The Samilro Warehouse Theater, home to experimental theatrical art since its inception, is nestled in a calm and narrow alley of Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul. The theater will reopen on Aug. 10 after surviving a crisis of closure due to financial difficulties in February.
Cradle for experimental theater revived from brink of shutdown
By Chung Ah-young
Among hundreds of small theaters around the nation, where was the first one? Many people think it would be in Daehangno, the hub of theatrical arts. But surprisingly, the nation's first small theater is located in the back alley of Myeong-dong, the shopping district of Seoul.
Behind the hustle and bustle of shopping malls, the Samilro Warehouse Theater, home to experimental theatrical arts since its inception, is nestled in a calm and narrow alley with a humble signboard.
After surviving a crisis of closure due to an accumulated deficit and shrinking patrons in February, the playhouse will reopen on Aug. 10.
When the shutdown was announced in February, various entities reached out to save the theater. Among others, Taekwang Industrial has financially supported the theater's revival. Funded by the company, the theater has undergone remodeling since May.
The number of seats will rise from the previous 68 to 106 along with an outdoor terrace on the second floor.
For the reopening performance, the theater will showcase the musical "Wedding" from Aug. 10 to Sept. 24. The show, which premiered in 2005, portrays the young generation's views on marriage.
Historical importance of theater
Since the theater opened in 1975 behind Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral, an increasing number of small theaters have followed in its footsteps and many troupes sprang up to meet the soaring popularity of the performing arts in the district.
Samilro has long played a role as a cradle for small theater culture. It started with fewer than 70 seats created from a storage area of an ordinary house in the back alley of Myeong-dong, which was a cultural center at that time. But it has repeated the closure and reopening in accordance with its management situation. Due to financial difficulties, the playhouse shut down and was used as a kimchi factory and as a printing house.
The theater has survived turbulent historical times despite struggles spanning more than 30 years. Nevertheless, Samilro has been more than a playhouse - a symbol of the future of Korean dramas and famous for producing numerous experimental stage works. It was also the gateway for star actors such as Chu Song-wung, Park Jung-ja and Jeon Mu-song.
The theater carries historical significance as the late actor Chu's one-man play "Red Peter's Confession" was successfully staged there in 1977, attracting a landmark 60,000 viewers for its four-month run. The play ignited the heyday for small theaters in the district.
Inspired by Franz Kafka's short story "A Report to an Academy", the play was produced, directed, adapted and performed by Chu in celebration of his 15th year as an actor. It was performed more than 1,000 times until his death in 1985.
Samilro has led the drama movement along with its early president and director Lee Won-kyung who reformed the theatrical system. At that time, the local theatrical scene was dominated by troupes with their own actors and directors. But Lee molded a producer-based system in which directors could freely put on works by choosing actors and crew from anywhere.
However, the good days of the theater didn't last long and the small theaters in Myeongdong began moving to Daehangno, as the district turned into the commercial center as it is today.
Although Myeong-dong is seeking a new theatrical renaissance, Samilro couldn't recover its past glory while again facing a crisis of a shutdown in February.
Still pursuing original goals
Jung Dae-kyung, president of Samilro who has operated the theater since 2004, said he feels as if he "has gotten out of hell" in regard to the reopening.
He recalled the moment when he decided to give up the theater in February.
"I tried to save the theater as much as I could because it's the oldest small theater in the nation and I decided to operate it to protect it from the fast-changing trends of the performing arts scene", Jung said.
The president said he began to lose faith when he couldn't pay the rent and he felt sorry for the building owner. "Now I am very happy to continue running this theater again", he said.
The crisis is not over yet, since most commercial performing arts have turned to Daehangno. Compared to the small number in the past, there are countless theaters nowadays, most of which are located in Daehangno.
However, in keeping with the identity of the theater, he has continued to put on experimental plays.
"Our theater cannot compete with others structurally as now we have only 100 seats, although the number has been slightly increased. Even if all the seats are fully occupied, we cannot break even", he said.
Despite the difficulty of attracting enough audience members, Jung insisted that he continues to stage valuable and experimental pieces by young artists.
"I know our works are not that appealing to the young audience. Although we staged 'Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen', directed by Lee Breuer, an American master in experimental theater, in 2009, we didn't succeed", he said.
"The stage art scene is under the economic principle, which means more benefits for the big-budget and top grossing musicals, which are staged in big theaters for bigger returns. So small theaters like us can hardly be exposed to spectators because many ticket sellers prefer the big-name musicals to our works".
He said that the conglomerates are eating into the theater business in Daehangno in the same way that super supermarkets (SSM) are threatening small merchants.
"Many big theaters equipped with fancy facilities are under construction and will be operated by the large conglomerates. So many small theaters are facing more and more difficulties".
Due to the support of Taekwang Industrial, the theater receives 5 million won every month to pay the rent and utility bills. It is a big help for him, relieving worries for sustaining operations.
For the reopening, the president will accelerate his original goal to maintain the identity of the theater as a cradle for the experimental theatrical arts for young thespians.
"I want to be back to basics for the pure theatrical spirits", he said.
Jung emphasized the importance of theater in these times as it is a pure art that, like literature, is a pillar of the human spiritual world. He laments the situation in which young audiences look just for fun when they choose performances.
"We need more attention from the young audience, who care about the pure theatrical art that lays the ground for pure, artistic theater", he said.
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