Thursday, December 19, 2013

Changes to Traditional Theatre in Modern Korea

I was asked to write three entries in an upcoming publication called the Dictionary of Asian Theatre. This is my draft of one entry... the word count is practically killing me.

Changes to Traditional Theatre in Modern Korea
Three main primary reincarnations of traditional theatre in modern Korea have reimagined tradition in new ways: madanggeuk,yeonhigeuk, and changgeuk.

During the Korean pro-democracy movement activists became interested in re-appropriating Korean tradition from government control (as registered items of protected traditional culture), and to that end learned mask dance dramas and pungmul drumming. Motivated youth staged what appeared to be a traditional performance, but after a crowd had amassed and the show was underway, the traditional would often give way to a more explicit political message. Over time these young people realized that they no longer needed to clothe their politics within tradition and the genre madanggeuk was born. Through their connection with the democratization movement, these plays by and large focused on spoken and mimed messages. Due to performers’ background training in mask dance drama and pungmul and a desire to remain allied with Korean folk culture, their plays often incorporated traditional music and movement, with the players clad in Korean traditional clothing. In the present day many madanggeuk are performed without these elements, on a variety of themes limited only by the imagination of those involved. New members of madanggeuk troupes may never have learned pungmul or mask dance dramas, and although some troupes explicitly continue to incorporate tradition and train their members in these skills, others do not.
This madanggeuk performed by students of a women's university (not professionals) has lost almost all markers of tradition. 


This madanggeuk maintains the various traditional trappings, but the performers are not necessarily explicitly trained in traditional performance-- they employ the markers of tradition that are useful to evoke a country bumpkin aesthetic but the emphasis is on a humorous delivery of the story. When most Koreans picture madanggeuk they picture something like this.

             Although madanggeuk originally appeared to be the naturally evolving future of Korean traditional theatre, today yeonhi groups, or groups performing yeonhigeuk (yeonhi is a loose term for traditional folk theatre) have emerged. One reason for the resurgence of this term is the opening of a department in yeonhi at the Korean National University of the Arts. The department trains students in mask dance drama, pungmul, shamanic performance, and the skills of the traditional itinerant Korean performers, the Namsadang. Yeonhi groups, often including graduates of the university, have thorough traditional training and reassemble various traditions into full-length shows. Many yeonhi groups create new stories as a framework for presenting traditions they have learned. Instead of limiting themselves to one art or one genre (such as a single village’s pungmul style or one traditional folk dance), they combine styles and genres in a single show. This may include the lion dance from Bongsan’s mask dance drama, the spinning disks from Namsadang, drumming in a pan-regional style, and newly coined humorous dialogue delivered in a traditional style.

I really want to show you a specific video that perfectly encapsulates yeonhigeuk -- but for some reason I cannot embed it. Please visit it here.

Here is another example, this is of highlights from the yeonhi performance of "Good Morning Gut" by The Gwangdae


             Finally, changgeuk is the re-staging of the epic pansori tales that were originally sung by a solo singer accompanied by a drummer. In changgeuk, similar to an opera or a musical, each character is voiced by a different singer on an often elaborate set with props. Changgeuk were first staged in the early twentieth century and contributed to the ongoing success of the pansori genre by providing an alternative setting in which to hear the distinctive singing style. When staging pansori as changgeuk, the music expands from a single drummer to include multiple Korean traditional instruments, and other traditional arts such as dance may be presented in a scene only briefly described in the original tale. Newly composed changgeuk that are not based on the traditional pansori epics have been less successful.


This video is from a production of the National Changgeuk Company's performance of a changgeuk of the pansori tale of Shim Cheong. 

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