Western parts of the world in general.

On Thursday afternoon I took a bit time off to visit Shanghai with some colleagues.

Shanghai street

We went to the City God Temple:

Shanghai City God Temple

And a visit to Shanghai can’t be complete without this postcard image, taken at the Bund, or Waitan (外灘, lit. “outer beach”), as the riverfront is known in Chinese. “The Bund”, according to Wikipedia derived from Persian, means something similar to “embankment” or dam.

Shanghai – Bund (day)

Shanghai – Bund (night)

A curated panel by the “Historiography” Working Group early on Friday was just a wonderful start of the last conference day: three rich (his)stories about different times, places, institutions – a 19th century amateur theatre club in Berlin, an early 20th century touring theatre-turned national theatre in Australia, and a public theatre in the UK throughout the last sixty years.

Meike Wagner (Stockholm University) discussed how in the Berlin theatre club “Urania”, a “safe space” with its own democratic constitution that allowed for free speech, a “common language of citizens” developed. At the same time, this playground for civic society was characterized by the exclusion, at least in the early years, of workers, jews, and women, and the “educated performer” celebrated by members and their friends (a recommendation system allowed for associated to attend performances) stood in stark contrast to travelling performers of earlier times who operated on the brink of society.

Meike Wagner on Berlin theater club Urania

Meike Wagner on Berlin theater club Urania

Laura Ginters (University of Sydney) traced the fascinating career of travelling theatre pioneer Kate Howarde (1968–1939). While maybe best-remembered for Possum Paddock, her 1919 play (later also a movie) that was set in the bush and became an iconic work of “Australian-ness”, her decades of theatrical activities shook up the imaginary binary of city and bush. When Howarde temporarily settled down, she opened up the “suburb” for art, turning the formerly female-connotated space, situated somewhere between civilized city and primordial bush, into a “third space” for theatre. 

Laura Ginters on theatre in the suburbs

Laura Ginters on theatre in the (Australian) suburbs

Claire Cochrane (University of Worcester) concluded the panel with a critical discussion of the development of “The Rep” (Birmingham Repertory Theatre) throughout the last decades, from a small, modernist theatre of 500 seats that moved to a redeveloped area, the Centenary Square, and was subsequently integrated into a larger complex with the municipal library. An interesting talk of applied historiography, considered a “re-arrangement of the historical record”.

Claire Cochrane on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Claire Cochrane on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Together, these three talks were a perfect reminder of how fascinating historiography can be. I used to eschew bygone productions in favor of live performances I could attend in person, but the more I learn from research like this, the more I dig into documents myself, the more I appreciate the past in all its diversity and ambivalence.

In the next panel I attended, a talk on the use of chinoiserie in early (18th century) US-American theatre by Esther Kim Lee (Duke University) stood out. First, she showed how chinoiserie was common practice in interior design and persisted while pre-revolutionary (exterior) architecture, often modeled on European neo-classicism, transformed to post-revolutionary federal-style. In a similar vein, on-stage chinoiserie featured in costumes, stage and prop design, as well as make-up, confining the imaginary “China” to a realm of the “decorative, ornamental, theatrical”. While Chinese imagery remained firmly in this “heterotopia”, real Chinese migrants were excluded from society. A great presentation that sparked discussions on various concurrent issues, including yellow-face and colorblind casting.

Esther Kim Lee on Chinese imagery in early American theatre

Esther Kim Lee on Chinese imagery in early American theatre

During lunch break, the “Asian Theatre” working group had a book launch: An edited volume titled Modernization of Asian Theatres: Process and Tradition (edited by Yasushi Nagata and Ravi Chaturvedi, Singapore: Springer, 2019, DOI: 10.1007/978-981-13-6046-6). The book is available online for those with an institutional subscription. In the South-Asian market, the exact same book (with color plates instead of black-and-white, I believe) is available from Rawat Publications, Jaipur/India.

Book launch at the “Asian Theatre” Working Group

Book launch at the “Asian Theatre” Working Group

According to the blurb,

Modernization of Asian Theatres: Process and Tradition edited by Yasushi Nagata, Ravi ChaturvediThe volume discusses the conflict between tradition and modernity in theatre, suggesting that the problems of modernity are closely related to the idea of tradition. Although Asian countries preserved the traditional form and values of their respective theatres, they had to also confront the newly introduced values or mechanisms of European modernity. Several papers in this volume therefore provide critical surveys of the history of theatre modernization in Asian countries or regions—Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India Malaysia, Singapore, and Uyghur. Other papers focus on specific case studies of the history of modernization, discussing contemporary Taiwanese performances, translations of modern French comedy into Chinese, the modernization of Chinese Xiqu, modern Okinawan plays, Malaysian traditional performances, Korean national theatre, and Japanese plays during World War II.

Jean Graham-Jones, parting IFTR President with conference volunteers

Jean Graham-Jones, parting IFTR President, with conference volunteers

The end of the conference came a bit abruptly—like the rain that reached a peak when everyone gathered in front of the Experimental Theatre for a group photo (see the Shanghai Theatre Academy’s concluding report).

final group photo in the rain

A bit surprised by the video that students had shot throughout the week and apparently cut the night before, thankful to the dozens of volunteers (one Mr Wang in particular), tired and at the same time eager to see more of this city, and wondering whether I’d be able to make it to Galway, Ireland next year, the conference concluded. I had still a few more days in Shanghai, though, on which I’ll write in the final part of this series, soon to come –

— 11–12 July 2019 (木–金)

  • Barbara Leonesi, “Interpretation, Adaptation or Appropriation: Meng Jinghui’s Production of Teahouse”, July 11, 2019, 11am.
  • Giselle Garcia, “Dislocated and Dangerous: Barriers in Makbet”, July 11, 2019, 11am.
  • Meike Wagner, “Amateur Theatre, ‘Geselligkeit’, and Urban Culture in Berlin around 1800”, July 12, 2019, 9am.
  • Laura Ginters, “Neither Rural, nor City: Making Theatre in the Suburbs: Kate Howarde and the National Theatre, Balmain”, July 12, 2019, 9am.
  • Claire Elizabeth Cochrane, “The City’s Theatre: Arranging the Record of Change”, July 12, 2019, 9am.
  • Esther Kim Lee, “Chinese Palaces in Early American Cities: The Circulation and Reception of Theatricalized Chinese Images in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York City in the Eighteenth Century”, July 12, 2019, 11am.
  • Wei Zhang, “Sichuan and Classical Flavor in Theatrical Innovation: Hu Chengde’s Chuanju Adaptation of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, July 12, 2019, 11am.
  • David Wiles, “Democracy and Theatre”, July 12, 2019, 2pm.
  • Magnus Thor Thorbergsson, “The Viking, the Mormon and the Mountain Lady: Staging Hybrid Identities Among Icelandic-American Mormons”, July 12, 2019, 2pm.
Posted in Abroad, Academia, Shakespeare, Spoken Drama | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Conference Notes from Shanghai part3 #IFTR2019

These are some notes on the conference held by the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR, 世界戏剧研究联盟) this summer (July 8–12, 2019) at Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA, 上海戏剧学院). I haven’t been to such a large-scale academic event in a while and it was a bit overwhelming at times, but thanks to a dozen panels going on at the same time, there was always something interesting going on. And I was in China for the first time, too…

See part1 and part2


Wednesday, back again at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, was a day full of interesting stuff. With our panel done, the more relaxed part of the conference had begun. 

I visited the “Asian Theatre” Working Group in the morning, who held a panel on “Intercultural Thinking”. Unfortunately, two of the three announced speakers were not there, but thanks to the paper by Tsu-Chung Su (National Taiwan Normal University) on an intercultural (or rather psychophysical “Asian cocktail”) staging of Beckett’s *Not I* by Phillip Zarrilli, a piece for an illuminated “Mouth” and an “Auditor” on the side. Different from earlier productions, Zarrilli took special care that the lead (in the role of “Mouth”) would be comfortable during the 15-minute-monologue, unlike, for instance, Billie Whitelaw who suffered back injuries in her 1973 performance (see a video on Youtube).

Tsu-Chung Su talking about Zarrilli’s production of Beckett’s “Not Me”

The next panel was on “Reinvigorating Communities: Performance, Resistance and the Neo-Liberal Present” and featured talks on two productions that, in a way, offered (as Susan Bennett, discussant of the panel, suggested, if I remember correctly) “curated listening as a counter-measure to visual overflow”. First, Helena Grehan (Murdoch University) discussed a scene of questioning one’s own intellectual disabilities from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, a production by Australian ensemble Back to Back, and Shilpa Gupta’s For in Your Tongue I Cannot Fit, an (sound-)installation that gives voice to imprisoned poets. Then Peter Eckersall (Graduate Center, CUNY) talked about the collaborative performance work Complexity of Belonging by Anouk van Dijk and Falk Richter, which, with its “fluid dramaturgy” that includes video, lighting, and soundscapes, questions the limits of our social relations. The interesting discussion that followed also touched issues of real audience compositions – who is the “we” that those works assume? – and differences of hearing/listening and attending/attuning to performances.

Helena Grehan talking about “The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes” and “For in Your Tongue I Cannot Fit”

Peter Eckersall talking about “Complexity of Belonging”

The next keynote by scholar-activist Janet Pillai (University Sains Malaysia) dealt with “socially-engaged arts”, broadly speaking, with examples from Japan and Malaysia, which reminded me of some of the activities we did at Pink Factory in Hongcheon, Korea. The question of “how to keep cultural energy alive” – methods of engaging artistically with given situations (in Hongcheon in a rural setting) beyond one-time projects – is one that we constantly ask ourselves. Even though not related to theatre in a narrow sense, this was a very thought-provoking lecture on local art activities in general.

Janet Pillai discussing socially-engaged arts

Next, I attended a session of the “Feminist Research” Working Group, which (like many other groups), circulates papers beforehand among members to focus on discussing them. Even though I hadn’t read the papers, the following discussions were very interesting and insightful for me.

Shim Jung Soon (Soongsil University) presented an intercultural approach to early feminism in Korea of the 1920s and 30s, with the particular aim of shedding new light on – and thus reappraise – the activities of pioneering woman artists such as Na Hye-Suk (나혜석, 1896–1948), Kim Won-Ju (김원주, 1896–1971), or Kim Myung-Soon (김명순, 1896–1951), who challenged traditional gender roles and the male gaze. The lively discussion of Shim’s paper (which I still have to read…) showed that the early history of feminist activism is of eminent interest for current scholarship as well as for the ongoing struggle for equal rights, in Korea and beyond.

Then Karen Quigley (University of York) discussed the effect of female “impersonators” who mimic the the “sound-bitey voices” of British politicians in Cock and Bull by Nic Green (originally 2015), turning theatre into “a place of suspicious rhetoric” (see Lyn Gardner’s Guardian review of a London revival in 2017). The repeated verbal mimicry, in what might also be considered a bodily strenuous durational piece, often performed close to the audience when touring the country, must be an extraordinarily exciting play!

Finally a highly insightful and moving talk on solo performances on/by Korean transnational adoptees, which are, as Jieun Lee (Wake Forest University) argues, “an act of resistance against Korean society’s expectation of an unproblematic adoptee assimilation based on blood-oriented familism and an American multicultural fantasy that hides racial discrimination perpetuating the idea of Asians as non-citizen others”. This is tough stuff and very interesting. The only performance of this kind I have seen was Black Tie by Rimini Protokoll (Berlin 2008, see my review at OhmyNews), in which adoptee Miriam Yung Min Stein uses a gene test to find out more about her untraceable ancestors in Korea. Jieun Lee has also published on the topic, see her article “Performing Transnational Adoption: Korean American Women Adoptees’ Autobiographical Solo Performances” (Theatre Annual: A Journal of Theatre and Performance of the Americas 70: 60–80).

After a dinner with colleagues from Germany I walked home past the golden Ying’an Temple. Besides bling and glitter, body images also seem to be a thing in this upscale neighborhood…

— 10 July 2019 (水)

  • Tsu-Chung Su, “A Critical Assessment of Phillip Zarrilli’s Intercultural Approach in Re-Directing Not I in The Beckett Project”, July 10, 2019, 9am.
  • Helena Grehan, “Attending and Listening: The Politics and Ethics of Attunement in Contemporary Performance”, July 10, 2019, 11am.
  • Peter Alexander Eckersall, “The Complexity of Belonging”, July 10, 2019, 11am.
  • Janet Pillai, “Participation and Performativity as an Enabler of Urban Cultural Sustainability” (Keynote #3), July 10, 2019, 2pm.
  • Shim Jung Soon, “Korean New Women and the Play A Doll’s House in the 1920’s-1930’s: An Intercultural Approach”, July 10, 2019, 4pm.
  • Karen Quigley, “‘It’s Always Been ‘ard’: The Gendered Voice as Strategy of Resistance in Nic Green’s Cock and Bull”, July 10, 2019, 4pm.
  • Jieun Lee, “Transnational Entanglements: Korean Overseas Adoption in Contemporary Theater”, July 10, 2019, 4pm.
Posted in Abroad, Academia, Spoken Drama | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Conference Notes from Shanghai part2 #IFTR2019

These are some notes on the conference held by the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR, 世界戏剧研究联盟) this summer (July 8–12, 2019) at Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA, 上海戏剧学院). I haven’t been to such a large-scale academic event in a while and it was a bit overwhelming at times, but thanks to a dozen panels going on at the same time, there was always something interesting going on. And I was in China for the first time, too…

See part1


Today was our (Nic Leonhardt, Christopher Balme & me) panel on “Planning Theatres for New Nations”.

But first the second keynote, by Susan Bennett (U of Calgary), which turned out to be kind of the antidote to yesterday’s marketing speech on “Shanghai as a Theatre Capital”. Bennett, in turn, focusing on New York City, from the sterilization of Times Square in the 90s (following Disney’s large-scale investment for the Lion King-musical) to the themed hotel with Punchdrunk’s immersive play Sleep No More at a hotel (soon in Shanghai, too) and the recently opened Hudson Yards with its central “participative sculpture” Vessel, she threw some critical spotlights on the role of performing arts in the gentrification process. When I studied in Berlin, a kind of similar process reached its peak at Potsdamer Platz, with implanted acts like The Blue Man Group or a large-scale musical theatre complementing the existing cinemas, the Philharmonics, and the museums. the difference, of course, that this was basically a no-man’s land until 1989…

Keynote by Susan Bennett
Keynote by Susan Bennett

Then some coffee and ready to go! Building on last year’s philanthropy conference in Munich, we now put the focus on the architectural aspects – in line with the conference’s theme of “Theatre, Performance and Urbanism” – in three examples from Korea, the Philippines, and various countries in Africa. Musical specialist Laura MacDonald tweeted live from our panel – no idea how she did that, but thanks a lot!

I began with a talk titled “Restoring South Korea’s Theatre Landscape in the Cold War”. Last year in Munich, I had focused on the interactions between South Korean theatre maker Yu Chi-jin (유치진) and the Rockefeller Foundation (represented by Charles B. Fahs, who’d also feature in Nic’s paper), I now considered the impact that the Drama Center (드라마 센터), a project of Yu with Rockefeller-support, had on Seoul’s theatre landscape. Yu modelled the Drama Center on Margo Jones’ “theatre-in-the-round”, a concept that the U.S. theatre maker and manager explained in a likewise Rockefeller-sponsored book and realized in Dallas, Texas. But Yu expanded on the humble community theatre Jones suggests: A change in plans – the prospects of more building ground allowed for a larger theatre – lead to a new location. Although not too far away from the original site, a small plot of land near “Jongno Bell Tower” in central Seoul, the Drama Center now was in the theatrical periphery. Small, private theatres opened in nearby Myeongdong (명동) in the 1960s, then moved to Sinchon (신촌) in the 70s, and later, in the 80s, to Hyehwa-dong (혜화동), an area now known as Daehangno (대학로), a name that is, as far as I know, the result of government branding in the 90s. The Drama Center remained on the slope of Mount Namsan and first suffered audience losses, bloomed again in the 70s with a new generation of experimental directors, then was effectively privatized and remained asleep, a theatre for rent and student productions, throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Since 2009 run by the Municipal Government of Seoul under the name Namsan Arts Center (남산예술센터), as a production-centered theatre with new Korean plays, the tenant (Seoul University of Arts, largely run by Yu’s family) has threatened to end the contract in 2018. Since then, theatre makers, critics, and scholars are protesting, advocating a “normalization” of the Drama Center as a public theatre, and some new research on the early history of the Drama Center has been presented and published recently (see a Korean book on Yu Chi-jin, fresh from the press). My paper is thus part of an ongoing struggle, a review of the history and meaning of the Drama Center, to be continued…

While the Rockefeller Foundation’s philanthropic intervention in the Korean world of theatre proved highly problematic, things in the Philippines turned out quite differently, more of a success story on a larger scale and with a wider scope, as Nic Leonhardt showed in her talk on “Severino Montano’s ‘Arena’ and the ‘National Theatre’ in Manila in the 1950s and 1960s”. After introducing the Rockefeller Foundation, which considered its domestic support for theatre (since the 30s) as a “basis for effective assistance abroad”, she zoomed in on Severino Montano’s efforts to establish and build a national theatre in the Philippines, based on models he explored during a trip through Europe (Yu Chi-jin likewise was impressed by the sustainability of the European national theatres he visited in 1957). Different from Yu, who ultimately founded a centralized modern theatre in Seoul, Montano aimed for a grass-roots approach, with an ‘Arena-style’ theatre – a form he considered congruent with traditional Philippine drama – that would reach out and spawn similar regional theatres. Although there is no apparent connection to Margo Jones’ ‘theatre-in-the-round’, the conceptual and architectonic features are surprisingly similar and suggest that Montano was aware of her work. While Rockefeller had sponsored Montano’s studies and research trips, for his national theatre he had to use his own money. But different from Yu Chi-jin, whose legacy troubles the Korean theatre scene until today, Montano’s ‘Arena’ proved more sustainable, successcfully “bringing theatre to the masses”, even though the first plays shown were mostly his own.

Nic Leonhardt presenting on Severino Montano
Nic Leonhardt presenting on Severino Montano

Now we switched to a different part of the world, with Christopher Balme’s talk on “National Theatres in Africa”. The examples taken from various new African nations after World War II show different points on a spectrum between relatively similar buildings (adhering to a “modular modernity”, with influences of “tropical” architecture) with national characteristics, which reminds me of Jonathon Bollen’s discussion of national theatres in the Asia-Pacific region (see my earlier post on IFTR 2019), which also featured different combinations of “international modernism with national distinctions”.

Christopher Balme presenting on “National Theatres in Africa, between Modular Modernity and Cultural Heritage”
Christopher Balme presenting on National Theatres in Africa

A lively discussion followed, with one particularly interesting question/comment by Laura about the stories of these developmental theatres as fragmented histories of failure. This is indeed something that artists in Korea, based on recent research, began to reflect on in their works. Creative VaQi’s Namsan Documenta from 2014 (크리에이티브 바키, 남산 도큐멘타: 연극의 연습 – 극장 편), a piece that began with a walk around the Drama Center and culminated in a performance that restaged both discussions about Yu’s problematic land acquisition and the opening performance of Hamlet. (See a full video, in Korean, on Youtube.) The new play The Arrogant Descendants (오만한 후손들) by Yi Yang-gu (이양구), an author known for his political pieces (such as Yellow Letter [노란 봉투], which was read last year in Heidelberg), will premiere this fall at Namsan Arts Center, the theatre formerly known as the Drama Center (Sept. 18–29, 2019). The English announcement sounds promising:

Based on the research of historical archives of the center, the play will address the attempt made to privatize the center when it was founded, and with added imagination, the play aims to set the past straight and asks the audience to ponder on the significance of public theater now.

If you’re interested in the effects of Western cold war philanthropy in Asia, there will be a special issue of the (open-source) Journal of Global Theatre History coming out this fall with related papers by us three!

After some post-panel talk, it was time for theatre. Not for me, but the on-campus Experimental Theatre had a show tonight (I am an Actor). As I passed by the last attendants were rushing in, some getting last-minute tickets from sellers who were hanging out in front. The campus cat didn’t bother…

— 9 July 2019 (火)

  • Susan Bennett, “Theatrical Cities: Gentrification and the Place of Performance” (Keynote #2), July 9, 2019, 2pm.

  • Jan Creutzenberg,”Restoring South Korea’s Theatre Landscape in the Cold War: Yu Chi-jin, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Seoul Drama Center”, July 9, 2019, 4pm.

  • Nic Leonhardt, “Far-Flung | Centre-Staged: Severino Montano’s ‘Arena’ and the ‘National Theatre’ in Manila in the 1950s and 1960s”, July 9, 2019, 4pm.

  • Christopher Balme, “National Theatres in Africa, between Modular Modernity and Cultural Heritage”, July 9, 2019, 4pm.

Posted in Abroad, Academia, Spoken Drama, Theatre and Globalisation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Conference Notes from Shanghai #IFTR2019

No Twitter, no Facebook — time for a short blogpost with some notes from Shanghai, where the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR, 世界戏剧研究联盟) holds its annual mega-conference this year. I haven’t been to such a large-scale academic event in a while and it’s a bit overwhelming to find one’s way around, even though the beautiful campus of Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA, 上海戏剧学院), which hosts the conference, is not that big. As there are a dozen panels at the same time, there’s always something interesting going on. And it’s the first time in China for me, which is also quite spectacular, to say the least.

Jing-an Temple
Jing-an Temple

So these are a few impressions from the first day of conference and beyond:

(EDIT: This is the first part of a series of notes, see also part2, part3, part4, and, post-conference, part5)

After arriving on Sunday, I heard some talks early on Monday, first at the Working Group on “Popular Entertainments” – not after running into this familiar face in a corner of the campus.

Shanghai Theatre Academy Campus
Shanghai Theatre Academy Campus

Jonathon Bollen (U of New South Wales) began with a fascinating trip from Australia to Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, comparing the architectural (and other) features of National Theatres on the one hand, nightclubs with stage programs (and evocative names such as New Latin Quarter, Silver Spade Room, or Tropicana) on the other. For travelling performers, both kinds of venues can offer opportunities for gigs, but the framing and the audiences are quite different. Although Korea wasn’t mentioned (the Walker Hill Hotel might be a similar venue for shows, I believe that Roald Maliangkay is about to publish on that and looking forward to learn more), the time frame coincided with the Cold War era that our panel tomorrow focuses on. The combination of “international modernism with national distinction” he found in both kinds of venue is quite striking and I now wonder how the National Theater of Korea, built in the seventies (the institution existed in various venues since 1950), draws on earlier models in the region.

Then Susan Kattwinkel (College of Charleston) on tourist shows, a likewise fascinating talk about a theme that interests me in particular because pansori also features prominently in many potpourri shows of Korean traditional performing arts aimed at tourists in a wider sense (which includes regular Korean audiences not particularly invested in tradition). Focusing mainly on China, Kattwinkel distinguishes three categories – folkloric, heritage, and spectacle performance –, which differ in style, target audience, degree of representativeness, and also in their appeal to scholars (there is indeed not much research I know of that deals in particular with Korean “folkloric performances” in this sense).

Some more details about Kattwinkel’s categorization: First, folkloric performances tend to show a “caleidoscope of culture”, packaged for easy digestion, catering to those who expect an authentic experience instead of, necessarily, art. This is what I refer to in my categorization of pansori performances as “touristic potpourris”, often quite unrelated genres juxtaposed in fragmented form to represent Korean tradition as an imaginary, anthological unity. (Andrew Killick (2010) uses similar terminology for changgeuk, which adds a story to the package to present even more subtle ideologies.) Second, heritage performances are “full” events, those that tend to attract the attention of scholars. In the case of pansori, this would be the wanchang (“full-length”) format, performances of complete stories that last several hours. I call wanchang performances “orthodox” pansori, as the format is actually a relatively recent invention (spoiler: September of 1968, see an upcoming book chapter for details) but widely recognized as a standard of skillfullness. Finally, spectacle performances often involve modern technology to evoke awe, while ostentatively sacrificing “authenticity” (a theme Kattwinkel didn’t get into for understandable reasons) for, well, visual spectacle. What I call “experimental” pansori kind of fits in this category, as traditional stories are abandoned for more contemporary ones, but actually changgeuk (the staged “operatic” pansori-style music theatre mentioned above) is what you’d see when looking for spectacle in traditional Korean music. A general trend in pansori-related new works is, in any case, the tendency to theatralize the minimalist solo genre, whether with an on-stage band, more actors, or technical means.

Another presentation I heard that morning, by Hanna Voss (Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz), was interesting because it dealt with the creative ways a mid-size city in Germany (Worms) re-stages (or re-invents?) a traditional tale – the Medieval Song of the Nibelungs (Nibelungenlied), the manuscript being registered heritage of UNESCO – in the form of a popular festival that features, again, spectacular theatre. With groups of students, Hanna has been interviewing audience members, mainly regional tourists or local citizens, for several years. This will turn into a valuable database of responses to this endeavour to map the city of Worms according to the heroic legend and putting the city literally “on the map” of heritage tourism.

Hanna Voss on the Nibelungen Festival in Worms, Germany
Hanna Voss on the Nibelungen Festival in Worms, Germany

I skipped lunch and missed the official opening ceremony in the afternoon because I had to change accomodation. I then returned slightly late for the first keynote speech, which was outsourced to the Shanghai Exhibition Center (上海展览中心), a pompous culture palace with a star on top.

Shanghai Exhibition Centre
Shanghai Exhibition Centre

The stage design was likewise tangibly spectacular: A large 3D version of the conference logo, evoking the cityscape of Shanghai in the form of the letters IFTR. Next to the color-changing sculpture, Huang Changyong (黄昌勇), president of STA, was talking about “Shanghai: Building Itself into the Capital of Performing Arts in the Process of Modernization” (上海:演艺之都的现代之路). As the title indicates, the keynote turned out more like a promotional speech on the glorious future of Shanghai, but had some interesting information on plans for several dedicated cultural districts, a phenomenon that also exists in Seoul. (For instance, Daehangno, the “Mekka of theatre”, was designated a cultural area in, I believe, the 90s, after theatre artists had opened numerous small theatres there since the 80s.)

Keynote 1
Keynote 1: Huang Changyong on Shanghai, “Capital of Performing Arts”

The following performance by students and graduates of the Shanghai Theatre Academy was a living example of the “folkloric” touristic shows Susan Kattwinkel had talked about earlier. A national caleidoscope – from the fan dance, representative of Han Chinese tradition, as the moderator announced, to jingju (京剧, “Peking Opera”) scenes and puppetry, instrumental music, as well as other ensembles dances – with a few unexpected “distinctions”, such as the “Mongolian Dance” Nar Chong (舞蹈 《那仁朝克》, choreographed by STA graduate Wang Fan [王帆]), a poetry recital that was pure music to my non-sinophonic ears, and the kind of modern dance piece In It. There’s an English report on the whole opening event on STA’s homepage.

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After the tea-break, we had another beer near Jing-an Temple and on the way home I noticed another peculiarity of Shanghai night life: construction work takes place strictly after sunset, even in pouring rain, making for some spooky scenery, somewhere between world war trench and coal mine.

— 8 July 2019 (月)

  • Jonathon Bollen, “Containing Diversity: Nightclubs and Theatres in the Asia-Pacific Region, 1957– 1973”, July 8, 2019, 9am.
  • Susan Kattwinkel, “The transitory and intangible nature of tourist shows and the problems they present to scholars”, July 8, 2019, 9.30am.
  • Hanna Voss, “Urban Transformation? The Nibelung Festival Worms and the Construction of a Cultural Heritage”, July 8, 2019, 11.30am.
  • Huang Changyong, “Shanghai: Building Itself into the Capital of Performing Arts in the Process of Modernization” (Keynote #1), July 8, 2019, 3.30pm.
Posted in Abroad, Academia, Performance Report, Shakespeare | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Pansori and Passion

I like to compare apples with pears and, once again, Christian events seem to offer a perfect foil for productively looking at parallels with traditional Korean arts such as pansori.

Even though I was born into what is called the Jewish-Christian tradition of Europe, I’ve never been member of any church. True, I accompanied my grandma to mass occasionally and like to boast with having played the role of Joseph in a Christmas play back in the 20th century. And I enjoyed a passion play on the campus of Sogang University when I studied there. But I rarely set a step in a church for at least a decade (for instance, I went to Myeongdong Cathedral on Christmas 2011), other than for museal or sentimental reasons. Stripped from their spiritual meaning, most of the crypto-Christian rituals like baking cookies or coloring eggs have not much more (also: not less) than nostalgic value to me. At the same time, I’ve grown familiar to the rituals surrounding traditional performing arts while doing research on pansori.

One important question that comes up is how “regular” Korean audience members, those without any particular investment in the performer or the art (“occasional” audience members in the terms of sociologist Howard Becker), perceive and understand traditional pansori. Just before Easter, I experienced (so to speak) one possible answer to this question.

We went to the Kyungdong Presbyterian Church (경동교회) to hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion, 바흐 마태 수난곡). This is an oratorio, a genre I didn’t know much about until now, and was (probably) composed by Bach, who was cantor (musical director) of St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in Leipzig, for the Good Friday mass on April 11, 1727 (read more on the work at Wikipedia and hear a performance with English subtitles on Youtube).

The oratorio is much more dramatic than I expected and resembles in its bricolage structure a transmitted piece of pansori at least in some respects. An obvious point of comparison, with regard to the oratorio, are the switches between recitative (narration by a dedicated singer in the oratorio), dialogue (aria-style by the solo singers), and collective chorus scenes (by the two choirs). In pansori, everything is sung by one solo performer, but there is the distinction between aniri (spoken parts, often narration) and chang (sung parts, often individual expression).

In contrast to the pansori pieces performed today, which developed over time in the process of transmission, with no individual authorship, the musical parts of the St Matthew Passion can be clearly attributed to Bach (the libretto is by Christian Friedrich Henrici aka “Picander”). Yet rather than an autonomous work of art, this is rather a “work for hire” with a specific aesthetic, theological, as well as social purpose: unifying the congregation of Leipzig in devotion to the greater glory of god. In a similar vein, pre-modern pansori performances were rarely public events (in the sense that everyone can buy a ticket to attend) but likewise catered to a specific community that paid the singer for a particular job: providing entertainment for a village or for party guests, for instance.

Bach conceived his work in a relatively short span of time, but in the case of pansori numerous singers contributed individually improvised parts as well as folk songs or other existing musical material to impress and appeal to different audiences. Consequently – and despite a process of canonization that set in during the mid- to late 19th century – many different versions of the classical pieces exist. This is also the case with the story of the passion of Christ, which was set to music many times. The text (or libretto) of Bach’s oratorio (by Christian Friedrich Henrici aka “Picander”) draws from various sources: Without big surprise most prominently the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapters 26 and 27 in Martin Luther’s German translation (via But the libretto also integrates some newly written texts by Picander and others, kind of resembling the constructed character of pansori pieces.

On stage, the oratorio is much more static than a pansori performance, though. The singers get up, step onto the stage, and face the audience when singing. Compared with the highly dynamic movements of the pansori singer, who also takes a seat on occasion (usually as much for physical as for dramatic reasons), there is not much going on in the church. Audience reactions – applause – was also explicitly discouraged – the pastor who introduced the performance suggested silent prayer instead.

While listening to the music from 1727, performed passionately by the Dudok Ensemble from the Netherlands (conductor: Johan Rooze), some thoughts came to my mind. Is this similar to how a Korean audience member today may experience a traditional pansori performance of, say, Chunhyang-ga (춘향가), the famous “Song of Chunhyang”? I could understand most of the narration, still familiar from teenage bible lectures, but much less the sung text. I wasn’t here for the familiar story, anyway, but rather for the music. Still I felt exilarated when I could understand some words. Furthermore, I didn’t listen to the story as something related to my faith – it seems quite plausible to me that the historical Jesus actually didn’t die on the cross but merely fainted, as a recent book by historian Johannes Fried suggests –, but it felt quite definitely like a thing from the past, from my own childhood and from the culture I was born into.

As noted, audience reactions were scarce during the performance. Still it wasn’t an anonymous crowd that had gathered here. At the reception that followed after the performance, pastor Mi-Hwa Kong of the Evangelical German Congregation in Seoul spoke some words, something along the line of (I paraphrase) that music is universal (“the language of the world”), thus does need translation, rather one soul speaking to another. And it’s true, we enjoyed the music very much.

But the communal feelings I experienced were complicated. A bit like those when, after attending a pansori performance, I mingle with the others – students of the singer, other pansori people, family. Even though in nice company, with others who share a common interest, often with drinks and good food, I still feel a bit like the proverbial “white monkey” at times, less so when I know the singers or other guests. At the Bach performance, besides the congregation and the musicians, some members of the German community were present and the German ambassador also gave a short speech. We had met some friends before the performance, too. But this was not our event, in some way. We had a sip of wine in the church’s lobby, (finally) applauded the musicians, and left.

Still, a wonderful evening at church!

The Dudok Ensemble (Netherlands) gave performances in Busan and Daegu, too, and a video of the Daegu which can be seen online (part 1, part 2, part 3). The ensemble is, as I found out later, closely connected to Korea. More information can be found on the homepage.

— 10 April 2019 (水)

Posted in Pansori, Performance Report, Sound of Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment