Blooming Ludus meets Taroo in Korea!

written by Francine Dulong

How Much Space Do We Need for Living - Week 1

For those of you who may have heard, Haeweon and I secured an  Artists' International Development Grant to go to Seoul, South Korea, which started this past week. Essentially, we are exploring questions of sustainable living in urban centers (Seoul, London..Canada tbc!)with Taroo, a Pansori company (Korean musical theatre/oprea) that Haeweon has worked with before. Our goal - what kind of resonances can we find between the participatory practice of Blooming Ludus and the musical tradition bending that makes Taroo so unique. These first few days in Seoul have felt like a dream - probably due to the jet lag, the furious translations and the game making! The members of Taroo have made us feel so welcome and we have made a lot of headway together. So here it is folks, an update on Week 1 of our project! 

Day 1 - Blooming Ludus introduction to Participatory Theatre = Game and Play!

Big smiles, hesitant conversation in stops and starts, nervous laughter and learning how to mix pork broth soup - this was the social starting point of the night before when Haeweon introduced me to Taroo (Songhee and Kyunghwa - producers, Jongim and Bora - Artistic Director and Pansori singer). With this positive start, I awoke fairly easily the next day to co-lead a workshop in all things Blooming Ludus with Haeweon - and MAN did it feel good. As a new company, it was a way of synthesizing everything we have discovered so far this year and everything we have wanted to try. This humid Tuesday morning was our chance.

Taroo's rehearsal space is an oasis of calm in the hussel and bustle of Dangsan-dong district in Seoul.  We started with a mind map of some key terms to see where all our perspectives lay - THEATRE, PARTICIPATORY, GAME, PLAY, ENSEMBLE. Our coloured papers were soon full with English, Korean and my attempts to write Korean in romanized pronounciation. During our discussion Jongim pointed out that Pansori was more participatory and playfully unpredictable in the past before it was moved into proscenium arch theatres. Haeweon and I wanted to be clear that the next three weeks were about creating together, hence exploring ensemble and play, and not to stick to traditional hierarchies of director/actors. Kyunghwa and Songhee participated from the very first moment, and this is something Haeweon and I really respect - as producers they have taken a big leap in with us! We played out some of the games from Power Story to illustrate how we physicalize abstract concepts and how to create invitations for audience participation. For those of you who have been to, or workshoped, the show with us, let's just say it was definitely a hit ;) 

There are many games that are played across cultures with small variants in rules and these offer great opportunities to play with game structures in the rehearsal process. We used two exercises from Coney (a London based game/play theatre  company we respect highly) to introduce Taroo to this concept. What happens when a group of artists who don't speak the same language adapt Grandmother's footsteps by adding one rule at a time? Hilarity and understanding! (see photos below) We ended up making our own games without words and morphing them until no one really knew who was leading. Figuring out the myriad of rule sets that emerged was our first step together as an emsemble creating something new. 

The afternoon was spent sharing some devising techniques, including verbatim work to develop text and character, improvising from music and still images, character work inpsired by my time at Ecole Jacques Lecoq and text/creative writing using our rehearsal space as inspiration. At the end of the day, Taroo said it was refreshing to be so physical and that the day for them was all about the sincerity and simplicity of play.

Day 2 - Taroo teaches Blooming Ludus - Crash course in Pansori!

Our morning started with a picnic of fruit which turned into a great language session for me (pear is Be(배) in Korean!) waking up our brains and letting the work from the day before settle and transition into our introduction to Pansori(판소리)! We learned all the basic instruments from Jongim, hearing how each instrument has a particular mood and use (a naa-khak(나각) or shell trumpet is used for war and the king's march) and got to try them out! Jongim is an expert in piri(피리) (reed flute) of which there are many types. There is a marked difference between royal/noble music and folk music for the common people, the former being quite meditative and stoic with long notes while the later feels more jazz or blues influenced with more complicated rhythms. We learned a basic drum beat, Ja-jin-mo-ri(자진모리), and Bora, our singer, taught us the folk song Gang Gang Sul Rae(강강술래).

Pansori performers speak directly to audiences often, encouraging them to respond at pauses in the storytelling - this is called chu-im-sae(추임새) and is a main participatory point of the form. We spoke at length with Taroo about how to approach participation with a Korean audience, as they informed us that contemporary audiences are living in a time of proscenium divide where they don't feel their input changes the performance in any strong way, making them hesitant to be overly vocal. Now that we had been introduced to each others' methods, the overlapping threads were starting to come together - how could we create an invitation, a playful offering of participation for this new audience, that they wouldn't want to refuse? 

After rehearsal,  Kyunghwa accompanied us to the Junglim Foundation, where we interviewed their Executive Director, Seongtae Park.  Down a quiet street near Gyeongbokgung Palace, surrounded by traditional Korean houses, Mr. Park told us in his calm voice that the foundation chose this site because cars do not pass them on the narrow pedestrian alleyways. Founded five years ago, the Junglim Foundation is an architectural, artistic organisation that raises the platform of political social division and potential natural disaster in housing in the city of Seoul. They do this by publishing a quarterly newspaper, hosting public round table gatherings, and have an architecture education program for elementary children, teenagers and adults taught by artists, in addition to cooking, arts and speakers programming. We spoke at length with Mr. Park, but two of his ideas were to become recurring themes in our rehearsals: the balance between public and private space, and building common language. 

Day 3 - Exploring the question = cultural dialogue and the challenge of translation

This is the day where Haeweon and I were able to share all the research we have done to date and it became a huge round table discussion. As we talked, sorting through the weft and weave of cultural views as we completed the community research with the Taroo members, it felt like more and more light was being shed on our subject. But I do not describe the smoothest of journeys. My past experience working in international teams prepared me only a little for the shock of the language barrier, and Haeweon has taken on the role of bridge, translating like a fiend. It has been a study in patience and the building of a new communication system for us as a team. Whenever I need to check in or don't understand, I touch Haeweon's shoulder, which gives her the time to field all the ideas winging through the air on both sides. Some highlights of this day long discussion:

"What made it popular doesn't exist anymore"  - this was a phrase that has come up in our research and was spoken by Taroo.

Taroo and Haeweon mentioned the ingrained 'fear of being wrong' that is instilled in contemporary Korean culture. This led us to deepen our dialogue around  how to get this new audience to participate. What is the invitation and comfortable performing space for a Korean audience? Some provocation resulted in this explorative clarification - WHAT are we asking, HOW are we asking it, and WHO is asking?

"I take the subway and look out at Seoul, see so much space/many buildings and think - there is no where for me to live" - Kyunghwa

Day 4 - Game Experiments, Mapping and Visualisations

This morning we experimented with a basic game structure I conceived while trying to physicalise gentrification. Jongim was away performing, so Taroo's good friend Jonghwan (who is an actor and writer) joined us for the day. The flurry of game making through language barriers that resulted was astonishing. The original idea became a game about the movement of MONEY in housing, as opposed to SPACE. We found ourselves with a very realistic portrayal of our financial difficulties  when it comes to housing in populated urban environments. We asked ourselves - could this be an important thing to share with an audience, if so why? Is it too literal and can we play with those boundaries to make it more comfortable? Or are we trying to make people uncomfortable and at what points of the show? Who are we as participant/players - landlords, buyers, renters, the bank? There were so many ideas that we had to scale back and take it one step at a time, saving more complex rules for a future date.

In the afternoon, we did some mapping exercises and physical exploration of our own living spaces - drawing floor plans and introducing our homes to each other through mime. Haeweon and I also led a visualization exercise, prompting Taroo members to remember their homes past and present through the senses and storytelling. Jonghwan felt this exercise was very powerful, sticking in his mind as a sincere and authentic way to access the subject. Concepts of  ownership and stability appeared in the stories when we shared back (Bora remembered choosing duck (ori!) wall paper for her child hood bedroom) .  In Korea, Not many people refer to their house as 'my house' but our house and 'my room' within that house. We discovered a poignant thought that linked with our community research question "do you feel your house is your home?"....the moment when a house becomes a home.  


Finished the week  on Saturday with a lovely few hours brainstorming text and music composition from the Pansori canon with Bora. We even tried a new instrument, the kayagum(가야금)!


The result? Though very different from Taroo's regular rehearsal methods, everyone is happy and excited to see what we will come up with/what we have so far. At first, Jonghwan asked himself if we needed a form for our performance, but in fact the lack of fixed structural goals was quite relaxing. Kyunghwa felt that upon reflection through the rehearsal process, she has had this question inside her for a long while. Everyone agreed that the past week felt like playing and that the flow and group exploration without force has been a delight. We all feel that humans are focused on housing because they seek happiness and stability  - the members of Taroo say that this happiness and stability is lacking in Seoul. The need for the show has been established and we will continue to play with possibility!

Plans for next week - experiment with 'temperature of play' - how realistic or ideal can we be and how will this effect audience participation?  Music! What is the sound of building a house? 

Stay tuned......

Blooming Ludus :)


Haeweon playing the naa-kak(나각)!

Haeweon playing the naa-kak(나각)!

Improving our own games (from right to left Songhee Han, Haeweon Yi, Bora Song, Jongim Jung)

Improving our own games (from right to left Songhee Han, Haeweon Yi, Bora Song, Jongim Jung)

Francine (in traditional Han-bok(한복)) with Haeweon, learning the yang-gum(양금)!

Francine (in traditional Han-bok(한복)) with Haeweon, learning the yang-gum(양금)!

Day 3 community research and big discussions with the cast and crew (Right to Left Jongim, Kyunghwa, Songhee, Bora)

Day 3 community research and big discussions with the cast and crew (Right to Left Jongim, Kyunghwa, Songhee, Bora)