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
Mokwha Repertory Company
Mokwha Repertory Company production Romeo and Juliet
Written and directed by Oh Tae-sok
Premiered in 1995

Romeo and Juliet
Mokwha Repertory Company production I LOVE DMZ
Written and directed by Oh Tae-sok

After your term as Artistic Director ends, what activities will you be undertaking with your own company?
    During my tenure as Artistic Director with the National Theater Company my own company has been active as usual, with things including overseas performances at the Barbican Theatre. This month we have performances of Romeo and Juliet at three cities in China. When these performances in China were decided, it was a profound moment for me. My Mokwha Repertory Company had first performed in Japan in 1988 and finally 20 years later we were invited to China. It made me think about what this difference of 20 years meant in terms of the relationship between Korea and Japan and between Korea and China.
    I have had numerous opportunities to visit China recently, and they have caused me to think once again about the culture that the three Far Eastern countries of China, Korea and Japan share due to our common use of Chinese characters in our written language. Since some time ago, I have long wondered if there wasn’t something I could do involving the Chinese character-based culture that our three nations share, and finally I think the time is ripe. Korea has had its historical problems with Japan and its ideological differences with China that have prevented our relationships from being more open in the past, but in my recent visits to China I have gotten the feeling that that era is over.
    Don’t you think it is interesting? For example, all three of our nations share the two-character expression “天地” (combining the characters for Heaven and Earth). The pronunciation may be different in each country but these two characters invoke the same images in the minds of the people of the three countries and they share the same meaning. I want to create theater based on this Chinese character culture. And I feel that Korea is the country that can propose and initiate such theater. Why do I think so? Korea has a culinary culture that involves mixing a variety of foods together and a culinary culture that involves fermentation, so we are good at mixing things together and letting things ferment. It is the same with culture. The foreign cultures of Japan and China are mixed together and fermented in the bowl of Korean culture. An interesting concept, isn’t it? (Laughs) This will probably be part of the work that I and the Mokwha Repertory Company will be doing from now on.

Can you tell us about the exchanges you have had until now with theater people of Japan?
    I first visited Japan in 1980. I was contacted by people who wanted to do a production of my play in Japan. But it is a play that is so Korean in subject and nature that I asked if there was anyone in Japan who could direct it. They answered by asking me if I would come and direct it. It was performed at the Bungei-za Le Pilier in Ikebukuro, which I am told no longer exists. That was a joint production Zainichi Kankoku Engeki Koenkai (Korean-Japanese association for performance of Korean theater) and the Kokusai Seinen Engeki Center (International Youth Theater Center) and that was when I met Mr. Ryosuke Uriu of the Hakken no Kai.
    In 1982, the Chijinkai Theater Group planned as series of one-woman plays called Mothers that was created by six playwrights and six actresses, and one of these was my play Omi starring Lee Rei-sen. At that time I met Juro Kara and we drank a lot together (laughs). Beginning with our Mokwha Repertory Company performance of Tae (Life Cord) at the Mitsui Festival in 1988, we have had a long list of performances in Japan at the Tiny Alice theater in Tokyo and many other theaters. In fact, my father studied at Tokyo’s Waseda University and I guess you could say that perhaps I am linked by fate to Japan in some way.

Lately there are an increasing number of commercial productions and musicals on the Korean theater scene, and in the “University Road” (Taehanno) district of Seoul there are over 100 theaters making for great diversity and richness in theater. What are your thoughts about this state of Korean theater?
    It may look abundant and active at a glance, but I feel that much of our traditional theater is being lost and the conditions for people to continue to do theater are getting worse. The biggest problem is that there is not enough time for people to learn the basics. The kind of acting done in movies and TV is fragmented moments of acting where the mechanics and technology can provide cover for the actors. That is why stars and Cinderellas are born overnight, one after another. That is what the young people who go into acting are dreaming of.
    How long do you think it takes for a true actor to be born? Young people will enter the theater department of a university at the age of 19 or so, and since South Korea has compulsory military service, men are 26 or 27 before they graduate from university. After that they begin auditions and by the time they make their debuts it has already been about ten years since they started out. That’s why they all want to become stars as fast as possible. But in theater it doesn’t work that way. Young people seem to think that stardom in acting and theater can come the same way as in TV. They want everything to happen fast. Very little time is spent in rehearsing either. To increase productivity and cut costs, the rehearsal period gets shorter and shorter. The average rehearsal period for a production may be just one or two months in most cases. In conditions like this the artistic quality of works drops and the content gets thinner.
    At times, people have said that our Mokwha Repertory Company productions are like school plays, but I don’t care at all if they call it school play or whatever else. That’s because our actors at Mokwha Repertory Company are spending time learning the basics of acting. It takes a very long time for someone to mature as a person. In our company the members are involved in the repeated process of rehearsals and performances year in and year out. It is this accumulation of experience that makes an actor. As I said earlier, most of the actors reach a point where their life choices cause them to leave the company in their mid-30s or so. However, even if they leave the company, I believe the Mokwha Repertory Company is playing a significant role if some of them go on to careers in Korea’s theater world.

Thank you for speaking with us today. We look forward to seeing the kinds of works you will create about the Chinese character culture of Korea, China and Japan.
    I enjoy Japanese food but I have trouble with Chinese food. It is all either to oily or too spicy (laughs). I look forward to seeing my friends in Japan again.
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