Director Oh Tae-suk Creates Performances that Breathe with the Audience


Director Oh Tae-suk Creates Performances that Breathe with the Audience

Oh Tae-suk is a playwright and director who has helped define the parameters of Korean theater. An active thespian to this day, Oh has continually experimented and challenged convention. He initially debuted as a dramatist, claiming impressive back-to-back honors for Wedding Dress, a winner in the 1967 Chosun Ilbo New Writers Awards, and Hwanjeolgi, a winner in the 1968 National Theater of Korea Playwriting Competition. For much of his early career, during which he mostly wrote plays, Oh penned absurdist dramas in the vein of Western dramaturgy. He first stepped into the role of director in 1972, for the Dongrang Repertory Theater Company’s production of Luv. The success of Oh’s subsequent productions Tae and Bujayuchin cemented his standing as a director. In 1984, Oh founded the Mokhwa Repertory Company, leading it as director while continuing his efforts to uncover Korean theater’s identity through new undertakings and new forms of experimentation, as seen in Why Did Shim-Ch’ong Plunge into the Sea Twice?, Baengmagang dalbame, and Jajeon-geo. A critical attitude toward society, rooted in history and reality, has long pervaded Oh’s body of work, and in the 2000s, with works like Naesarang DMZ and Yonghosangbak, the director expanded his interests to environmental and ecological issues.
Over the course of writing and directing some sixty works, Oh has made it a priority to leave space for audience members to imagine and reason for themselves. This approach to directing is most cogently encapsulated in Romeo and Juliet, a work that was selected for the 2016 PAMS Choice. 

Director Oh Tae-suk and writer(Lee Eunkyung) © Lee Ganghyuk

▲ Director Oh Tae-suk and writer(Lee Eunkyung) © Lee Ganghyuk

Your directing philosophy has been widely described as an effort to “rediscover traditional drama and embrace it for the modern era.” It would seem that your consistent aim, in your earlier absurdist dramas as well as in your adoption of traditional theater, has been to challenge convention. What do you make of this general assessment

When we staged Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican Centre in England, the response was so enthusiastic that the tickets sold out three weeks before the show, and reviews were printed in the dailies Londoners read on the Tube. When we did The Tempest at the Edinburgh International Festival, after the three days, we could really feel the intensity of the response. We performed “their” play wearing our clothes, in our rhythms and movements, but the audience gave us a standing ovation. They must have felt like they were watching a bygone form of performance, the sort that might have been staged long ago at the Globe Theatre. The audience members seemed to appreciate greatly that our production was one that restored to them their role, that involved them in its making. I guess this could be called challenging convention—the fact that we took things that customarily take place on stage and left them to the audience to do.

I read in one of your past interviews that you came to a new understanding of the importance of the audience during your time abroad in the United States, where, with funding from the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation (today Arts Council Korea), you learned about contemporary American drama and wrote and produced Chunpungui cheo. You’re someone who has made various attempts to discover what makes Korean theater distinct. What compelled you to start searching within Korea’s tradition?  

Drama is about creating visual performances that make people think. Drama in its earliest form was not so different in East and West. When productions moved indoors, the role of the audience was dramatically reduced. The act of watching such performances involves leaps of the mind, an entering into the unexpected and the spontaneous, a filling in of the spaces in between. Excessive accommodating and problems with venue structure have made the audience passive. Yet a play is only complete with the participation of those watching. In trying to find ways to recreate the original framework of theater for the audience, I found myself paying attention to traditional drama, which has a more open quality.  

You’ve demonstrated a profound interest in the Korean language, bringing regional dialects to life on stage well as establishing unique methods of acting, such as having actors speak in the style of traditional plays, or having them look directly at the audience, or perform barefoot. What motivated such experimentation?

In my younger years, I thought of Western plays as “their” stories, belonging to the people of the West. It was like scratching someone else’s itch, to be honest, or telling someone else’s family stories, so I had my misgivings. If you set up a fourth wall, your ability to communicate with the audience will inevitably be limited. This is especially true if you speak in a literary style, or the language of translation, despite the fact that the people in the audience already have a language they actually use in real life; things cannot be relayed properly. On the other hand, when you use language that the audience understands, spoken language that has not been forgotten but lives on, being passed down over time, it resonates with them.
In a live performance, those on stage and those in the audience breathe together. This is why I’ve searched over the years for methods to make this possible. It only becomes a mutual breathing when the energy of the audience is harnessed to synergistic effect on stage, in the same space and at the same time. Where I am today is the result of my efforts to look for ways to mobilize the wisdom and knowledge of the audience. Mental leaps, omission, spontaneity, surprise—I make active use of traditional theater because it incorporates these elements effectively.  

Your Romeo and Juliet is already well known, but I want to hear from you again about what your intentions were for the work and what you focused on in your directing. When I first watched it, the way it ended—in death—felt shocking, yet somehow convincing at the same time.

Romeo and Juliet is a work that expresses the beauty of first love, but people mistakenly understand it as tragedy. The reason it continues to be performed, after all these years, is because of the truth it expresses about beauty being the beginning of pain, and the experience it creates, of a time of incomparable radiance. It captures the moment when beauty reaches its height. The reality is that once this moment passes, beauty can only be ruined and spoiled. I see Romeo and Juliet as a story that illustrates the cessation of the moment in which you come to believe everything exists just for you. With this in mind, I thought it might brighten the story to infuse it with elements of Korean culture—the culture of fermentation—in its unpretentious keeping on. In that sense, the red of the characters’ first night together can be understood as representing life, not death. It might have the appearance of death, but what I sought to depict was a beauty that is truly alive.
Ultimately, it’s a criticism and satire of our foolishness, which destroys beauty. The meaningless, repugnant enmity of the two families destroys a most beautiful love. Because I don’t believe such antagonism can be overcome through love, I chose a destructive ending, one that gazes sorrowfully upon death. A lot of people interpret the ending as a reference to the current division between North and South Korea, but that’s far from what I intended. There are likewise many people who interpret The Tempest’s two-headed Caliban from this perspective of a divided Korea, but this actually makes me uncomfortable. Isn’t it what we all want, for Prospero’s magic to be effective in fixing that which most vexes Caliban? Prospero’s magic is given full expression in the act of giving Caliban his liberty in place of his wages. From a modern perspective, this choice was the most reasonable. 

Romeo and Juliet © Mokhwa Repertory Company

Romeo and Juliet © Mokhwa Repertory Company

It’s a performance that has been invited abroad often, to places like the Barbican in London. What have reactions been like among local theatergoers? Do audiences in different places respond differently?  

We once had a performance in Edinburgh followed by a run in Chile, and the response of the audience was pretty much the same. We were surprised by how enthusiastically people responded in such different places. They had a completely new kind of experience, I’m sure, watching things unfold onstage that they’d probably never seen before, and having to stay constantly engaged. They appreciated having discovered this kind of play, where the audience gets involved. One reason this production was selected for the PAMS Choice, I think, is to create more opportunities for foreign audiences to experience our methodology.   

One distinctive characteristic of your productions is that you are constantly making revisions and improvements, so that even if it’s a reprise, it won’t be the same performance. With The Tempest, for example, the premiere and the subsequent reprise were so dissimilar that they seemed like different productions altogether. It would be interesting to look at how Romeo and Juliet has changed this time around, compared with past performances. Can you give us a hint about what we can expect??

To maximize the appeal of a dramatic work, it’s important to play up a sense of the here and now. If the actors on stage are as rigid as plaster, it’s impossible to do a live performance. To engage with a different audience every time, the performers must be “live” as well. Every time we put on a performance, we discover various shortcomings. After every show, we have a notebook where the actors, producers, and staff write down areas that need improvement, and we use this to make changes. The audience, of course, isn’t there to look for what goes wrong, but for us to know what the problems are and do nothing about it would be a sin.
In order to give the audience a greater role, and compel them to think more deeply, we have to constantly be evolving and hammering the production into shape. A performance is, to its creator, a living organism. I tell my actors that when they toss and turn in bed, the least they should be doing is wiggling their toes, like a concrete mixer that keeps rotating to prevent the concrete from hardening. Members of Mokhwa Repertory Company  practice at least three to four hours, sometimes up to six or seven hours, on a daily basis, so that they don’t stiffen up. Our bodies’ internal clocks have been fixed this way.
To be part of a theater company is to spend eight to ten hours together every day in a fictional time. Because I do my best to keep my company’s interactions with “the real world” to a minimum, some members call me a prison warden behind my back. Being a constantly churning concrete mixer on one’s own is important too, but it’s much more efficient to do things together, because it’s difficult for actors to practice on their own. If our performances are at eight in the evening, we’ll meet every day between one and two o’clock for a run-through and use our notes to put on a better performance in the evening. This is why we say that no two performances are exactly alike. The more we practice, the better we perform—I’m absolutely certain of this. Since the premiere of Romeo and Juliet, we’ve been making lots of changes, cutting out everything but the essentials and going from there. We’ll be working to refine the work without added pretention, complications, or embellishment. 

Director Oh Tae-suk © Lee Ganghyuk

▲ Director Oh Tae-suk © Lee Ganghyuk

Mokhwa Repertory Company was selected for the PAMS Choice this year as well as last year. What are your thoughts?

I’m repeating myself, but I’m still very much immersed in the question of how to encourage the audience to play a more active role in “breathing” with us. Foreign audiences enjoy our performances because they can participate actively in the production’s completion. Audiences need to rediscover, too, the joy of breathing in sync with the performance. I often hear that our performances are difficult to understand, but I honestly don’t agree. If the audience and the performers are breathing together, there’s no such thing as a “difficult” production. It’s because audience members watch the performance from a distance that they feel like they can’t engage. Even audiences in more rural areas, who haven’t been exposed to a lot of theater, really enjoy our performances.
They have no trouble understanding our performances because we use the dynamic, living language of speech, not the literary language that exists as written records. We also work to convey raw energy, rather than something embellished. We’re currently performing Chunpungui cheo at Seoul Namsan Gugakdang. In the past, when we performed without microphones, the audience had trouble hearing. Gugak is about the striking of drums and the striking of the heart—this is its power—yet many gugak musicians don’t even think twice about using microphones. This was so strange to me. When gugak musicians perform with our company, we don’t let them use microphones, so there were initially problems with delivery. Over time, they’ve gotten used to not using mics, and the delivery is outstanding. And the audience loves it, because we’re giving them true, raw sound that isn’t obscured by machines.

What outcomes did you see come out of last year’s Performing Arts Market in Seoul(PAMS) and PAMS Choice? Do you have any plans to organize performances abroad through this year’s PAMS?

One production we still haven’t performed abroad is Why Did Shim-Ch’ong Plunge into the Sea Twice?, which was selected at last year’s PAMS Choice. It’s not that organizers aren’t interested, but they’ve been hesitant because of the assumption that the story is for Koreans. This year, I hope we can meet audiences in Paris and Russia, where we have yet to perform. We somehow haven’t had a chance to go to either place, despite performing in lots of others. In any case, I’m determined to do some more active marketing this year and secure some good outcomes.  



Lee Eun-kyung (drama critic)
Lee Eun-kyung (drama critic)
Lee Eunkyoung completed her PhD in literary studies with an emphasis on the works of playwright Kim Woo-jin. She is a lecturer at Myongji University and the Seoul Institute of the Arts. She has served as a member of the Arts Council Korea review board in theater and chair of the Performance and Theory association. She is currently editor-in-chief of the monthly publication The Korean Theatre Review and a member of the judging panel for the E-daily Culture Awards in the theater category.