Korea: National Theater of Korea

A seasoned theatre manager, Hosang Ahn  previously led the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture (SFAC), and prior to this garnered 23 years of know-how at Korea’s leading arts complex, the Seoul Arts Center.  Now president of the National Theater of Korea, he explains to IAM why even one of the country’s most prestigious venues needs to be wary of being left behind.

In Korea commercial theatres with the best equipment available are being opened every year.  The current National Theater of Korea building on Namsan Hill was constructed in 1973, and so we can’t compete very well in terms of facilities.

Of course, that’s a problem faced all over the world by theatres that have some tradition behind them. Some efforts have been made to update the facilities, but the main structure of the theatre has never been changed.

As a national organisation under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, we have not been able to respond to external changes as effectively as the commercial theatres, which operate under different strictures.

That’s also true of the rehearsal rooms for members of the resident companies – the more I think about it, the more I feel the need for a solution at the government level.

In Korea there are eight national companies and three of these are resident companies of the National Theater of Korea: the National Changgeuk (Korean Opera) Company of Korea, the National Dance Company of Korea, and the National Orchestra of Korea. The other five companies are managed independently as foundations.

At the core of the National Theater are the artists who make up the resident companies, and the best way to cultivate the artists’ abilities and the quality of the works presented is to bring them out frequently onto the stage. Rather than renting the theatre out, we will concentrate on providing regular performances on interesting themes, National Brand Performances, regional tours, and educational programmes, all led by the resident companies.

‘With economic growth in the 1980s, the Korean people’s demand for culture expanded enormously. Especially since 1995, the Korean culture market has grown exponentially, and Korean culture and artists have become prominent on the international arts scene. Meanwhile, the general public in Korea has begun to be curious about tradition.’

Above all, I want to create an environment where the resident company members can participate in productions with passion.

With the rise of K-pop (Korean pop music), interest in Korean culture is growing around the world, and when visitors from overseas come to Korea we need to show them the best artists and the best works so that they can enjoy the most thoroughly Korean artistic performances.

With economic growth in the 1980s, the Korean people’s demand for culture expanded enormously. Especially since 1995, the Korean culture market has grown exponentially, and Korean culture and artists have become prominent on the international arts scene. Meanwhile, the general public in Korea has begun to be curious about tradition.

This public trend is evidenced by the popularity of Korean soap operas like The Moon Embraced the Sun and The Deep-Rooted Tree.

In light of that trend, it seems likely that in the future public interest will turn to traditional Korean culture such as Changgeuk (Korean opera) and traditional music. In 2004 it was springtime for musicals, as imported shows like Rent and Jekyll and Hyde were performed in Korea, but the audiences who went to those musicals have now all turned to classical music, ballet, and opera.

So the audience base for the classics is now very broad. But there are also predictions that those audiences will move on to another cultural area, and I think it might be the traditional Korean performing arts. Also, more and more tourists are coming to Korea, and they too are potential audiences for the National Theater.

Europe and the world are turning their eyes to Asia. The day will come when the attention of the world is focussed on Changgeuk and Korean traditional music. The National Theater of Korea is preparing for that day.

With the passion for the ‘Korean wave’ growing stronger around the world, interest and demand for Korean culture is increasing dramatically. Korea is continually producing young artists who win the recognition of the world, such as the five young Korean artists who won prizes in last year’s  International Tchaikovsky Competition.

The Seoul Metropolitan Traditional Music Orchestra is also winning praise as a world-class symphony orchestra.

‘By absorbing new elements through the participation of non-Korean artists, the National Theater can show the momentum of change.’

Besides developing the repertory of the three resident companies, the National Theater of Korea is steadily presenting this repertory overseas. In 2011, German opera director Achim Freyer was invited to direct an adaptation of the traditional pansori story Song of the Underwater Palace, which became the pansori opera Mr Rabbit and the Dragon King.

This was enthusiastically received when it was performed in both Korea and Germany. The National Dance Company of Korea, which experiments with contemporary stagings of traditional Korean dance, collaborated with the German jazz group Saltacello to create an unusual production called Soul Sunflower.

When it was performed on European tours in 2010 and 2011, all the seats were sold out. By absorbing new elements through the participation of non-Korean artists, the National Theater can show the momentum of change. But today, I think change can be recognised just by thoroughly maintaining the foundations.

The National Theater of Korea has four performance spaces. The main hall, Haeoreum Theater is a large space with 1,563 seats (including 16 spaces for wheelchairs) and is used as a general theatre space that accommodates performances of any genre. It is mainly used for Changgeuk, musicals, concerts, and dance performances. The small hall, Daloreum Theater, is a proscenium theatre with 427 seats (including 5 spaces for wheelchairs). It is primarily used for performances by the National Theater’s resident companies, especially drama, pansori singing and Changgeuk .

The Studio Byeoloreum is a small space with 100 seats that mainly presents children’s shows and new works by up-and-coming artists. The KB Haneul Youth Theater is a theatre-in-the-round that can be transformed into an open-air space by opening up part of the roof. It is intended to be an open space where the performers can communicate freely with the audience.

‘In other words, the proportion of the budget that is allocated in advance and has to be used for basic expenses is very high. The amount of flexible funds that can actually be used to create good works is ridiculously small – that was the biggest surprise to me when I took up the position of general director of the theatre.’

The National Theater’s budget for 2012 is about 26.7bn won (€18m). Very broadly speaking, the main things that have to be paid for out of this budget fall into two categories. First is the running of the National Theater’s four performance spaces; second is the running of the three resident companies: the National Changgeuk (opera company) of Korea, the National Dance Company of Korea, and the National Orchestra of Korea. Not only the cost of running the performance spaces, but also the salaries of the 161 members of the resident companies (about 7.6bn won) are included in the overall budget.

In other words, the proportion of the budget that is allocated in advance and has to be used for basic expenses is very high. The amount of flexible funds that can actually be used to create good works is ridiculously small – that was the biggest surprise to me when I took up the position of general director of the theatre.

There is a strong emphasis on youth and community in Korea. The Korean government tries to take a variety of measures to provide opportunities for culturally underserved populations to enjoy culture and the arts. Businesses also take an active role in supporting the performing arts by purchasing tickets, subsidising production costs and so on.

We operate programmes for people who find it difficult to come to the theatre for various reasons. Typically, five per cent of tickets for the National Theater’s own regular productions are distributed free to the underprivileged. The theatre also reaches out to these children by providing priority enrollment vouchers for free arts education programmes.

Above all, the National Theater tries to win trust by creating programmes for the public. Currently, two or three Changgeuk productions and two or three Korean dance shows are staged at the National Theater each year. Up to now, works have been produced mainly to suit the people who created them. The performance scheduling, content, and marketing were all done for the convenience of the National Theater and its resident companies. Audiences were not made to feel that the works were put on for the public.

For the greater satisfaction of audiences, I will try to show performances in which they can feel that the theatre and its artists have tried their very hardest.

Starting this year, I’m planning a regular National Repertory Season in the second half of each year, when the eight national companies can present their representative works at the theatre continuously.

I want the public to feel that if they go to the theatre in that season they will always see excellent works that show Korean culture on a high level. There is a stereotype that ‘traditional’ performances are boring, but we are striving to create superior works.

If the work is good, the audience will come.

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