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For the Love of Theater and Family
For the Love of Theater and Family
Interviewer : CHOI, Bo-mi (freelance writer) 2016.10.11

For the Love of Theater and Family

Actor YANG, Jong-ook of the Yangson Project personally updates readers with news and performance announcements on the group’s blog. All of his posts begin with the same opener: “This is actor Yang.” His sincere yet humorous style quietly resonates with readers, bringing them back for the next post and the next, just as Yangson Project’s performances keep fans expectant and always coming back for more. Last summer, Yangson Project made their European debut in Avignon. Now they are awaiting the showcase at PAMS Choice at the Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) with their production of Factory Girl, a play based on a short story by Yu Jin-Oh that was serialized in a daily newspaper in 1931. I met with Director Park Ji-hye to hear about the lives and theater experiences of this intriguing group of four, whose close bond has been forged by an earnest love of the stage and strong personal rapport.

▲ The author (right) and director of Yangson Project Park Ji-hye © Lee Kang-hyeok

▲ The author (right) and director of Yangson Project PARK, Ji-hye © LEE, Kang-hyeok

The passionate audiences at Avignon and our deepening bond

I suppose words do have power, because when we were preparing Conte of Days and Nights, based on a collection of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, we said among ourselves that we would create that piece imagining that we would be performing it in France. Then we actually ended up going to France! We performed from July 6 to 28 at a venue called Théâtre des Halles. I think the audience enjoyed the novel and unique experience of seeing French classics transformed and expressed through the emotions and sensibilities of people from a different country and culture. When we went outside after the show, people were waiting outside to meet us. Some wanted to tell us their opinions, and others even wanted to come up to the control booth to talk to us about their impressions of the show. They were eager to communicate with us. I thought about this a lot after our trip—while in Avignon, the four of us stayed in the same house. We’ve been to workshops together, but living in the same house for four weeks was the first. It felt like we were a real family. We felt so comfortable around one another and we could talk about anything and everything. Living together has brought us closer together and our relationships have gotten stronger. We’re close in a way that we can really feel. 

The intense, arduous process of finding our next piece

I don’t think we have ever created a production with a clear idea or expectation of how it will turn out in the end. The process can differ each time, but we do have a tendency to choose the pieces that speak to us most intensely. The four of us have to come to a unanimous decision to start working on a piece, and one thing we agree on is that the work has to spark something inside us. What we are interested in is moments of intense internal collisions. We decide on a piece when we become curious, want to find out more, or feel like there is something we could share. For instance, if we’re looking at short stories, we go to the library and read on our own before meeting up later and talking about our choices. Then, we go back and reread the books, select a few, and then reread again before finally coming to a decision. It can be a long and arduous process. 

The extraordinary joy of dramatizing fiction

Basically, working with fiction differs quite significantly from the outset in comparison to working with plays. Fiction usually involves a narrative with well-organized structure and detailed descriptions. One advantage of fiction is that we have the freedom to select the parts we want and repackage them any way we want. We happened to talk about this during our practice today—that when we work on a play that was written as a play, we tend to have this notion that we are playing a character. In contrast, when we adapt a work of fiction for the stage, we feel less like we are playing a specific character and more as though there is a separate narrator, and that our acting can include things more abstract than a role or character. Hence, playing a role written for a play and being an actor in a work of dramatized fiction can be quite different, and what we said today was that this difference seems to make the project interesting. Also, fiction includes descriptions, which makes the stories richer and more vivid, but plays rarely have descriptions (although they may sometimes have stage directions). In fiction, scenery and internal processes are directly described in the narration. To express such elements in a play, we can incorporate them into a character’s lines, or turn one sentence into a long scene. It’s fun to have these options. 

▲ Factory Girl  © Yangson Project

Factory Girl  © Yangson Project

“Yangson Project=Creative Collaboration”

Within our group, there is no single leader who oversees the entire process. Thus, we start out without any idea of how our work will turn out, and what results often defies our expectations completely. This is our favorite part. When each of us sees the work as his or her own, we are more invested in the creative process. We take initiative and are more active in the discussions, and we become inspired by one another’s enthusiasm. Every person takes ownership of the project. Of course, there are downsides as well. It usually takes longer to create a final result, and sometimes there’s the sense of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Yet what I have come to realize lately is that in participating in this production process, especially with Yangson Project, we learn one another’s concerns and thoughts concerning not only the play but life itself. And not only this, we also observe how these concerns evolve, so we become very close. The discussions we have in our creative process also change—the depth and extent of what we share increases. I think we are lucky to have engaged in this collaborative creative process with such consistency. We always start out by imagining ourselves simultaneously as directors, playwrights, and actors.

A collaboration of actors who think like writers and directors

This actually helps me greatly [as a director]. Ultimately, I think of theater as an actor’s art, an art form practiced by the performers on stage. In the early stages of the creative process, we work hard together, but my personal role as director is to assist the actors to stand on stage as the most creative artists they can be. When performing, actors need mirrors, and directors are the mirrors that can reflect the actors most clearly. Before the play is put on stage, the four of us have the same dream and equal say, but once the play is put on stage, the distinction between the actor and the director becomes clear. Each person has certain things they must do to fulfill their specific role. My role, then, is to watch the performance from the outside and see whether or not what we talked about is being realized on stage. When the actors seem to undergo difficulties, I guide them through, or offer suggestions. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but none of our members are authoritative and they all take my suggestions to heart. I guess we’re quite like-minded. So when I say something, they agree and accept it with an open mind, which in turn creates more common ground for us. 

Yangson Project on a roll? We’re just doing what we love!

We are always confused and muddled. What I mean is that whenever we start something new, we are completely clueless, feeling like failures and totally at a loss. People say “Hey, I heard Yangson Project is doing well these days,” but these are just rumors. When we ask them if they have seen our play, there are quite a few who haven’t even seen us perform. When we first heard that our fans were growing, there were moments when we were worried about how to measure up to their expectations and curious and concerned about how the audience would react. But in the end, we decided not to be swayed by external standards but rather enrich and reinforce ourselves internally. What I want more than anything else is for us to keep doing theater because we really enjoy it. 

Thoughts on being selected for PAMS Choice 2016

Of course I’m ecstatic! People often have moments of clear self-recognition when they are placed in unfamiliar surroundings. I had that experience when we went to China, Japan, and France to perform. I got a glimpse of our identity and our color as performers, and myself, from the outside. Being in foreign cultural settings and having certain realizations can be refreshing. Since we present our productions in small theatres, we’ve had the experience of interacting with the audience members from close up. I want to experience as many cultures as possible and live in those cultures even for a brief period of time. Communicating with the people of those cultures is also something I would like to do. 

Yangson Project’s choice for PAMS Choice

Factory Girl is the most physical of our works. It includes a lot of nonverbal expression, including sounds and movements, as well as a lot of images. Also, since there are no set pieces, it is ideal for tours. It’s the story of a girl living during the Japanese occupation, which is quite a historically specific setting. Although the conflict might be something specific to this character, we feel it’s something anyone could sympathize with. People in most other cultures have had similar experiences at one moment or another, so we expect they will be able to relate to our work on a broad level. 

▲ Director Park Ji-hye © Lee Kang-hyeok

▲ Director PARK, Ji-hye © LEE, Kang-hyeok

Expectations for PAMS and plans for overseas performances

We premiered Factory Girl at a hallway in school, and then performed it at a gallery created by renovating a factory. So if we could get a chance to perform it overseas, I kind of hope we might stage it in diverse locations, that is, alternative spaces rather than regular theaters. I asked each member where they would like us to go. After saying we would perform in France and seeing this actually happen, we believe there’s power in our words. Anyway, my answer was Germany, Jong-ook’s was Hungary, Ju-hee’s Norway, Ji-won’s Switzerland, and Sang-kyu’s Argentina. We keep telling ourselves that these places are where we want to go, and that it’ll happen someday, and that what we wish for aloud will come true.

Yangson Project is a group of artists whose members understand each other on a profound level and explore the world of theater together with the utmost sincerity. They are a true family, and I too hope their wishes come true so they can one day share the plays they so love to create with audiences in Germany, Hungary, Norway, Switzerland, and Argentina.  

CHOI, Bo-mi (freelance writer)
Choi Bo-mi worked at the production programming team of the National Theater Company of Korea until recently and is currently working on the 2016 Seoul festival research and evaluation committee. 
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