The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Oh Tae-sok, a genius of Korean theater and Artistic Director of The National Theater of Korea and The National Drama Company of Korea
The National Drama Company of Korea Tae (Life Cord)
Written and directed by Oh Tae-sok
Premiered in 1974
Your Mokwha Repertory Company is a group of theater people who are of the same mind and striving toward the same aims and you have worked with them steadily to build your own world of theater. In contrast, what did you hope to do when you became Artistic Director of The National Drama Company of Korea? Also, have there been any changes in the National Drama Company since you became Artistic Director?
    I wanted to stage plays with actors who fit the actual ages of the characters they played, which I wasn’t able to do with my own company of primarily young actors, and I wanted to spend more time and effort to do productions that were more complete and artistically refined, not only with my own works but also with The National Drama Company of Korea’s works and their repertoire. After I became Artistic Director, a national policy of promoting internationally a Korean brand image building on traditional culture was adopted and the play Tae (Life Cord), which is set against the political conflict of the age of the 6th king of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, DanJoung, and the 7th king, Seojo (Seonjo), was chosen as the first play to represent the national brand. It was a play that The National Drama Company of Korea had done several productions of in the past, and for the new production we received a 3-year national grant. In the first year the new production premiered in Korea, in the second year it toured to India and for next year we are preparing for performances of it in Poland and Japan. With historical plays like this it is especially important to have actors that fit the actual ages of the characters and to spend sufficient time preparing and rehearsing the production, and that is why the National Drama Company was able to do it properly.
    As for your question about what changes there have been in the National Drama Company since I became Artistic Director, it is hard for me to say. It has been less than ten years since the Company adopted a full-fledged Artistic Director system. Before that the actors chose a Company head from among themselves. And, until my term, each Artistic Director only served two years. I was the first with a 3-year term. Also, I believe that perhaps these ten years have been a period when both the Artistic Directors and the National Drama Company were searching for an answer to the question of what type of role an Artistic Director of The National Drama Company of Korea should play. The system that had been used for so long prior to that doesn’t change easily. Perhaps the answer is that each new Artistic Director should bring a new flavor and new energy that changes the Company gradually over time.

When did the National Theater of Korea adopt the Artistic Director system?
    I believe it was in 2000. During the stints when Kim Sok-mun and Kim, Chul-Lee were serving as Artistic Director there was a company director serving simultaneously with them, so that the National Theater Company had the added support of a two-top system. After that, Lee Yun-tek served alone as Artistic Director, and I am the second to serve under this one-top system. The National Theater Company of Korea is an actors’ group. It is only since the Korean theater world entered the era of directors that things began to change and the National Theater Company brought in outside directors as Artistic Director.

What is the makeup of The National Drama Company of Korea in terms of company members, and how many productions does it mount a year?
    At present there are 26 actors in the National Theater Company and we mount at least four productions a year. The Artistic Director has the final say about what works are produced, but the repertoire is composed of four basic types of plays a year: one chosen by audience questionnaires, a revival of a traditional Korean play, a work from the classics of Western theater from playwrights such as Moliere, Schiller, Shakespeare and Chekov and new creative theater plays. We particularly focus energies of the fourth group, new creative plays, for which we solicit applications of new works on an open basis and also request works playwrights ranging in age from their 30s to 70s. Although it may seem odd to have such a broad-ranging group compete against each other, we then choose one work a year from all of those submitted.
    As for directors for our productions, besides Korean directors we also invite directors from overseas. In particular, we will invite foreign directors to direct the one production each year in our “World Masterpiece Theater Series.” In this way we give our actors and audience experiences of the directing methods of Western theater. This year we invited the German director Jens-Daniel Herzog to direct a production of Terrorist Hamlet. I was also able to participate in that production by directing an interlude skit within the play, which involved a mix of Western and Eastern elements and was very enjoyable to do. I should also mention that we had a “Studio Actor in Action” program this year that gave our actors a chance to try their hand at directing. In this program, one of our central actors, Lee Sung-jik, directed Chong Wishing’s play Winter Sunflower (Fuyu no Himawari) using a group of younger actors from the National Drama Company, in a production that was very well received.

It seems that there is an especially active agenda of exchanges between the National Theater of Korea and foreign theater companies.
    The National Theater of Korea has long been involved in foreign exchanges, but I believe these programs have become even more active since Mrs. Shin Son-hee became its administrative director. Since last year we have been holding “The World Festival of National Theater,” which this year ran from October 1 to 30 and included 11 productions, including ones from France’s national Theatre de l’Odeon, Norway’s BelCanto Festival and China’s National Ballet company and Korean companies. Also, each of the National Theater’s affiliated companies are giving an increasing number of overseas performances and involving themselves in international exchange projects. This is because, as I mentioned earlier, our country is recently involved in national-level programs to promote Korea as a brand overseas.

This is your last year as Artistic Director of The National Drama Company of Korea. What are your hopes for it in the future?
    After becoming Artistic Director, one of the things I regretted most was how short the performance runs were. When the run is only a week or so, it is very difficult to bring the play to a high artistic level. It feels as if, by the time the director and actors have brought their work to the audience, felt its reaction and begun to really concentrate on bringing out the most in it, the run is already over. I spoke earlier about the depth of the actor ranks and the financial security these actors at The National Drama Company of Korea have. If this is its strong point, its weak point is probably this difficulty in bringing the production to real completion at a high artistic level because of the short-run schedule that is built into the system. In the end it is through actually performing on stage that actors get their real training and improve their acting skills.
    If it were up to me, I believe that the ideal situation would be to have a total of about 40 actors working in two teams of 20 actors each at the rehearsal stage. For some productions there should also be auditions to bring in outside actors and create a stimulating atmosphere where the company’s actors are constantly working hard and creatively and works are being performed year-round. Theater and actors can be compared to a concrete mixer. If the mixer stops turning the concrete starts to harden and go bad. But if you keep things constantly turning you can continue to present the audience with performances and works that are fluid, fresh and creative. However, because the operating system also depends on elements such as budget, audience draw and production, it is not easy to change things, but I hope that they will look into these possibilities in the future.
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