Reflections On Theater Olympics 2010 In Seoul —Sarang: Humanity and Love—

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon at the "2010 Seoul Theater Olympics". Image Credit:

Lessons we may learn from Korea: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a dream to turn Seoul into a cultural and artistic hub in the world!”The above line is quoted from a statement by the Mayor of the Metropolitan City of Seoul (South Korea) that he made in his ‘Greeting’ to the participants of the 5th Theatre Olympics which was hosted by Seoul last year in the months of September, October and November (45 days).

Oh Se-hoon, the young and smart Mayor sounded optimistic in his proclamation to make Seoul an ideal city, where people’s economic and cultural life will find a fine balancing, allowing its inhabitants live a fulfilled life by occasionally visiting the theatres, which would be a privilege for the denizens of the city to taste the flavor of beauty, the ecstasy of rhythm, and toy with new ideas and perceptions. Theatrical performances will induce them to think and reflect on man and society around them, while bringing themselves closer to the variegated art forms, cultural modes and literary achievements from different parts of the globe, thereby enabling them to acquaint themselves with the sweeping tide of globalization. Such a wonderful experience made possible through live performances of world famous dances, plays, operas and ballets in the one hundred thirty or so theatres of Seoul!

The mega event continued for forty-five days, from 24 September to 7 November, 2010. The theme of this 5th Theatre Olympics was “Sarang: Love and Humanity” (‘Sarang” meaning both love and humanity in Korean). It was participated by thirteen countries, and there were over forty performances all in all. Since its flag-off in Greece (1995) the Theatre Olympics has been hosted by Japan, Russia and Turkey before it came to Korea.

This writer, in his exclusive hunt for some documents of the world famous Theatre Olympics eventually landed on the PRO’s table of the Chorus Repertory Theatre, Imphal, where he could lay his hands on what he needed. And this write-up is the result of that fortunate encounter. The synopsis of the plays, the write-ups of the officials and theatre personalities, the photographs of the plays, the schedule of the entire program tell you about the great excitement running through this great international event i.e. the 5th Theatre Olympics in Seoul.

While reading through the beautifully printed ‘Program Book’ of the 5th Theatre Olympics in Seoul, I was simply astounded by the kind of enthusiasm shown by the Mayor of the Metropolitan City of Seoul to make the city a centre of art and culture which he mentions in his greeting to the participants and the organizers of grand event.

No doubt every great nation, right from the ancient civilizations of Greece and India through the modern civilizations of Europe, America and Asia has shown great interest in theatre and performing arts by treating these art forms as a powerful medium of communication in terms of preserving human values, responding to contemporary issues and problems, in enlightening people on the questions of ethical norms (what is right, what is wrong). And today it has become an accepted fact in this globalised world that theatre can play a catalytic role in bridging up the emotional gapes between countries, nations and communities, thereby contributing substantially in the process of globalization. That’s why an advanced country like South Korea gives much importance to the tasks of promoting art and culture, and in the development of theatrical infrastructures in its capital city with a noble target of making it “the city of culture and the arts’.

Imagine around one hundred thirty theatres standing proudly in the city of Seoul. And that too within a short span of ten years only! A phenomenon achievement indeed, for which many of the foreign participants and the officials of the International Committee of Theatre Olympics admired the Spirit of the Koreans. One of them even eulogized that ‘Seoul’s town district Dae-hangno with around 130 theatres is like a paradise’, while many of them did not hesitate to call Seoul a theatre city by virtue of its active involvement in theatrical activities these days.

Oh Se-hoon, the young and dynamic Mayor proudly announces: “Aware of the importance of welfare in the area of culture, the Metropolitan Government of Seoul has worked to raise the value of Seoul through consistent attention to culture and the arts throughout the years.” What an example of committed responsibility.  And what a clear vision!  Please mark the words —‘value of Seoul through… culture and the arts’.

Now let’s think about Manipur. We call Manipur a land of art & culture, and we are proud of that. But we have seldom done anything to give a boost to cultural endeavors and artistic pursuits with sufficient infrastructure and a meaningful cultural policy.  It’s a pity that our decision-making bodies and competent authorities do not believe as yet in the mystery of performing arts, their potential in rejuvenating human energy and in the cultivation of positive attitudes.

Fighting terrorism, tackling with increasing violence, improving the quality of life with less degree of corruption and less quantity of moral degradation could be possible with an input of cultural and artistic activities.  It is high time we realized the dialectical value of this proposition. After all why should the UNESCO give emphasis on ‘Arts Education’ today, at a critical juncture of history when the entire humanity is repeatedly being threatened by violence and insecurity? It is a question not to be answered, but to be implemented- a reminder in capital letters to our responsible bureaucrats, Ministers, thinkers and various types of activists.

Tobias Biancone, the President of ITI (General Secretary Worldwide International Theater Institute, commenting on the promising role of the artists as ambassadors of goodwill and progress, asserts with deep concern: ‘To invest in the performing arts is something a whole society profits of ….’ Certainly he cites the example of Korea in this respect.

What about Manipur? Do our decision-makers and policy-framers ever understand the wisdom of investing in performing arts? We can hope at least for better days—when they should realize the core wisdom of living in an environment of art and culture, by remaining loyal to the tenets of performing arts.

Creativity, the most essential requisite for a better life constitutes the basics of theatre, since theatre is made of composite arts. Scientists need creativity, politicians need creativity, everybody needs creativity, and theatre nurtures it as its basic nourishment. The Koreans understand it. Why don’t we?

Looking back to the history of this international theatre event, the first Theatre Olympics was held in Greece in 1995 being dedicated to the theme ‘Tragedy’, the second in Japan in 1999 with the theme ‘Creating Hope’, while the third was hosted by Russia in 2001 with the theme ‘Theatre for the People’ in 2001, and the fourth by Turkey in 2006 with the theme ‘Beyond the Borders’.  The themes of the Olympics are clear indicators of its aims and objects.  The fact that Theatre Olympics, unlike the popular Olympic Games, is a postmodern venture is in itself a significant point, for it highlights the increasing importance and the relevance of theatre movement in the contemporary world.

The official logo of the 5th Theatre Olympics graphically represents the noble idea behind this international event of theatre.  The logo is a symbol of the heart in golden color bearing inscriptions all over it writing the word ‘love’ in different languages of the world, using their own graphemes.  The simple idea expressed by this simply designed graphics gives the message of ‘Sarang: love and Humanity’.

Every nationality on this globe would be filled with a childlike thrilling and joy to see the word “love” inscribed in his or her own language amongst the scores of such words in different tongues and different letters.  The vital idea of harmonious co-existence!  (One can see the word ‘pyar’ in Devanagri script at the bottom of the heart.)

The machinery behind the conduct of this mega event consists of a hierarchy of manpower at backstage namely Organizing Committee, Advisory Committee, Executive Committee, Program Selection Committee, Theatre Olympics Korean Committee, Executive Office, Production Support and Volunteers.

The performances of the 5th Theatre Olympics, were encapsulated into four categories—International Committee Performances, Invited Performances, Admitted Performances and Open Participation. Besides these the format consisted of two symposia, two workshops and a program called Conversation with the Artist.

The first category of performances had seven plays among which Ratan Thiyam’s ‘When we Dead Awa-ken’ also featured.  The second category had twelve performances, while the third had ten, and the so-called open participation had two performances from the host country itself.

Amongst the first category the inimitable Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki’s ‘Dionysus’ describes the war among humans carried out in the name of gods. This drama is a reflection of the crisis of the times and cultural confrontation of modern society under the influence of religion. The heading of the synopsis gives a hint of the style and technique of the play: ‘Dionysus the God of Wine, meets the traditional art form of Japan, the Noh.’ Another synopsis announces ‘The world-renowned Director of theatre, Robert Wilson is back.  This refers to a play ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ written by Samuel Backett that tells the story of an old man who celebrates his seventieth birthday by listening to the tape he had recorded in his birth days, and eventually who starts a conversation with his own voice.  Regarding Ratan Thiyam’s ‘When we Dead Awaken’ the synopsis says: ‘A beautiful adaptation through Manipur Indian culture, a superb dream land full of exquisite visuals.’

A synopsis of the second category says ‘Thomas Ostermeier’s ground breaking Hamlet.  The next generation leader of European theatre’. Another entry in this category entitled ‘Revelation On a Silent Party’ directed by Attila Pessyani is ‘a stark, strong and dangerous expose of the intellectual emptiness, despair and isolation of the modern era’.  Stylistically, it is a multi-media based performance. Yet another piece ‘Macbeth’ directed by Heiner Muller tries to focus ‘the contemporary violence, fear and hatred which is an endless source of calamity’.  Significantly this play uses no special stage props, but the energy of young actors fill up the entire stage.

There were also plays that could be labeled as comedies and satires Lee Youn—Taek’s much talked-about play ‘Dummy Bride’ is described as ‘a masterpiece in the rendering of the nature of love in the world of isolation typical of our modern time.

Reality and myth are masterfully merged in this production. ‘Below the Equator of the Macbeth’ by Eui Shin Jung is ‘a story of Korean conscripts forcefully drawn into a war and condemned to death for their participation’.

From amongst the third category, director Lee Song’s ‘El tragaluz’ is summed up : ‘An incident in modern Spanish history is used to touch on universal sentiments and the piece shows that truth should be found in spite of the painful memory and only through the truth can humans achieve a true state of freedom.’ The play ‘BLIK’ which has been popular in France, Spain and Poland is about ‘two border guards who grow old while standing guard at their post and lose communication with the outside world’ and circumstantially find themselves in an absurd situation. Their unfulfilled dream, their madness and their reality are captured with aesthetic excellence on the stage.

The Theater Olympics manages to offer sufficient rooms for intellectual discourses and academic discussions. The first day of symposium (Sept. 25) had three sessions.  In each session there were three panelists.  The second day (Oct. 30) had two sessions with three panelists in each.  India’s Ratan Thiyam was one of the panelists in one of the sessions.

The first workshop (September 23) was conducted by Tadashi Suzuki on the topic ‘Suzuki Method’. The second day of workshop had three sessions with Georgio Barberio Corsetti on ‘Direction Method’, with Theodoros  Terzopoulos on ‘Body and voice in ancient Greek tragedy’ and with Ratan Thiyam on ‘Interaction between traditional performing arts and contemporary theatre’.  From the format of the fifth Theatre Olympics it is clear that this Olympics provides a platform of meeting between the East and the West.

A striking characteristic of the Theatre Olympics is that none of the directors is identified with his or her nationality in the brochures and the souvenirs—a strong indication that artists need no compartmentalization on the basis of one’s nationality, caste, creed and color.  Don’t they belong to the larger humanity, anyway? Of course they do.

*The article is written by BC Khuman.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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