Lee Kyung-sung: the Director Who Captures Contemporary Issues in the Play


Lee Kyung-sung: the Director Who Captures Contemporary Issues in the Play

Can we truly understand others? Director Lee Kyung-sung once said, “We cannot truly understand others, unless we put ourselves in their shoes.” We put great emphasis on understanding and empathizing with others. Yet are human beings truly capable of sympathizing with the pain and suffering of others? Director Lee Kyung-sung and his theater group Creative VaQi have consistently posed questions regarding the realities our society faces; our perspectives of reality; and the multi-layered problems that are associated with these aspects.
For instance, Before After, his production released last year, received raving reviews from both audience members and critics, who remarked that it displayed the hallmarks of his directorial style. Drawing from memories of everyday life after an irrevocable tragedy, Lee explores the impact that traumatic events leave on people’s lives and the dichotomy of the event and our routine life. Along with the favorable review that the production effectively captured and appealed to the sentiments of Lee’s contemporaries, it received various theatre awards. I spoke with Director Lee to hear his thoughts on theater and Before After, which has been selected for this year’s PAMS Choice.   

▲ Interviewer and director Lee Kyung-Sung © Park Ye-lim

▲ Interviewer and director Lee Kyung-Sung © Park Ye-lim

Your work Before After has been selected for 2016 PAMS Choice, which schedules you to participate in this year’s Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS). Was there any special reason that motivated you to participate?

I experienced PAMS firsthand last year through a forum related to international exchange. I got a good impression from the experience, as I saw delegates from all over the world connecting through the performing arts. I’d wanted to partake in PAMS, but the release dates of my productions never seemed to coincide with the PAMS schedule. I think that PAMS has evolved into an intriguing event, thanks to the extensive involvement of major producers and artists in Korea. I was searching for ways for my creative group to get involved and finally decided to apply for the PAMS Choice this year. Referring this one-time involvement as a form of international exchange may be too grandiose, but it marks a starting point, as I plan to seek more opportunities to work with other cultures starting next year.

Creative VaQi presents works through creative collaborations. Some even say that the creative process itself is the main method and strength of Creative VaQi. I think that a series of process and experiences has brought you to where you are now. Would you like to tell us a little bit about your creative processes as well as briefly introduce your theatre group, Creative VaQi?

I would say that Creative VaQi is a group of people who constantly discuss relevant issues from our contemporary world, issues we can contemplate together. Plays are our medium of choice, through which we try to communicate with the audience. Instead of creating works that are mechanically consumed in a simplistic manner, we constantly try to devise ways to create plays that inspire the audience to think about the relationship they form with the world and other people, as well as the ways they can live a better life.

I believe the creative process of an artist is linked to the way he or she forms a relationship with the world. As a theater artist and creator, the traditional method of building a performance from a given text, written primarily by a playwright, was somewhat limiting and insufficient in resolving my creative desires. That is how we sought out a so-called collaborative creative process for our productions, through which we discovered and developed possibilities for a diverse range of expression. It is important for us to see how the thoughts and opinions of participants in the collaborative process collide, expand to other areas, and transform into a stage language, to be ultimately conveyed to the audience. Hence, everyone becomes a writer, conducting interviews, research, discussions, and presentations before beginning the actual writing process. Then I coordinate the results to create scenes and provide structure.

I roughly call this a collaborative creative process in the sense that I collaborate with the members of my group, but I am still looking for a more suitable term to describe the process. We communicate with one another as separate creative identifies, continually discovering various differences and conflicts, to accomplish a common goal. What is fortunate for us as a creative group is that, with time, the interests and concerns of each member increasingly resemble those of the others’ as the project progresses.

▲ Seoul Practice: Model House, Namsan Documenta © Doosan Art Center, Creative VaQi

Seoul Practice: Model House, Namsan Documenta © Doosan Art Center, Creative VaQi

You take on social events that are still ongoing as your subject matter, which in turn, endows your productions with shared links. Hence, your audiences sense that your plays are closely connected to our reality, and the boundaries between your plays and real life are blurred. Could you tell us more about your artistic evolution? I think it will give us a better understanding.

Between 2008 and 2010, I made some deliberate attempts to experiment and find methods that suited me as a director. I have experimented with physical theater, object theater, and performances that are specific to certain spaces. Looking back to that period, I remember something a critic said about my experimentations: “He is a director who is clueless about what he should be experimenting with.” It made me think, Am I really that clueless? It’s a criticism experimental people and groups typically face in their creative development

In the early stage of my experimentations, I tried tearing down the theater walls, so to speak. I used a crosswalk, a public plaza, a private residence, and a hotel room as my stage, performing in everyday spaces. By using actual living spaces, I wanted people to (re-)experience a certain moment in their lives so as to look back on parts that they may have overlooked. The Moving Exhibition (2009); Let Us Move Your Sofa (2010); The History of Gangnam: Epic of Our Spec.tacle (2011); 24 Hours: The Rite of Night (2011)—these are the plays that were developed and performed in that context.
I also introduced the Theatre Practice series, in which we examined a wide variety of issues and events in contemporary society. True to the sentiment that “a play is a practice of life,” I produced the following plays: Seoul Practice: Model, House (2013); Practice of Theatre: Character Version (2013); Namsan Documenta (2014). I also grappled with the role of play and theater, in which the following questions mainly captivated me: Can plays really deal with reality? How can plays penetrate into the domains of life? In an attempt to answer these questions, I came to think of contemporary issues. 

On that note, let us move on to the topic of the “contemporariness” of plays. I feel that it is something you zealously value and struggle with. I would also like you to relate the topic to your experiences performing overseas.

The Conversations, which was performed at Festival/Tokyo in 2014, portrays the process of which actors with completely different life experiences interacting with a seventy-four-year-old lady. Issues of generational conflicts, history, and political consciousness resulted in some meaningful communication with the audience within the cultural context of Japan. The audience was quite calm throughout the performance, yet we found out later that they launched into heated debates afterward, pouring their comments onto Twitter.

 We were also invited to perform it at Festival Theatreformen in Germany this past June. We received much feedback that compared our work to the so-called documentary theater of Germany. While productions in the latter genre are often very dry, they said, our play was incredibly rational yet conveyed a sense of melancholy, which was an unfamiliar and interesting experience for the German audience. Of course, there were certain parts that could not be effectively conveyed due to cultural differences. For example, the discord between the old lady and her daughter-in-law was something derived from specific cultural situations.

Yet, as the festival featured numerous works from many cultures, the programs were structured to allow the audience to approach the performances in a multilateral fashion. Historical briefings and context were provided ahead of the performance, and there was also a 30-minute talk with the artistic director prior to the first show in the lobby, creating a somewhat relaxed atmosphere where wine was served. Also, the directors conducted 40-minute workshops on stage for audience members who signed up in advance. All these programs were prepared to open the audience’s mind prior to their viewing, familiarizing them with the director’s preferences, what they dream about and grapple with. Through multiple stages of preparation, I worked with the festival organizers to find better ways for the audience to approach a performance which came from a cultural context other than theirs. I did not want to just pack up and leave after giving one ready-made performance. I wanted a more substantial exchange.

Also in May 2016, I was invited to the International Forum at The Berliner Theatertreffen, where I saw for myself that many writers and directors all over the world are creating plays in difficult social or political conditions. A female director from India was creating pieces that reflected her resistance against India’s male-dominated society; another director from Belgium, who originally an Iraqi refugee, returned to Bagdad to produce street theater in Bagdad, where suicide bombings can occur at any time. When viewed according to the aesthetic standards of contemporary European art, their works may not appear sophisticated in form or content. However, I began to wonder if they fall short at all according to the standards of contemporary art.

Taking into account the artists’ background and their artistic integrity, I thought they were creating something meaningful that could convey the social context to which they belonged. The contemporariness of art, I think, derives from the artists’ realization of where they come from. It comes from their observations of the problems their society currently faces and their endeavors to communicate them through art. 

▲ Before After © Creative VaQi

Before After © Creative VaQi

Last year, you made quite a stir and received fervent responses from both critics and the audience with Before After, which has also been selected for 2016 PAMS Choice. I also heard that you are scheduled to give an encore performance of that piece this year. Would you tell us a little about the play and how you feel differently as a creator about this year’s performance compared to last year’s premiere.

Before After started from the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster of 2014, which has brought so much pain and sadness. The question that triggered me to create the work was this: Is it possible for us human beings to truly communicate with other human beings, and feel the pain of others as our own? I also reread Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others while working on the play. To me, it seemed almost impossible for people to sympathize with and tend to others’ pain and suffering, unless they had gone through something similar. However, I also felt that being silent about others’ pain may give rise to more misunderstanding and insensitivity. I could say that these paradoxes and sources of tension are catalysts to the creative process.

I believe that social solidarity comes from acutely feeling others’ pain. Instead of providing a logical explanation, I wanted to remind people of the reality that, despite our deep connection with others, we are often insensitive and negligent to others and their pain. Doing that seemed to be the role of art and artists. The audience seemed to empathize with our message.

We cannot help becoming less sensitive about and even forgetting painful memories with time; but for that very reason, I felt we needed some tools and devices to connect us consciously to tragedies and to our memories. In that regard, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to give an encore performance of Before After this year. Between the premiere and the encore performances, I produced a new play called Talking about Her, one that incorporated interviews with the victims’ families. With that added experience, I feel that I have widened my scope and have approached the issue with more depth.

▲ Lee Director Kyung-sung © Doosan Art Center

▲ Lee Director Kyung-sung © Doosan Art Center

Now, this is my final question. What is your mindset in presenting your work under PAMS Choice?

I feel that viewing PAMS Choice as an opportunity to merely expand overseas may not be the best objective and mindset when preparing for this event. I would regard PAMS more as a field in which the participants can partake in diverse range of aesthetic and social discourse. I hope that our performance can resonate more with the participants and audience through the forums and meetings held throughout the event. I would not want the forums and meetings to be one thing and the performances to be another, something irrelevant to the PAMS discourse. Of course, earning an opportunity to reach a wider audience in other cultures is wonderful, but more important is the delegates visiting Korea feel the presence of active dialogue in the performing arts of contemporary Korea.

Director Lee Kyung-sung and his creative group Creative VaQi invite us to actively discuss their works. The questions he asks through his plays make us realize what we are and who we are in the present day. He continues to make us affirm the possibility of the performing arts as an experimental channel to rethink about the nature of performance. A young director who constantly wrestles with the role of theater and plays—I await with keen interest and curiosity to see where he turns his gaze next. 



Nam Youn-il (producer, Doosan Art Center)
Nam Youn-il (producer, Doosan Art Center)
Nam Youn-il is a producer at Doosan Art Center. He runs the Artists Incubator Program and Doosan Art Lab, which are designed to discover young artists and foster their creative talents and activities. As a producer, he continually ruminates about ways to bridge the gap between young artists and their audience. e-mail