South Korean director brings us a Shakespeare adaptation

Ma Yue
South Korean musical and drama director Kim Dong-yeon shares thoughts about theater and the development of musicals in both China and South Korea.
Ma Yue
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On a scorching summer afternoon, South Korean musical and drama director Kim Dong-yeon is putting young Chinese actors through their paces for the play "Shakespeare's R&J," which is scheduled to open in Shanghai in less than a month's time.

Kim, in his early 40s, is one of South Korea's most popular and prolific stage directors. He's also director of the recently ended musical "Maybe Happy Ending," which was staged at Theater Above. It was a small-theater production about the intimate relationship of two obsolete helper-robots.

Kim made his debut in Shanghai in 2018 with the Chinese version of the musical "Midnight Diner."

The Chinese version of "Shakespeare's R&J" is his third work in the city. It will be staged at Theater Above from August 6 to 15.

South Korean director brings us a Shakespeare adaptation
Ti Gong

Kim Dong-yeon

"Shakespeare's R&J" was created by American playwright Joe Calarco, who spun the classic "Romeo and Juliet" story into a modern tale of gay teenage awakening. The play was adapted into a South Korean version in 2018, directed by Kim.

Production company Shanghai Blue Culture invited him to Shanghai to take charge of the Chinese version of the play.

The story centers on four boarding school students who are tired of tedious school routines and their structured lives.

One evening, they come across a copy of "Romeo and Juliet" and take turns reading the parts. They are thrilled by the experience, seeing parallels between their lives and the lives of the characters. After nights of reading, the boys start to challenge old-fashioned strictures that bind their lives and seek freedom and love.

Kim has been a fan of Shakespeare since college. He majored in acting but found himself better suited to directing.

In an exclusive interview with Shanghai Daily, he shared thoughts about theater and the development of musicals in both China and South Korea.

South Korean director brings us a Shakespeare adaptation
Ti Gong

Kim Dong-yeon and Chinese actors are rehearsing the play "Shakespeare's R&J."

Q: "Midnight Diner," "Maybe Happy Ending" and "Shakespeare's R&J" are all small-theater productions. Does it mean you prefer small-scale works?

A: A lot of South Korean stage directors start with small-scale productions, and so did I. But after accumulating experience, I began to handle bigger works. Now the percentage is half and half.

The two works Shanghai audiences have seen happen to be small-scale productions. They are warm, caring and emotion-arousing, which is how some audiences describe my style now. But I don't restrain myself to a certain style. I keep myself open.

Q: Compared with China, South Korea has a better developed musical industry. Have you watched any original Chinese musicals? What do you think of them?

A: I have attended quite a few Chinese musicals since arriving here. I could listen to the music and watch the actors' performances, though I may have missed some parts of the plot due to the language barrier. I don't want to pass judgment on them, but what I can say is that I have witnessed the rapid development of musical in China in the past few years.

The original works and the reactions of audiences here remind me of the situation back in South Korea when the musical industry was still in its early stages. I have also noticed the co-existence of imported, adapted classic musicals and original ones. They are complementary in expanding the musical market.

Q: A survey showed that most people who go see musicals in Shanghai are between 18 and 35. About 90 percent of them are women. Is that similar to South Korea?

A: In South Korea, the most active musical audiences are in their 20s and 30s, and the majority are women. But those in their late 30s and 40s, or even older, also attend musicals often. We have productions targeting these age groups.

In South Korea, especially Seoul, the musical is a very common entertainment genre. Sometimes a company treats its staff to a musical instead of a year-end party.

South Korean director brings us a Shakespeare adaptation
Ti Gong

"Maybe Happy Ending," a musical directed by Kim, was recently staged at Theater Above.

Q: In China, the popularity of some musicals rests on their star power instead of the quality of the production itself. Is that just a normal part of industry development?

A: I don't consider star power a negative thing. Big names help attract audiences to the theater. That's also the case in South Korea now. More mature audiences tend to favor classic adaptations and time-honored, interesting works. Quality is important.

Q: How does the language barrier affect your rehearsals with Chinese actors?

A: I can observe their emotional expressions to judge whether they are really into their roles. Though our languages are different, the method of reciting lines transcends language – sometimes you shout, sometimes you take a pause.

We spend a week reading the script before rehearsal starts. I explain each character to each actor. I also demonstrate the roles for the actors during rehearsals. I used to be an acting major after all.

Q: Apart from musicals and plays, is there any other performing art genre you hope to try in the future?

A: Right now, I have too many invitations to do drama and musical productions. But I hope to get involved in musical films in the future. That's still an emerging genre in South Korea. My musical knowledge will surely prove helpful.

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