Guide to English-Language Live Theatre in Korea

Written by on January 15, 2014 in Arts
The Shakespeare in Busan troupe performing Much Ado About Nothing.

Shakespeare in Busan performing in “Twelfth Night” (2013)

I love drama. Not the “fight-with-your-best-friend” kind of drama. The other kind. The “sob-loudly-in-public” and the “slap-your-knee-funny” kind of drama. I’m talking theatre. Korea has a long history of popular entertainment and these days there are plenty of live shows, musicals, and performances but many are offered only in Korean. What to do? Bookmark this handy guide to checking out English-language live theatre in Korea, that’s what!

Guide to Theatre in Korea – Cost, Getting Involved, Venues, and Etiquette

Cost – The best part about catching live shows in Korea is that it’s low-cost or it’s free! Yes, you heard right. Many of the actors in the troupes listed below have day jobs and as such they often don’t charge money for their work. So unless the show is raising money for charity, features professional actors, or is part of a larger festival, most likely it will be free. Occasionally they’ll ask for a small donation. This is optional and your money will be used to cover costs associated with the production, such as costumes, theatre rentals, production rights, or to fund future shows. If the show is raising money for charity, they’ll be very clear about where the funds are headed and you’re free to ask more about the cause if you’re interested to know how your cash will be used.

Getting Involved – If you’d like to help in another way, follow the website or Facebook page of your favourite troupe and keep your eyes peeled to see if they need costumes, props, or rehearsal space. If you can offer any of these things, they’ll be most appreciative! These shows also need stagehands, sound and lighting engineers, costume and set designers, ushers and ticket-takers, and program designers. If you’ve always wanted to get involved in the theatre, then this is a great way to do it. It’s not just about the actors, you know! Help behind the scenes is always needed to bring your favourite shows to life and if you’re interested in acting, helping backstage will ensure that you’re remembered when auditions roll around! It helps too that some productions and troupes don’t require auditions – just enthusiasm and attendance. Check out each group’s website for more details.

Volunteers are always needed to help run prodcutions. Here, volunteers take tickets and sell souvenirs for The Vagina Monologues in Busan, 2013

Volunteers are always needed to help run productions.
Here, volunteers sell souvenirs for “The Vagina Monologues” in Busan (2013)

Venues – This part is tricky. Given that a few of these troupes operate on a part-time basis, some don’t have a permanent theatre venue. I’ve seen shows staged in theatres, parks, and even bars! But don’t worry the setting doesn’t detract from the quality of the performances. Because there so many great shows and few places to stage them, it’s also important that you head out early. While you think you’ve had a great idea to watch the Saturday night show, so did everyone else in town – the last thing you want is to be turned away at the door! Most shows will open their doors 30 minutes early, perhaps earlier if they are selling advance tickets. Get there early to get a great seat.

Etiquette – Feel free to laugh out loud, clap, and cry if the mood calls for it. Audience participation time? Chime in! The actors love it when you participate and I promise you it will make the show more lively and fun for everyone. While you’re busy being a good audience member and making the cast feel comfortable, I should note for your comfort that outside food and drink usually isn’t permitted, but it depends on the venue. Finally, just for the sake of being thorough, please don’t talk or put your feet on the chairs and chuck out your trash or any old programs on your way out. The volunteers at the theatre will thank you for it.

Now it’s time to meet the groups who put on those theatrical performances you’ve been dying to see!

Guide to the Theatre in Korea – Performers

These are the most active groups, but if you follow the troupes in your area, often they will promote the work of other shows and events that are taking place. There is a lot more activity going on than what’s listed here!

Seoul

Seoul Players – Founded in 2001 by Roman Zolnierczyk, an Australian businessman and theatre aficionado, the vibrant Seoul Players company has ambitiously aimed for two full-stage productions every year since 2002, with the whodunit The Real Inspector Hound staged most recently in December 2013. Charity performances of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues will take place from February 21-23, 2014 followed by the dark comedy The Pillowman in April. You can check out their website, www.seoulplayers.com, or their Facebook page, for more information.

Seoul Players performing in their 3rd Annual 10 minute Play Festival, 2013 (Image Credit: Seoul Players)

Seoul Players performing in their 3rd Annual 10 minute Play Festival (2013)
(Image Credit: Seoul Players)


Seoul City Improv
– Improvisational comedy, or improv, is all about spontaneity, laughter and fun, and Seoul City Improv offers up just that. American director and actor Margaret Whittum funded SCI in 2007, modeling the group on the comedic stylings of the British TV show, Whose Line is it Anyway? Since that time, SCI has staged over 100 unique shows with upwards of 100 performers from around the world. If you’re keen to try improv, check out their website. No experience is needed to join their Wednesday evening rehearsals in Haebongchon. I did improv for four years and it’s a fun way to meet new and interesting people. Find out more info on their website, www.seoulcityimprov.com, or on their Facebook page and group.

Some of the mainstage players of Seoul City Improv, seen here in 2011 (Image Credit: NJ Calder for SCI)

Some of the mainstage players of Seoul City Improv, seen here in 2011
(Image Credit: NJ Calder for Seoul City Improv)


Daegu

Daegu Theatre Troupe – This active troupe stages plays and charity shows from their home base in Daegu as well as participating in theatre festivals around Korea. The troupe’s eclectic selection of shows makes them worth checking out in my book. They have staged theatrical versions of the cult classics Night of the Living Dead and The Princess Bride and their upcoming show Gruesome Playground Injuries: An Adaptation sounds intriguing to say the least. You can catch that show from January 18-19, 2014 and they will be hosting a 10-Minute Play Festival in February with participants from Seoul and Busan. For more information, check out their Facebook page and group or shoot them a friend request here.

Rehearsing for the upcoming "Gruesome Playground Injuries: An Adaptation" (2014)<br />(Image Credit: Chase Cribbins for Daegu Theatre)

Rehearsing for the upcoming “Gruesome Playground Injuries: An Adaptation” (2014)
(Image Credit: Chase Cribbins for Daegu Theatre)

Busan

Shakespeare in Busan and Busan English Theatre Association – In 2010, Jennifer Howell kicked off Shakespeare in Busan, an English-language theatre group dedicated to sharing the Bard’s greatest works. The group and their performances were well-received and their annual show at the Dalmaji ampitheatre in Haeundae quickly became a staple of Busan’s summer arts scene. In 2012, troupe members Jenna Apollonia and Peter Starr-Northrup collaborated to form the Busan English Theatre Association allowing the company to pursue other artistic endeavors and creating a safe place for Busan’s thespians to collaborate and grow. Together, the two groups have staged several highly-successful shows and have branched off into performing experimental, conceptual pieces, including a web-exclusive, semi-improvised live broadcast of Choose Your Own Adventure Shakespeare: Hamlet. You can look for them at Daegu Theatre Troupe’s upcoming 10-Minute Play Festival and new shows are always in the works. Find out more about the Busan English Theatre Association through their Facebook group and through the Shakespeare in Busan Facebook group.

Shakespeare in Busan in  Much Ado About Nothing, 2012 (Image Credit: Shakespeare in Busan)

The cast of Shakespeare in Busan’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (2012)
(Image Credit: Shakespeare in Busan)

Ulsan

Industrial Theatre Troupe – The Industrial Theatre Troupe was thought up by Dongrami Theatre manager Yoojung Im, American writer Pete Musto, and Welsh drama teacher and current producer Danielle Malson in 2012. ITT’s first show was a conceptual, partially-improvised piece entitled, Too Much Light – 30 Plays in 60 Minutes. The group was so pleased with the challenge Too Much Light presented that the project has been re-incarnated three times since with the fourth incarnation entitled The New Black to show from February 7-8, 2014. You can find out more about their upcoming performance on their Facebook page.

Ulsan's Industrial Theatre Troupe performing Too Much Light - 30 Plays in 30 Minutes, 2013  (Image Credit: The Industrial Theatre Troupe)

Industrial Theatre Troupe performing “Too Much Light – 30 Plays in 30 Minutes” (2013)
(Image Credit: The Industrial Theatre Troupe)


Dongrami Theatre
Performing in English and aimed at Korean schoolchildren, the adults in the Dongrami Theatre Troupe stage plays for youth year-round, occasionally including youngsters in on the fun themselves. You can check out their Facebook page, though information is listed in Korean only.

The kids of Dongrami Theatre perform in A Christmas Carol, 2012

The kids of Dongrami Theatre perform in “A Christmas Carol” (2012)


Gwangju

Gwangju Performance Project – Brought to life by Jo Park and Travis Major between 2010 and 2011, the Gwangju Performance Project has five theatrical shows under their belt thus far and they also embarked on an ambitious short-term dance performance project as well. Their most recent production, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them was staged to great success, selling out their first show. If you live on Korea’s west coast, keep your eyes open for new about 2014 productions via their website, www.gwangjutheatre.com, or their facebook group.

Gwangju Performance Project in The Real Inspector Hound, 2011 (Image Credit: Gwangju Performance Project)

Gwangju Performance Project in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” (2011)
(Image Credit: Gwangju Performance Project)


Non-Verbal Performances

In addition to dance performances, concerts, and the shows listed above, there are also many popular non-verbal plays and musicals that can you check out. Aside from a few token phrases in Korean or English, these modern shows can easily be understood by anyone. There are at least a dozen: the cooking-themed comedies Nanta and BIBAP, the heart-pounding drums of Fanta-Stick, Pang Show, and Drum Cat; the B-boy rhythms of Ballerina Who Loves a B-Boy, Marionette, and B-Boy KUNG; or the beautiful dance moves in Karma and Sachoom; the speed paintings of Drawing Show HERO; or the martial arts mania of Jump!. Traditional performances are also a great option for the multicultural set. Check out this link for a great breakdown with show synopses, theatre addresses, and contact information.

Are you a theatre aficionado or thespian? Do you have another group you’d like to share?
Let me know in the comments!

Written by Jessica Steele for The Korea Blog. Photographs credited with permission to original source.
Content may not be reproduced without permission.

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About the Author

Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly four years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.