Interview with Alexis Bug, Director of Korean-German Theatre

It was November 9, 2008, exactly nineteen years after the Berlin wall came down. The South-Korean flag was blowing in the blue sky over the People’s Theatre (Volksbühne) in East Berlin. It was the time of Gaettong, an anarchic avenger from Korean folklore, who had come to Germany in order to save the day after re-unification did not live up to its promises…

The Berlin Gaettong, performed by a bunch of rubber puppets built by a German artist known as “das Helmi” and actors from Korea, was one of my first encounters with theatre from Korea. Marcus Braun had adapted a piece by Korean dramatist Kim Gyeong-hwa (김경화) which Alexis Bug had than staged with members of the Korean ensemble back then named Street Theater Troupe (연희단 거리패, today Theatre Troupe “Georipae”). “A true cross-cultural collaboration”, as I wrote in a review for OhmyNews.

Alexis Bug has continued cooperating with Korean actors and other theatremakers and I remember vividly seeing his production of Brecht’s Arturo Ui a few years ago. So I was happy to hear that I’d be able to meet him for an interview, right in front of his current workplace, the historical Myeongdong Theater. Alexis Bug is currently right in the middle of rehearsals for the new play The Power, which will premiere on June 5. Despite his busy schedule, we had interesting conversation on his various German-Korean collaborations, his experiences at the rehearsals, and his outlook on theatre in Korea and Germany.

In front of Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

In front of Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

In the following interview, Alexis Bug talks about his involvement with Korean theatre, shares his thoughts on acting styles in Germany and Korea, and explains why his coming production fits perfectly into the busy shopping district of Myeongdong.

1. Collaborations

How did you get the chance to direct your first German-Korean co-production?

Rather by chance. After the premiere of my first major production, an adaptation of the Boulevard-comedy Arsenic and Old Lace at Ballhaus Ost in Berlin, someone came into the dressing room and told me: “There is some Korean guy who’d like to see you.” That turned out to be Lee Yun-taek (이윤택), a famous director and head of the Theater Troupe “Goripae”.

Der Berliner Gaettong (c) Theater Troupe

Der Berliner Gaettong (c) Theater Troupe “Georipae”

Without thinking much about it and without consulting with his dramaturg (who he doesn’t have, anyway), he invited my production to Korea, to perform at the theatre festival in Miryang (밀양여름공연예술제). A day later, he made me an additional offer. He asked me to adapt and modernize a Korean folk play, The Gaettong who Lives Behind the Mountains (산 넘어 개똥아, see a video on Youtube). The next summer in Miryang, I both showed my former work and staged the new one.

How did you approach the task of staging a Korean play?

At that time I had only seen a video recording of the play. I knew neither text nor translation. But while watching the tape, I could understand what the play was about: spring, renewal, cycle of life.

I then asked Marcus Braun, who is better known as a novelist than as a playwright in Germany, to adapt it into a new play about the German reunification: Hence The Berlin Gaettong (see a video-trailer). The play deals with the question of what a renewal actually is. And was the German reunification a renewal at all—or maybe not so much?

How did you happen to direct Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 2011?

Der Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (c) Theater Troupe

Der Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (c) Theater Troupe “Georipae”

Prof. Won-yang Rhie (이원양, see my earlier post on his research on Brecht) played a very important role. He had translated The Berlin Gaettong back into Korean. While working together, we had a good time and became friends. It was due to him that I could direct the Korean premiere of Brecht’s Arturo Ui, with Prof. Rhie once again acting as translator.

Did you face any restrictions when staging Arturo Ui in Korea? I’m curious because the heirs of Brecht are known to be notoriously strict with regard to controlling the way Brecht is put on stage. Recently Frank Castorf’s production of Baal (Residenztheater Munich) was on trial for using unauthorized additional material and ultimately had to be cancelled

Suhrkamp, the German publisher of Brecht’s works, was aware of the Korean premiere of Arturo Ui. But I was never in contact with the publisher, neither prior nor after the production. According to Prof. Jan Knopf (head of the “Arbeitsstelle Bertolt Brecht” who saw Arturo Ui in Seoul) my production succeeded in “surpassing the two exemplary productions” by Peter Palitzsch and Heiner Müller at the Berliner Ensemble, with Ekkehard Schall and Martin Wuttke in the leading role, respectively. The abridged version of the drama I used certainly played a crucial role.

Let us talk about your current production, the world premiere of The Power (original German title: Sterne wie Staub, “Stars Like Dust”), a piece written in German and performed by a Korean ensemble in Korean. How did this rather peculiar constellation happen?

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (c) Theater Troupe

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (c) Theater Troupe “Georipae”

Last year I was in Korea to stage The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (셰익스피어 의 모든 것). At the same time, Deutsches Theater did a guest performance of Dea Loher’s Diebe (Thieves / 도둑 들). The Goethe-Institut had invited me to the reception and there I met Yun Gwang-jin (윤광진, director of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon and others), a theatre director whom I knew from Miryang. He had seen all my work there and, given that I now have a certain history in Korea, he suggested to take it to the next level. That’s why he made the contact with the National Theatre Company of Korea (국립극단).

How about the cooperation with playwright Nis-Momme Stockmann? How is his piece of interest for a Korean audience?

Two years ago, Nis-Momme Stockmann spent three months in Kyoto, that was his first longer sojourn in East Asia. We knew each other since I staged the premiere of his play Inga and Lutz in 2010 (see n). When I returned from Seoul last year, we met in Berlin and talked about a possible play for Korea. From the start, he was very enthusiastic about the project.

The Power (c) National Theater Company of Korea

The Power (c) National Theater Company of Korea

He found it particularly appealing to present a critique of capitalism in Korea, something very big, a piece about globalization, about the meaning of it all. In the middle of Myeongdong, the most expensive district of Seoul, where one square meter costs $ 100,000, or so I have heard. I first visited Myeongdong with Prof. Rhie who wanted to show me around the “historical centre” of Seoul. The other day I was late for rehearsal because I had lost my way in this shopping jungle. To stage the play in this environment is quite a statement, I think. For German guests, the way to the theater provides a fitting introduction to the piece.

2. Rehearsals

Did you make any particular experiences when rehearsing?

I staged my first play here, The Berlin Gaettong, within three and a half weeks, including delays due to translation. It was mostly thanks to the Korean actors that we could proceed this fast—they are simply much more efficient, more diligent than German actors. I make the same experience in the production [of The Power] now: In Germany, I would schedule at least two months for rehearsals, and we probably still would not get as far as we did here in merely six weeks.

While working with the Theater Troupe “Georipae”, I spent most of the time in Lee Yun-taek’s theater village in Miryang. We came to Seoul only for the last week of rehearsals and therefore I could not see very much of the city.

The actors’ workload is enormous, they are really living a life for the theater, even in their free time! Regardless of their respective status in the ensemble, the actors repair the roof, cook food, bring the stage decoration to Seoul—there is always something to do. Like in the Middle Ages, working for the Love of God in the monastery. And I, too, was as a “theatre monk”, so to speak, and rehearsed from morning to night.

So this is really some kind of artistic commune?

Yes, but with a clearly identifiable leader!

That is my next question: How much creative freedom did you enjoy? How far were you involved in the whole production processes?

For casting I mostly relied on Lee Yun-taek. He provided me with available actors and if that did not work out I could also recast. Otherwise, he always gave me a lot of freedom. It was clear, however, that this was only because he was satisfied with my work. I also saw directors sitting in the auditorium while someone from the ensemble, or Lee Yun-taek himself, took over the rehearsal.

How do you communicate with the actors during rehearsals?

When working together with Prof. Rhie, he also acted as an interpreter during rehearsals, besides his role of dramaturg. Because we had fun together that was no problem. It was actually great because he, as an expert with perfect German language skills, was able to transmit my ideas very well.

That said, it was also of great help that I could rely on my gestic vocabulary. As a trained actor, I am used to communicating regardless of language. That’s the key to my work with the actors here.

Regarding rehearsals, how does your current work with the actors of the National Theater Company differ from your earlier collaborations with Lee Youn-taek’s Theater Troupe “Georipae”?

With “Georipae”, I usually worked with Lee Seung-heon (이승헌) and Kim Mi-suk (김미숙), two longstanding members of the ensemble. In addition, there were always a lot of young actors, many of them still in training. With the National Theater Company, this is of course quite different. The actors are all very professional and very experienced. Lee Yun-taek’s concept, on the other hand, is to introduce drama students to the stage early on. That’s the difference.

Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

When rehearsing, do you find any time at all to attend other theatre performances?

Yes, this time I saw two plays here in Myeongdong Theater, of course also in order to experience the theater. When I participated in the summer festival in Miryang, I saw a lot of other performances, too. I know and appreciate in particular the works of Lee Yun-taek’s Ensemble “Georipae”, because the theatre they make is so physical and playful.

In its best moments, Lee Yun-taek’s theatre is as performative and as free as any kind of “postdramatic theatre” in Germany. But at the same time, the performative and extreme play of the actors provokes me as a director on a deeper level because they know exactly what they are doing. They do not simply throw their loud and hollow gestures into the spectators’ faces, something I experience at Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne in Berlin, for example, just to name the most famous director of contemporary German avantgarde. In Lee’s works, the performative is deeply rooted in shamanist ritual and the world of spirits, which have played a vital role here in Korea and exist in parallel with the strict worldview of Confucianism. Resistance against rigid forms was not invented by postmodernism.

But I also see very different performances. During the last year, I might even have seen more theatre in Korea than in Germany!

3. Theatre in Germany and Korea

Do you think that a production of a Korean play would be of interest for German audiences?

I am not quite sure, as the Germans seem to be very much self-concerned.
interested in themselves.
I do not see much interest in premieres or foreign pieces, or new drama from abroud in general. Of course there are the usual suspects, like Jasmina Reza, maybe a few American and British playwrights, too. I would consider staging a contemporay Korean play in Germany rather difficult.

Going from one project to the next, I am thinking about further developing my collaborations with Korea. Bringing a Korean piece to Germany, as part of this process, sounds appealing to me.

How does acting in the theatre in Korea and Germany differ from each other?

When comparing stage acting in Germany and Korea, I like the very physical and unpsychological acting style in Korea. In Germany there is a certain prevailing realism, which some call “psychological realism”. I, on the other hand, rather consider it “commercial realism”—and I am glad that I do not see it here.

Could you talk a little bit more about this “commercial realism”, and how it takes shape?

In the early 20th century, realism came to German theatre and new playing techniques became necessary. To date, the Stanislavsky-style still dominates German stages. Actors are trained to be natural, authentic. In my opinion, the result is that everyone is doing more or less the same. The phrase most often heard in castingshows is “Be yourself!”. And in the end whoever conforms best to a very stereotypical template of the pop star wins, a poor copy of a commercial concept of authenticity. It works the same way on the theatre stage.

The last time I was “natural” was as a baby. In the moment of uttering my first word, I became artificial. I see it when looking at my own children: When they began to speak, that was particularly artifical, because they tried to imitate mum and dad with the few means they possessed. I can only acquire the language by repeating the words of others. So it is not my own. I am myself when I feel free, then I stop controlling myself and start to play. But then I am not natural. I am not a tree.

What aspects of Korean theater would you like to show in Germany?

I would like to show how Korean theatremakers succeed in handing down and preserving acting techniques and theatre styles. We do not achieve this in Germany. Preservation of old buildings is great—“historical cities” in Germany still look historical—, but in the field of theatre we are busy putting old plays into new, contemporary forms, which often do not fit or match well, actually. I would like to try to find a form for this emotional, bodily play that also draws upon traditions.

Thank you very much for the interview. 

Alexis Bug in front of the stage entrance (c) Alexis Bug

Alexis Bug in front of the stage entrance (c) Alexis Bug

Alexis Bug, born in 1973, is trained as an actor, published several theatre plays, and is currently mostly working as a stage director. Since 2007, he has collaborated on various occasions with Korean ensembles, translators, and actors. Several of his German productions have also shown as guest performances in Korea. Currently, he is rehearsing with the National Theater Company of Korea for the new play The Power by Nis-Momme Stockmann, to be premiered on June 5, 2015. (See his homepage for details on his earlier pieces.)

Interview conducted and translated from German by Jan Creutzenberg.

— 26 May 2016 (火)

  • Der Berliner Gaettong (베를린 개똥이), adapted by Marcus Braun, after Kim Kyung Hwa’s play San neomeo Gaettong-a (산 넘어 개똥아, “Beyond the Mountains: Dog Shit”), directed by Alexis Bug, actors and puppeteers: Street Theatre Troupe, das Helmi, performances in Korea (Seoul, Busan, Miryang, Geochang) and Germany (Berlin, Hamburg, Köln), 2008.
  • Der Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (아르투로 우이의 출세), written by Bertolt Brecht, translated into Korean by Won-Yang Rhie, directed by Alexis Bug, produced by Street Theatre Troupe, premiere: Guerilla Theatre Seoul, April 2011.
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (셰익스피어의 모든 것), written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, translated into Korean by Hwang Hye-rim, directed by Alexis Bug, produced by Street Theatre Troupe, actors: Lee Seung-heon, Hwang Hye-rim, Lee Won-hui, premiere: Guerilla Theatre Seoul, June 2014.
  • The Power (더 파워), written by Nis-Momme Stockmann, translated into Korean by Eun-Soo Jang, directed by Alexis Bug, production: National Drama Company of Korea, Premiere: Myeongdong Theater Seoul, June 2015.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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1 Response to Interview with Alexis Bug, Director of Korean-German Theatre

  1. Pingback: Celebrating Shakespeare, on Stage and on Air | Seoul Stages

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