Campus Passions

Founded by Jesuit missionaries after the Korean War, Sogang University turned fifty this spring. Freshly immatriculated, my first casual visit to the campus took place the night of the major celebration, an open-air spectacle in the spirit of Medieval passion plays that covered biblic history from Noah’s Arc to Jesus’ revival.

Originally, I had planned to watch Everyman (에브리맨 aka 만인, the 15th-century morality play), another part of the celebratory program, with a new friend who I had met when studying in front of my favorite convenience store. Despite our free tickets we had to change plans when we noticed that the last show had been earlier this afternoon. We followed the laughter and the shouting without really knowing what was going on. That is how we came to get in the middle of Miracle (미라클).

A merry festive theatre, an experience of spiritual ecstasy. // The first attempt in Asia of a grand-scale open air fantasy. // A traditional European performance, brought back to life on the hill of Sogang. // An enjoyable street festival of biblical theatre: Miracle.

All over campus, people dressed as angels or bearded Jesus-lookalikes, stiltwalkers and marionette-like aliens with oversized heads were running around.

A brass band was playing jazz standards.

On a stage scaffold an elderly man was sitting in the setting sun, waiting for his cue to turn on the lighting.

From the top of a hill we could see pick-nicking families below us on a playground.

When a troupe of samulnori drummers marched up the hill, visitors would follow, forming a parade that lead towards the square in front of the University’s church.

The quite agile aliens crossed through the growing crowd, scaring little kids carried by their parents. Fire breath was in the air. The flashlights of cameras did not bother the impeding night.

People gathered to see what was about to begin.

On the wide stairs that lead up to the church a children’s choir formed up, shining bright in their white dresses. But they were not singing, as far as I could tell. What I heard was a woman’s voice, possibly a recording, a kind of hymn. Suddenly I spotted someone standing on the roof of an adjacent building, a man dressed in a suit.

To add to the aural confusion, now a taped voice joined in. While I tried to follow the familiar tale, a rather young Noah was thrusting himself through the crowd, ran up the stairs, and stopped in front of his Arc which, made of brown sheets, was trembling under the onslaught of projected waves. After a while the Great Flood was over. Someone carried a white dove mounted on a stick towards us, followed by students, children, other spectators waving glittering butterflies that made it seem like St. Martin’s Day.

A skyrocket showed us the way. The angels and stiltwalkers came out of nowhere. Confronted by the aliens, they engaged in an acrobatic dance. I started taking pictures which turned out to be quite difficult, as the man on the scaffold was moving the spotlight constantly from here to there. Some kind of cellestial battle seemed to rage.

My friend gave some explanations, but I mostly enjoyed the energy-ladden atmosphere that we had became part of.

I was back in the picture—and out of the loop—when Mother Mary came out on a balcony above us, carrying a little child.

Soon the procession moved on. Staying behind a bit, we watched the masses disperse on the pick-nick yard. Despite the bird’s eye view, however, I still could not really grasp the number of people. Donkeys crossed our path as we went down.

For the first time I could catch my breath. What would come next? There were four small stages featuring framed pictures as a backdrop on opposing ends of the field. We went to the place were most other people have gathered, some of them squatting on the floor. A voice came out of one of the numerous loudspeakers scattered all over the place. Who was speaking where?

Then I saw that one of the stages was illuminated—and there were performing people, too. Many others had the same idea and we became part of the masses again as we moved towards the scene of Christ’s life and suffering.

People were waving their butterfly-sticks, others had gotten palm leaves from somewhere. We just sat, watched, and moved to the next location as the passionate story unfolded.

Even without doing very much, we would not be left empy-handed. After the Feeding of the 5’ooo everybody received ricecakes, desperately needed after two hours of performance. Later, almost everybody played his part in securing the order of things when Pontius Pilate suggested to release Jesus as an act of good will: “Barrabas! Barrabas!”

Next: Thirteen men sitting around a pasting table, moving here and there until the da Vinci-code is cracked. Freezing for a moment, the audience marveled at the tableau vivant. Then the Romans crashed the Last Supper.

After dancing on the table for a while, they whipped Jesus across a catwalk that appeared out of nowhere, leading to his final destination.

People were booing, others crying, both on and off the stage. They nailed him to a cross, and then the whole thing took yet another turn.

Out of nowhere, so many hot-air balloons, energized only by a single candle, began to float all over the place, one by one. The wonderful world of physics meets missionary pop. My camera could not grasp the sheer awe-some-ness of this mass-evacuation of burnig souls.

As the singer took the stage, I could feel the chilly wind. We left soon after.

What had caught me in this ride of faith was not so much its spiritual impetus—I am no believer at best—, but the spontaneous yet strange sense of community that emerged during the hours we strolled around, never really knowing where to go and what to expect. That we shared with most of the other people present, I guess.

The show was positively multimedial, mixing voice and video, light and sound with all kinds of live-action from short biblical episodes to choreographed mass scenes. Like in Medieval Europe, when different guilds prepared their respective wagon to join the yearly cycle plays, many of Sogang’s various clubs seemed to have contributed something to this event, making it a collaborative enterprise. In a sense, the universitarian community celebrated itself, beyond flamboyant slogans like “Be as Proud of Sogang as Sogang is of You!” and the like.

Everything followed strictly the canonical order, still the chaos could not have been greater. And there was no way of distancing. Willingly or not, everybody became an extra in this play, from zealous followers of Christ to an angry mob in front of the Roman court and back. Everyone was dragged along, from one scene to the next.

As there was always something to wonder about, something to be overwhelmed by, something to applaud to, I rarely found the time to feel out of place. I was part of the masses, officially not the least, as a student of this university.

Two weeks ago, when I had first come to register, paying my debts, and finding out when school would start, I had felt slightly out of place. I had turned my back on campus and never returned until I incidentally wound up here again. Now everything was different.

The large crowd of people (whether mostly students or not I honestly cannot tell) made anonymous mingling easy, Christian mythology and other familiar imagery invited recognition. When there was still enough light to photograph, I was confortably tourist, as the night set in and the music rised in volume, all cats turned grey.

Miracle worked as a rite de passage that temporarily transformed the spectators—not into believers, but in co-stars of a modern play of passion. Dragged from here to there, following and followed at the same time, sitting down to let others see, stepping back to get some perspective only to get pushed back into the crowd, perplexed by light and sound, wondering who was behind those dark silhouettes standing next to me, I became part of the happening, if only for this night.

— 15 May 2010 (土)

  • Miracle, Sogang University, 2010-05-15 (Sat.), 19–22h.
  • 〈미라클〉, 서강대학교, 2010년 5월 15일 (토), 19시~22시까지.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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