Talking about Brecht and Pansori in Toronto #AAS 2017

The conference program featured a Korean mask! (Association of Asian Studies 2017)

The conference program featured a Korean mask! (Association of Asian Studies 2017)

I’m preparing my presentation on “The Influence of Brecht on Pansori-Theatre” (Towards a More International ‘Koreanness’?), to be held in a week at the Annual Conference of the Association of Asian Studies in Toronto. I’m very happy to be part of what will certainly be an exciting panel – number 227:

“Koreanness” on Display

From the Museum to the Musical Stage

From K-Pop to K-Drama, cuisine to cinema, it is difficult to find a Korean cultural product untouched by national branding, often under the banner of “Koreanness.” Loosely defined as “things unique to Korea,” this concept permeates presentations Korean arts, and has been repeatedly leveraged by cultural institutions, media, academia, and government agencies. This panel explores displays of “Koreanness” in order to understand how this essentializing concept has been re-framed in response to different cultural and political discourses, aiming to set Korean arts apart and market them both domestically and abroad. Four case studies examine the ways “Koreanness” is displayed and critically reconsider the underlying discourses in cultural display: first, by a government funded musical company working to nationalize the citizenry in the 1960s; second, in recent performances of pansori-theatre that combine Brechtian and traditional Korean methods and material to rebrand their image as uniquely Korean; third, in newly created performances for tourist audiences that commodify a traditional façade yet do not deeply engage with the source material; and finally, by the National Museum in recent exhibitions that show contestations seeking to define “Koreanness” in Korean art. Through investigating different ways that discourses of “Koreanness” have been used, we hope to spark dialogue illuminating how these discourses have changed over time, as the intentional vagueness of the concept both motivates a national response and attract non-Koreans seeking exposure to or engagement with Korean arts.

Chair/Session Organizer: CedarBough T. Saeji (University of British Columbia)


  • Seungyoun Choi (Korea University)
    “Koreanness” and Nation Building: Yegrin Musical Company’s Representation of the City and the Country in Ggotnimi Ggotnimi Ggotnimi
  • Jan Creutzenberg (Freie Universität Berlin/Sungshin University)
    Towards a More International “Koreanness”? The Influence of Brecht on Pansori-Theatre
  • CedarBough T. Saeji (University of British Columbia)
    Dynamic Korea on Display: Commodification of Tradition in Performances for Tourists
  • Young-Sin Park (Binghamton University, SUNY)
    Representing “Koreanness” through the Exhibitions of the National Museum of Korea

Discussant: Haeree Choi (Yonsei University)

The panel will take place on Saturday, March 18, from 10.45am at Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Chestnut East. Looking forward to meet you there!

What follows is the abstract of my own paper, a short preview (actually a recorded test-run of the introduction) plus the firs slides of my presentation, and some resources for anyone interested in more detail on the productions I discuss.

Towards a More International “Koreanness”?

The Influence of Brecht on Pansori-Theatre

Pansori is a quintessential icon of “Koreanness”. The singing style is unique to Korea, the canonical stories are often deeply rooted in Korean localities, and its registration as a UNESCO intangible heritage of humanity makes it an important asset in cultural branding and oversea marketing. In the last ten years, however, the monolithic connection of pansori to Korean heritage has been challenged and diversified. Creative performers, directors, and producers experiment with new forms of pansori-theatre and use unorthodox sources. Young ensembles stage new works that directly deal with subject matters of contemporary relevance. The productions of the National Changgeuk Company of Korea court audiences with nostalgic and spectacular stage adaptations of traditional pansori works and at the same time experiment with Western classics, musicals, and movies. German playwright and drama theorist Bertolt Brecht is a favorite reference for attempts to “internationalize” pansori, not least due to earlier scholarly attempts to link the Korean tradition with his concept of “epic theatre”. This paper explores the role that references to Brecht play in the “re-branding” of pansori and changgeuk, often by expanding the notion of “Koreanness” with a critical twist. Based on performance analysis and reviews of four recent productions, I will consider the ways associations with Brecht’s theories and adaptations of his plays transform the potential of pansori both as traditional heritage and as contemporary art for international audiences.

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The title image shows Ahn Suk-seon (안숙선), performing Heungbuga (흥부가) for the World Library and Information Congress at COEX, Seoul, 2006 (Photo by Brian Negin, via Flickr, CC; Brecht’s portrait is public domain).

Resources on my Presentation

The four productions I compare are as follows:

  1. Mr Rabbit and the Dragon King (Sugung-ga, 수궁가)
  2. The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Kokaseoseu-ui Baek-muk-won, 코카서스의 백묵원), both by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea (NCCK, 국립창극단)
  3. Song of Sichuan (Sacheon-ga, 사천가)
  4. Song of Courage (Eokcheok-ga, 억척가), both by Pansori Project “Za” and Lee Jaram (판소리 만들기 “자”, 이자람)

First, some videoclips that give you a first impression of these productions:

  1. Mr Rabbit and the Dragon King: Five excerpts that give a good idea of the general visual style of the production (via Youtube). part1, part2, part3, part4, part5, part6; impressions from an exhibition by Achim Freyer with sketches, stage design, costumes etc. used in the production process (via Youtube/Koreanisches Kulturzentrum Berlin)
  2. The Caucasian Chalk Circle: various videos that show some scenes of the production. Making of (via National Theater), TV-coverage in Korean (via YTN News), TV-coverage in English (via Arirang TV)
  3. Song of Sichuan: Several scenes with English subtitles (via Youtube)
  4. Song of Courage: Some scenes with promotion for a guest performance in France (via Youtube/Théâtre National Populaire)

Plus: excerpt of a TED-talk by Lee Jaram with English subtitles (via Youtube/Korean Culture Center UK)

Now some links to related material on this blog:

Additional literature on changgeuk and Lee Jaram’s Brecht-Pansori includes Andrew Killick’s standard In Search of Korean Traditional Opera: Discourses of Ch’anggŭk (Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2010), as well as Performing Korea by Patrice Pavis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) that dedicates a chapter to Lee Jaram’s Eokcheok-ga and the question “Is Modernized Pansori Political?” (the book just came out and I haven’t come around to read it in detail). There are many papers in Korean that deal with either topic, but one of the few that combines a discussion of recent interest in Brecht among makers of traditional Korean theatre is 장은수, “포스트서사극시대 우리 전통극의 새로운 가능성” (Jang Eun-soo, “New Possibilities Of Korean Traditional Theatre in the Era of Post-epic Theatre”), 세계문학비교연구 51 (2015), 403–22.

Finally, two of my publications that relate to the topics discussed here:

  • Jan Creutzenberg (2013), “From Traditional Opera to Modern Music Theatre? Recent Experiments in Ch’anggŭk”, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch 88, pp. 87–102. publisher
  • Jan Creutzenberg (2011), “The Good Person of Korea: Lee Jaram’s Sacheon-ga as a Dialogue between Brecht and Pansori”, Brecht Yearbook 36, Storrs, CT: International Brecht Society, pp. 225–238.

Any comments and questions, on the presentation or related matters, are more than welcome!

— 12 March 2017 (日)


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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4 Responses to Talking about Brecht and Pansori in Toronto #AAS 2017

  1. Pingback: Things I Learned at #AAS 2017, part1 (Thursday, 16 March) | Seoul Stages

  2. Pingback: Things I learned at #AAS2017, part2 (Friday, 17 March) | Seoul Stages

  3. Pingback: Things I learned at #AAS 2017, part3 (Saturday, 18 March + Sunday, 19 March) | Seoul Stages

  4. Pingback: Playing German in Korea: Students of Sungshin University Premiere “Thieves” by Dea Loher | Seoul Stages

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