Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

O Gu: A Cross-Cultural Case Study of Emotional Expression in Contemporary Korean and Australian Theatre

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

O Gu: A Cross-Cultural Case Study of Emotional Expression in Contemporary Korean and Australian Theatre

Article excerpt

This work was supported by the Korea Research Foundation Grant. (KRF-2003-042-G00016)


Shinobu Kitayama and Hazel Rose Marcus argue that 'emotions are among the prime means for the transmission of socially shared meanings' and 'cultural differences in emotion are a result of cultural differences in the perception and interpretation of events'.1 If they are correct, then theatre is an ideal laboratory in which to study culturally determined emotional expression. Dramatic texts depict fictional events and indicate how a range of characters, or social groupings, perceive, interpret and respond to these stimuli. In their performances, actors embody the rules governing expression within a variety of social milieu; and through the techniques they employ to elicit responses from their audiences, they reveal mechanisms typical of group interactions in their cultures. But to what extent are cultural differences in emotional expression disappearing from contemporary national stages because of the global flows of artists, audiences, and techniques of theatrical representation? When Professor Shim. Jung-Soon and Professor Peta Tait invited me to join the Korean-Australian cross-cultural research group, I saw it as an opportunity to address this question through a case study.

I decided to focus my research on all those small, unexamined decisions made in a rehearsal room that can accumulate over time to shape the emotional content of performance. By analysing the details of this everyday practice, I hoped to assess whether globalisation was indeed homogenising the practice of acting; and if it was not, to identify some culturally distinct techniques involved in representing emotion on the stage. I devised a research methodology employing workshop practices, to elicit unexamined assumptions about the portrayal of emotion from a group of Australian and Korean actors. I factored my own cultural prejudices into the mix by deciding to work on a Korean dramatic text, without the benefit of any background information on its author or its production history.

Professor Shim provided me with an English translation of Lee, YoonTaek's contemporary Korean play. O Du: The Ritual of Death," and I prepared two schedules to workshop the text, one with twelve Australian actors at the Flinders Drama Centre in Adelaide,3 and the other with six professional Korean actors in Seoul.4 On the completion of both workshops. I analysed the data and found that the actors were using very different spatial and kinetic metaphors to describe their techniques for generating emotion in performance. The last stage of the project involved a return to Seoul to see three performances of the play.5 This provided a perfect opportunity to test the workshop data against a finished product. None of the workshop actors was in this production directed by Lee, Yoon-Taek, so the possibilities of additional interpretive confusions were minimised.

It is difficult to describe the shock I experienced at the first performance. Despite my familiarity with East Asian contemporary and traditional drama, and my experience as a dramaturg. producer and director of intercultural productions involving Korean, Japanese and Chinese artists, I could not believe the degree of cultural divergence uncovered by the project. Instead of producing evidence of global homogenisation, it revealed strong differences in interpretive strategies, approaches to audience reception and representation of emotion, all of which I realised could be loosely attributed to an emphasis on either 'individualist' or 'collectivist' cultural values.6

Stage 1: the play and preparing workshop materials

This article takes a narrative form because of the experiential nature of the research methodology. It begins in late February 2004, when I received John Cha's translation of Lee. Yoon-Taek's play. O Gu: The Ritual of Death, from Professor Shim. Jung-Soon. Although Lee, Yoon-Taek is one of the most successful playwrights and stage directors in Korea, his work was unknown to me at that time. …

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