Speaking in Tongues

Playing theatre is a great way to practice a foreign language. Of course, speaking in a language that is not one’s own (whatever that might mean) always involves making-believe to a certain degree. Everybody knows the strange feeling of being someone else when ordering a café au lait or a 카페레테, a feeling that turns into a silent triumph as the right drink is served.

However, staged performance stretches this irreducible gap even more. Despite fancy costumes and colorful decoration, it is the individual in his or her struggle between cultural determination and overcoming inter-cultural barriers that is put on display—and gets the applause.

Last week I had two occasions to experience the fascination of this linguistic masquerade. Tellingly, both events were  competitions: contests of being someone else. On the one hand foreigners performing in Korean (discussed here), on the other Korean performing in German (featured in a future post). The choice of plays as well as the style of staging them offers interesting insights in the cultural imagery surrounding the respective target language.

The 9th Korean Play Contest for Foreigners at Korea University (via KU)

Organised by the Korean Language and Culture Center (한국어문화교육센터) of Korea University (KU), the 9th Korean Play Contest for Foreigners was held at KU’s Inchon Memorial Hall.

Naturally, this was fore and foremost a communal event for the players, five groups of about a dozen students each from various language institutes associated with Korean universities. But it was also an opportunity for the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (문화체육관광부), co-sponsor of the contest, to promote and shape the image of a “sparkling”, modern yet rooted in tradition, potentially multicultural Korea. In the words of Minister YU In-chon (유인촌), the Ministry “spares no effort to make the eternal culture of Korean tradition widely known to the world.”

The line-up included The Story of Simcheong (심청전, see my post on the changgeuk-version), The Nymph and the Woodcutter (선녀와 나무꾼, a “swan maiden”-story, see a critical reading at dramabeans), and three versions of Kongji and Patji (콩쥐팥쥐), a fairytale often referred to as “The Korean Cinderella”. These are the stories that regularly come up in Korean language books. In fact, last year’s winner Abu Bonsrah Kwaku Dad from Ghana had played the mountain god (산신령) in the Tale of the Golden and the Silver Ax which we had learned just last semester (금도끼 은도끼, interestingly there is an Aesopean fable as well as a story of Cyprean origin featuring similar motives).

The Story of Simcheong (Korea University): Simcheong meets her blind father

My familiarity with the basic plotlines of the plays presented made it easier to follow, though the language barrier still posed some troubles. Whether it was the players’ pronounciation or my lacking listening skills that were responsible is hard to tell.

But even without grasping every word, watching the passionate players perform was fun. Each performance had its moments, from the nasty depiction of Kongji’s stepmother by 이맘 (winner of the popularity prize as a male actor) in the production from Woosong University (우송대학교) to the living forest that was the working place for 볼간 타미르, the woodcutter from Kyung Hee University (경희대학교) who shared the acting prize with 진소계, the Simcheong from Korea University. The other contenders, both with a version of Konji and Patji, include language students from Pusan University of Foreign Studies (부산 외국어 대학교) and The Catholic University of Korea (카톨릭대학교). (See a student review with some quotes from the actors at daum)

Kongji and Patji (Woosong University): Patji and the evil stepmom

On the first view, the “Korea” presented here, is rather traditional one, located in the timeless realm of fairy tales or 옛날 이야기 (lit. “stories from a long time ago”). The costumes—mostly colorful hanboks and a few animal costumes—underline this image. However, as the performances proceeded, the fairy tale setting is disrupted again and again, most poignantly by two methods:

1. Song and dance-scenes inspired and often accompanied by recent hallyu-hits.

It does not surprise that light-hearted, dynamic intermezzi are the key to winning the hearts of the audience. Still, it was astonishing that every performance featured provoking pop choreographies. The Woosong-version of Kongji and Patji explicitly stages this clash between tradition and pop in two instances:

First, a group of travelling musicians arrives to comfort poor Kongji. Dressed in the typical tricolore usually sported by pungmul-players (albeit with chicken hats!), they suddenly transforms into a group of hallyu-stars, complete with breakdance and a beat-boxing bird.

Kongji and Patji (Woosong University): B-boys

Kongji and Patji (Woosong University): Disco queen

After the final reunion between Kongji and her prince the landscape of Dunsan village—depicted by large foto-prints mounted in the background—turns into a disco. Accordingly, Kongji transforms into a dancing queen, removing her hanbok to present the flashy dress she is wearing underneath.

In another way this connection to contemporary popular entertainment is highlighted by LEE Byeong-joon (이병준), theatre, TV, and movie actor, who joined the jury and received a lot of applause and flashes.

More generally speaking, these combined efforts to demonstrate the compatibility between Korean tradition and contemporary pop culture is quite in line with recent developments in other fields such as professional theatre and heritage-based music making (e.g. my impressions at a gugak-concert). Hilary Finchum-Sung calls this the “hallyu-effect”.

2. Gestures, moves, and expressions common to everyday-life in Korea.

From the V-shaped fingers for the patchwork-family-picture in Kongji and Patji to two-handed hearts, splayed feet, and numerous astonished “그랬구나”- or “어떻게”-outcrys (“How on Earth?”) in the voice of middle-aged men and highschool girls, respectively, these moments temporarily open a door to everyday life.


The Nymph and the Woodcutter (Kyung Hee University): Woodcutter and deer

But the verbal and non-verbal gestures not only connect the fictive with the real Korea. By acting in line with concurrent habits, the foreigners ostensibly prove their adaptability to the target culture beyond grammar and vocabulary. In fact, this was one of the criteria stressed by the jury when nominating the winners: Who had acted the most Korean?

Some minor lapses—remarkably few, I should add—, put neither the performance of Koreanness nor the performance of self in jeopardy. After all, most members of the audience were part of the ‘learning community’—I, too, enjoyed recognizing little things as well as the larger story arc and occasionally joined the crowd, laughing and cheering.

The audience (via KU)

It would be interesting to see how this double-act—performing Koreanness and performing the foreigner-turning-Korean self—would work out in a different setting, audiences of older Koreans, for example, who might be more familiar with the stories told than with foreigners talking fluent Korean. Or is in fact the assimilated good alien intrinsically linked to images of a fairy tale Korea? As there seem to be rather few foreign(-looking) theatre actors on Korean stages (I have yet to see one), some research on the ways foreigners are depicted in cinema and TV might provide further evidence on this matter.

The German Language Theatre Contest for Korean highschool students, held merely four days later at Sungkyunkwan University, presents another, likewise intriguing perspective—and put me in a completely different position… Stay tuned!

— 10 Nov. 2010 (水)

  • The 9th Korean Play Contest for Foreigners, Korea University, Inchon Memorial Hall, 2010-11-10 (Wed.), 14-17.30 h.
  • 제9회 전국 외국인 한국어 연극 한마당, 고려대학교, 인촌기념관, 2010년 11월 10일 (수), 14시~17.30시까지.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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One Response to Speaking in Tongues

  1. Pingback: 1/12/2013 – Korean Folktale Resources, Pt. 1 – Kongji and Patji « KBS Tech Tips

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