Myeongdong Theatre (Theater and Globalization 2)

While most of Christopher Balme’s Coursera-MOOC on Theatre and Globalization was about ephemerals and moving things (ensembles, people, ideas etc.), “immobilities” (Korean: 부동산, German: Immobilien) such as theatre buildings also played an important role as cultural hubs and “contact zones” (Mary Louise Pratt) for diverse encounters between groups and individuals.

Myeongdong Theater today, May 2015

Myeongdong Theater today, May 2015

In my second assignment, I discuss the checkered histories of the place known today as Myeongdong [Art] Theatre (명동예술극장). Located in the midst of buzzling Myeongdong, half-way from either Myeongdong station (명동역) and Eulgiro1-ga (을지로입구역), the changing uses of this this building since the 1930s tell a story of the transformations of modern Korea, from a Japanese colony to a cultural power.

For this assignment I expanded on some earlier research for a presentation at Sogang University, back then as part of the Korean language class. My team’s topic was “myeongso” (명소, lit. “place with a name”, i.e. famous localities) and Steven covered the 63 Building (육삼 빌딩), icon of the “Han-River Miracle”, while “the other” Stephen discussed the neo-traditional shopping street in Insa-dong. Myeongdong Theatre, while not of particular scenic beauty, is interesting historically and I have also seen some great performances there (as well as some more academically rigurous productions). It’s certainly worth a visit!

This is my (slightly streamlined) take on the Myeongdong Theatre, illustrated with some historical images:

In pre-modern Korea, theatre (and music) was not performed in designated public buildings but rather outside (village squares) or in semi-private settings at upper class homes or at the Royal Court. The first buildings specifically dedicated to performing arts date to the late 19th and early 20th century. In English, Andrew Killick offers an overview of the Korean theatre scene of that time in his book on changgeuk (Killick, In Search of Korean Traditional Opera, Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2010).

The Japanese and, presumably, the Chinese community had their own theatre(s) and the Seoul Electric Company, a Korean-American joint venture that had introduced street cars and city lights, opened a commercial theatre with stage lighting. The first documented “Korean” indoor theatre is the Hyeomnyulsa (협률사 / 協律社), built in 1902. Today, few colonial buildings remain in Korea, as many were demolished or destroyed, not least due to the Korean War and postcolonial politics.

The Myeondong Theater, named after its location, is – as far as I know – the only remaining theatre building that dates back to the colonial era. Myeongdong, in the 1920s and 30s the heart of modernizing Seoul and home to the first department stores, bank, and cinemas (see a blogpost by Robert Koehler at The Marmot’s Hole), nowadays is known as a shopping district and tourist zone. The checkered history of the Myeongdong Theater is quite remarkable, probably not untypical for a postcolonial setting, and might be read as emblematic for the recent history of Korea.

For the following brief chronology I draw on two texts, a Korean-language essay on “The Historicity and New Identity of the Myeongdong Theater” by Kim Seong-hui published in The Korean Theatre Journal (연극평론) in 2011 and a shorter and slightly imprecise English article from 2009 by Kim Moon-hwan (“Renovated Myeong-dong Art Theater Opens its Doors”) from Koreana, an English quarterly on Korean culture and art published by the government-run Korea Foundation (한국국제교류재단).

  • built in 1934 by a Japanese architect, “with tendencies of modernist and neo-classicist experiments that were in rage at that time, flavored with Renaissance-style and Baroquish decoration” (Kim Seong-hui, p. 45)
  • inaugurated as a cinema in 1936 (“Meiji Theatre”, 명치좌 / 明治座)
  • used as a cinema and theatre (“International Theatre”, 국제극장) for two years under the American military government after Liberation in 1945
  • became the residence of the municipal government of Seoul (시공관) in 1947, still with occasional performances
  • housed the National Theater of Korea (국립극장) since 1957 (while still serving as a governmental facility)
  • re-opened as the “Myeongdong National Theater” after renovations in 1962
  • hosted not only the national performings arts companies but also private ensembles well into the 70s
  • sold to a financial company in 1976 (and subsequently turned into office space) after the inauguration of the current National Theater on Mt. Namsan
  • evoked a “Restoration Movement” when demolition became imminent in the late 90s to early 2000s
  • re-acquired by the Ministry of Culture, renovated, and finally re-opened as “Myeongdong Theater” (명동예술극장) in 2009.

The following gallery shows some older pictures of the building (from the Japanese Wikipedia)

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In its heydays, the building hosted various notable events, including the first official symphony concert (1946), both the first Western opera performed in Korea (La Traviata, 1948) and the first opera authored by a Korean composer (The Tale of Chunhyang, 1950), the first Korean performance of Hamlet (1949), and the first Miss Korea Ceremony (1957, see a video on Vimeo).

Myeongdong Theater (명동예술극장), 2012

Myeongdong Theater (명동예술극장), 2012

Today, the Myeongdong Theater, with a historically renovated exterior and state-of-the-art stage technology, presents mostly spoken theatre, many Western classics and some Korean pieces produced by high-ranking directors, often with star actors. (My picture on the left shows a poster of a Hedda Gabler-production) Under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, together with a second venue, Chongdong Theater (정동극장), dedicated to traditional performances, it serves as a showcase of Korean theatre. According to the official homepage, “This historically significant theater building from the past has been resurrected and is now dedicated to producing quality contemporary theater and steadfastly embracing the future.”

Various historical images can be found on the blog “Memorandum” and on another blog dedicated to the “Memories of Myeongdong National Theater”.

– 14 March 2015 (土)

  • 김성희, “명동예술극장의 역사성과 새로운 정체성” (The historicity and new identity of Myeongdong Theatre), 연극평론 60 (2011). (Link)
  • Kim Moon-hwan, “Renovated Myeong-dong Art Theater Opens its Doors”, Koreana (Sept. 2009). (Link)

About Jan Creutzenberg

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