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Creating a Win-Win Situation with the Local Society
[Space] Creating a Win-Win Situation with the Local Society
Writer : Yunsoo KANG_Artistic director, CakeTree Theatre Company 2013.01.15 Europe > United Kingdom

Creating a Win-Win Situation with the Local Society 
[Venues] Korea–UK Connection Project_
Organization Research Review 1(NIE,Graeae)


The cloudy weather that followed me throughout my entire trip to England was already waiting for me when I arrived in Japan. Two weeks of such an intense itinerary that it created a hole in the sole of my shoe. The water from the rain soaked my left foot and my body was heavy with exhaustion, but my heart filled with thanks upon learning that my wife had not given birth to our first child while I was away on the trip. And thus my 3-week visit to the UK to do research for the Korea–UK Connection Project was completed. As my left shoe proved, the program was extremely heavy and fulfilling, and as my wife also showed, I did not miss a thing. But my body is too tired. So I will take a rest first and begin my anecdote thereafter.

I want to create in Korea a private theater company that is international in nature and where people with and without disabilities will be able to have fun together and create a win-win situation with the local society. This goal, which I have cherished for some years, became the theme of my research. Owing to the outstanding judgment and generosity of the Korea Arts Management Service and the British Council, my research was selected to be part of the Korea–UK Connection program. Did my appearance have anything to do with my selection? I did not dare ask. The organizations that I wanted to visit in England were also given the green light. To reiterate, one part of my theme was an organization that was "international in nature" and "where people were having fun." To meet this end, I visited NIE. The other part of my theme was "a company created by people with and without disabilities." and to see this, I visited Graeae. There was one week in which all the participants of the program did research on the institutions available in the UK that discovered and fostered new artists; that was also very valuable and fruitful. Because of the lack of time and space, I cannot elaborate on all the details of the program. Thus, I will take this opportunity to simply introduce the two organizations that I visited.

The reasons to be cheerful _ Graeae ©Patrick Baldwin ©Patrick Baldwin

’’Misunderstanding is more intellectual than the first understanding’’ (Slavoj Zizek)

I think there is nothing that can better describe the NIE (New International Encounter) than this quote by philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose name really oozes with Eastern European flavor. The NIE is a drama company that was formed in 2001 in a small city named Mseno in the Czech Republic. As the name indicates, it began with bringing together performance artists from five different countries in Europe. Ten years later, NIE has two independent offices, one in Norway and one in the UK, and actors from 36 countries produce new works here and there and tour around Europe and the world. The uniqueness of their work is that these actors from different countries use their mother tongue onstage. And the misunderstandings and unpredictable development of events that take place make their performances richer and more intellectual.

At a theater in Bristol, a city that is a three-hour train ride away from London, members of the NIE were rehearsing for the Christmas production of Hansel and Gretel. Heavy rain hit the stone pavements of the old city hard that day, and it was the day my left shoe gave way, soaking my sock and foot. As I took off my sock and placed it carefully on the heater to dry once I was inside the theater, the rehearsal began. The play Hansel and Gretel had debuted the year before at Cambridge. It was a play made for family viewership and had received very good reviews, including one from Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. As the audience steps into the theater, one passes through some trees and reaches the stage, which resembles a small forest. Five actors enter the stage playing different instruments. Once upon a time… the actors begin to say in four languages, as if reciting a chant to call the audience into entering the world of the story.

Graeae ©Alison Baskerville

All the actors can play different musical instruments, and the live music is actually the main language onstage. In that sense, the format very much resembles that of Kneehigh, another prominent drama company in the UK. Moreover, the actor is not merely a character in the play; he or she is at the same time the storyteller and thus is communicating with the audience while stepping in and out of the play. In this regard, it is also similar to the physical theaters that are based on Jacques Lecoq’’s methodology. But its uniqueness and most noticeable difference come not only from the use of different languages onstage but from the process of developing the ideas and stories backstage. For the production of Tales from a Sea Journey, for instance, all the members of the performing team developed the story after traveling through the ocean for a month on a container ship. For Tales from the Middle of the Town, members spent a year in the city of Peterborough talking to children in schools in order to develop their ideas and story and put on the production in places that had become familiar in their daily lives, like the stores and streets of Peterborough. Moreover, for the production to be staged next year, titled North, North, North, the members are staying and rehearsing in Svalbard, the city closest to the North Pole. These diverse and unique ways of developing stories are also shared onstage with the audience. It was a little different in the case of Hansel and Gretel because this method of story making was omitted, but it nonetheless showed NIE’’s typical color and style. And because it is a story that is familiar to Korean audiences, while watching the rehearsal I hoped that it would be staged in Korea some day. The rehearsal had ended but my sock was still wet. With my wet left foot and sock, I took the train to London to my final destination during my visit in the UK.

Hansel and Gretel _NIE ©NIE

Graeae, Getting Rid of Social Disability in the Arts

There are two perspectives on what disability is: the medical perspective and the social view. Here is an example to make it simple. There is a flight of stairs, and at the bottom of the stairs there is a person in a wheelchair. From the medical perspective, because he cannot stand up and walk up the stairs, he is defined as "disabled." It sounds natural enough. But is it really? Let us, say, install a facility, a rail that would make it possible for the wheelchair to go up the stairs. If we do so, the person would not have any problem going up that flight of stairs. And under those circumstances, the word "disabled" would lose its meaning. Let us, say, remove the rail. There is the flight of stairs, and the person is there in a wheelchair, looking up. In that case, the person is "disabled." Society, by getting rid of that rail, that arrangement for the person to go up the stairs in his wheelchair, has cut off his accessibility. And this is what I call social disability.

Graeae is a name that is not very familiar in Korea though it is renowned and successful in London. The name "Graeae" derives from Greek mythology. According to the myth, the three Graeae sisters shared an eye (and a tooth) and lived happily as prophets until one day Prometheus (the hero) appeared. In order to fight against Medusa, Prometheus takes, or rather steals, the sisters’’ eyeball. As is the case with many with power and strength, Prometheus does not keep his promise to return the eye to the Graeae sisters. And thus the three sisters were given the burden of becoming "disabled," of not being able to see. The name of this theater group, which takes after the myth, is a metaphor for social disability. Even if the name of the company is unfamiliar, I am sure that many people, including Koreans, have either seen or heard of Graeae’’s work. I am sure of this because the company made a grand appearance at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics Games last summer. It was a stage that featured not only the world-renowned paraplegic Dr. Stephen Hawkings but also the very scientific Higg Boson subatomic particle and a gigantic reproduction of Marc Quinn’’s statue Alison Lapper Pregnant. The artistic director of the opening ceremony was none other than Jenny Sealey, who is the artistic director of the Graeae Company. At center stage the band was blasting music from Graeae’’s most recent and most commercially successful work titled Reasons to be Cheerful. At the bottom of the stage and surrounding it, the members of Wheels on Broadway were dancing away to the beat on their electric wheelchairs. On the side of the stage, creating a border between it and the auditorium, sway poles were swaying to and fro, and on top of the poles performers were showing an amazing circus act. This was a part of Graeae’’s work The Garden, which was inserted as a feature in the ceremony. This spectacular ceremony, which combined the arts and science, was not something that came up by chance. Art, like science, is a pioneer and an adventurer that ceaselessly explores and discovers at the leading edge of our lives to expand its horizons. In that sense, Graeae, where disabled artists are always center stage, is a pioneer that stands at the leading edge of accessibility.

On the first day of my visit, I met with Jenny and other staff members in order to discuss the theme of my research. During the next two days I spent time with Amit Sharma, who is the Associate Director of Graeae. On my first day with him, we participated in a workshop on accessibility at the Central School of Speech and Drama, which is a very historic learning institution for actors in London. At the half-day workshop, which was composed of games and dialogue, we were able to contemplate deeply on how to get rid of social disability in the performing arts field. It was certainly very nice to see that the theater company maintained such a close cooperative relationship with learning institutions. I thought this was very sound and healthy. As it was like the project in Peterborough by NIE, I am hopeful that this kind of sound and healthy cooperation can also be applied to Korean society. After all, a part of my research theme also includes "the creation of a win-win situation with local society."

NIE workshop ©NIE
On the last day, luckily, I was able to participate in a play lab, which is the tool by which new ideas and stories are developed at Graeae. With a proposal from John, a musician, we spent the entire day doing a program on "music that changed our lives." I shared personal experiences with the musicians, actors, and writers who were participating in developing the story and we came up with impromptu skits. Amit, who was also there, kept emphasizing that the program was not merely developing a new story for the stage but was also a process for discovering a new format for a new production. It was a day’’s work, and though it was rough, a vague picture became apparent. The participants are expected to meet regularly to play and experiment (hence the term "play lab") to produce ideas for a new format. My heart beats with anticipation on what my one day’’s worth of participation will result in.

Lastly, let us look back on the person with the wheelchair and the flight of stairs that stands before him. Why must we create this rail that will make it possible for the wheelchair to move up the stairs? In order to answer that question I want to turn to the ultimate accomplishment achieved through the human rights movement—the basic economic principle of maximizing and effectively using the limited resource of being human. It is not a generosity out of pity. It is common sense that with a little effort at the social level, more people can participate in productive activities. That, in fact, produces a little more happiness for more people. Human rights advance not because a country is an advanced country; on the contrary, when human rights advance, the country becomes an advanced country. And this is why we need to pay attention to the cause, accessibility, which Graeae is gracefully fighting for through performing arts. But beyond the grand causes and struggles, their performances are just plain fun and entertaining. I sincerely hope that their playful yet graceful and sophisticated works will be able to entertain and bring joy to Korean audiences some day. And if there is anything I can do or contribute to this end, I will surely do my best.

Alex Byerne _Artistic director of NIE ©NIE
I threw away the shoe with the hole and my left foot is now dry and well. The program in the UK gave me a lot of homework, but the first step has been taken. After three days of painful labor, my wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter. Watching both mother and child make such efforts to let the child come out of that small space was really a holy and even religious experience. Watching their faces in deep sleep, London seems so close, though it is 12 hours away by plane. I hope and pray that the new performances I or others stage will contribute to creating a better place, a better world, for this child.

기고자프로필

Yunsoo KANG_Artistic director, CakeTree Theatre Company
He is the artistic director of CakeTree Theatre Company in London, which was created by nine young artists from six countries. The company performed the productions Across the Border and If Only at BAC in London and the Secret Garden Party in Cambridge. Kang also brought these two works to the Keochang International Festival of Theater as well as to the Miryang Summer Performing Arts Festival, where he was awarded the Young Director’s Award and the prize for Best Work. He is currently in Japan preparing for his next production with Japanese theater actors.

Contact points: www.caketreetheatre.com
yoonsoo@caketreetheatre.com
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