How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

Priscilla shouldn’t have worked in Seoul. When we auditioned we really struggled to find the sort of actors that we need to do this show – diverse, sexy and unique performers who aren’t afraid to be all things. We also figured out, during auditions, that Korea doesn’t really talk about homosexuality – they don’t judge it, but it “just doesn’t happen here”. After a while I asked, why are you doing this show here? And the answer was “We want a Mamma Mia – lots of colour, movement and great songs”. There are also lots of things that are unique to Korea’s theatre culture – they double cast everything. The reason? A combination of using stars who have busy schedules, and fulfilling the fan base desires. Fans are VERY important here, as we learned when care packages would arrive at lunchtime regularly, with food for the entire cast and crew. And Priscilla had to go further, as ever, by TRIPLE casting the leads. Most of whom didn’t actually audition, but were assembled through a combination of youtube links, many of which weren’t even material from the show. Now, on top of this, we had the shortest tech period we’ve ever had on the show, and some of the major creatives (or their representatives) weren’t here at all. So, for the first time, a group of Korean natives were going to figure out how to make masks, how to costume, and how to light the show.

Hoy, one of three Felicias, with a cake from his fans.
Hoy, one of three Felicias, with a cake from his fans.

But we were putting it on in Seoul nonetheless, making the licensed Asian debut of Priscilla (if you’re interested in the non-licensed debut, it was in Manilla the month before – they cast a fat Felicia which should probably clue you into the creative decisions made). The musical market is booming in Seoul – it’s probably the third major musical capital in the world at this point, after Broadway and the West End, and Koreans LOVE musicals, and all whom sail in them. But it is a new new territory here, and so the attitudes and talent pool haven’t quite caught up to the demand.

On the first day we were told that audiences would not get up to participate in Country Boy and that Cynthia’s routine would be unacceptable here. We were also warned that the script would not get the huge laughs we’re accustomed to, but that they would clap loudly at the end. We went to Wicked quite soon after (beautifully done in every department) and saw for ourselves – the audiences barely laughed and sometimes didn’t even clap major production numbers. “Loathing” felt like it was met with, well, loathing.

But we began. It was hard for us. Korean names are made up of syllables Australians never pronounce, so learning the cast names was embarrasingly hard. But we practised with our beautiful translators again and again to learn them and soon enough we had them down. Though we didn’t feel that we’d achieved anything more than basic human decency, we were told at closing by the cast that we were the first Western creative team to learn their actual names, instead of calling them by their character names or (horrifying) calling them by the names of the original American/English cast members.

It was clear from the start that the actors in this country are hardworking, lovely people. They were reticent to begin, in going where Priscilla has to go, but once we gave them permission, they owned the sexuality of the show, the humour, the boldness and were brave and naughty. This bled into rehearsals which added a lot of fun to our time. Almost no-one can speak English here – which is normal, but hard for us, because Australians barely speak English, let alone any other languages. We cruise through life expecting everyone to join our party. So we had translators, for Andy and I, Layla and Seri. Seri was my second translator actually, as the first one fired herself when she realised that I was going to stand in front of crowds and talk a lot. Seri had never worked on a theatre show before, but she had what the Yanks would call “gumption” – she’d actually learned English when she was student-exchanged into Oklahoma. She was exactly the sort of girl who should work on Priscilla. Funny, inappropriate, with a massive grasp of colloquial phrases in both languages, she was perfect for the show and perfect for me. She really took the piss, and I didn’t even have to train her to do that. She became my voice on the show, just like Layla (a total theatre girl) became Andy’s.

Me and translator Seri at the infamous Cast Welcome.
Me and translator Seri at the infamous Cast Welcome.

Rehearsals were normal in many ways – teach “It’s Raining Men”, move onto the phone call with Marion, etc etc. Andy got the cast very cheerfully exploring the homosexual world – it was strange, at first we assumed that the cast must be closeted, as any Priscilla ensemble is almost entirely gay, but as time went by we worked out…nope, they’re straight – and they jumped at the challenge to play act the world of gays, paintbrushes and cupcakes. For me it was fairly strange directing three casts at the same time. I would stage an intimate scene with what felt like 100 people in the room, but the process works because the actors are so friendly, respectful and ego-less. They jump up on the floor in front of each other, make the roles their own while staying within the framework, help each other out constantly, and make sure that no-one falls behind. They also work 10am-10pm when necessary, doing an extra 3 hours at night to catch up anyone who missed rehearsals, or just needed the extra attention. Probably the most challenging part of the process was that actors are NA quite a lot – they have other work commitments, study, sometimes compulsory military days. The ensemble were pretty good, but the principals, especially if they’re famous, aren’t always there.

Because I was concerned about getting three sets of leads ready in time for tech, we went very fast. The room was run very well by our beautiful stage manager Eun Mi – we had every prop for the show from the start, as well as a rehearsal bus, and they were brilliant at making sure things were ready when you needed them. This continued throughout tech – once they figured out a problem, it stayed figured out permanently. Because we worked so quickly we ended up being super ready for tech, with each cast getting the chance to do many runs of the show (except one of our Bernadettes, who was simultaneously playing Hedwig – he rehearsed and teched and opened before Priscilla did!) The show in the room was a joy, though there weren’t that many laughs it just felt right. The supporting roles here were just wonderful – the Shirl improvised a line that played off the Korean word for “idiot” and “thong” being the same, the Jimmy was the most joyful we’d had, the Miss U totally fierce and the Cynthia brave and comedically very witty. It was a great time – the weather was beach-perfect every day, we’d all have lunch together in one of the many tiny Korean cafes, and we got to know the cast via our translators. We had one rip roaring night of Korean BBQ together to celebrate the beginning of rehearsals which went to 5am for some cast members and involved a lot of the infamous soju. Unfortunately for them, it was held on a Monday night, so everyone could come, and at 10am the next day they had to stage Country Boy. Lots of alcoholic sweat was aired that day.

Andy and Layla.
Andy and Layla.

(Speaking of sweat, sauna culture is pervasive here. Our hotel had one in the basement. On Andy’s recommendation I decided to have a skin scrub. He had warned me, but nothing could prepare me for the actual experience of lying naked on my back in a room full of men, having water of all temperatures thrown over me while a man in very small shorts rubbed me vigorously with a textile cheese grater. Everywhere. No part no matter how small, shrivelled and terrified was left alone.)

By 5 weeks into rehearsals all 3 casts were ready to go, and had even spent a day doing quick change rehearsals with their dressers – pretty tough ask to have costume have three sets of lead principal costumes (and wigs and masks) by dress rehearsal – but they did. It was here that I started to see how good the Korean backstage teams were going to be. Normally it takes a good three tries before we start nailing the principal costumes changes in the time they can take (often 45 seconds). Here the dressers were often getting it perfect the first time they did it, and always on the second try. Really impressive work. They were so calm during them as well, as were the performers.

We dry-teched Act 1 on one day – there’d been delays getting various flies into the the theatre. The bus, usually a beast, had gone in very nicely and was behaving with grace. The FOY system was working perfectly (we were truly blessed to have the actual head of FOY, Joe, come out to install and redesign the extra flying for this version – that’d be like having Stephen Schwartz take the note-bashing sessions for Wicked in Melbourne). The Korean team didn’t want to start dry teching until everything was there and perfect, but we assured them that we didn’t expect it to be perfect, or even right, but that it was better to get started. It’s a good thing to want to be accurate, but in theatre, everything starts messy.

Tech itself was a pretty fluid experience – especially miraculous given the amount of translation that had to happen to get anything moving forward, and that there was no-one backstage who’d worked on the running of the show before. I had certain knowledge so jumped in to solve tech issues back there, and Andy took costume solving upon himself, but once we gave the Koreans permission to make up the solutions themselves, they jumped at it and moved very quickly. The cast were always calm and no-one really came close to injury ever, rare on a show that involves so many things flying in, spinning around and coming in from each side. The divas flew as if they were born to it, and the ensemble made all their costumes changes first time – with the rarest of exceptions.

And then the Les Girls stairs got stuck onstage, which essentially killed two tech sessions. They’re big – they trapped the bus behind them, they took up most of the stage, and you couldn’t even fly in front of them. So the time we had made up, we started losing. Luckily the issue was sorted fairly rapidly, and we jumped into Act 2.

Act 2 was when the anxiety started to kick in. We were on track still, but we hadn’t dry teched any of Act 2, and there just starts to be a lot of pieces to juggle. If you haven’t seen the bus move, while the Divas are flying, while benches are coming in and drops flying in, plus actors walking around onstage – it’s really scary. You start to feel concerned that someone is going to get hurt. We who’d done ten of these know where everything is coming from and what dangers are ahead, but for a new team, it’s highly stressful. This was when some calming down had to occur and I had to really make sure I’d talked everything through with all departments as we made the steps forward.

But we pushed on and finished tech slightly ahead of time. This bought us the opportunity to do two dress rehearsals per principal cast, so we even had the luxury of a very gentle rehearsal the afternoon before our first preview. Now remember, we had been warned time and again, Korean audiences don’t really laugh, don’t clap that much and find sexual humour foreign. I’d taken the precaution of having one of our Felicias record a funny pre-show speech saying the usual stuff about mobile phones and wigs, but added in the advice that drag queens are addicted to attention, so laugh and clap loudly. It felt a little Theatre-In-Education but I wanted the audiences to know they had permission to party if they wanted to.

So it was the first preview. We had our TV star Bernadette (who looked gorgeous once wigs and makeup had had their way) and K-Pop star Felicia on and a full house. The overture started and the disco ball was hit – and they screamed and clapped. The Divas flew in and they screamed again. The boys burst through and they screamed again. Almost every moment that gets huge response around the world got the same response here. Some moments, like Felicia ripping the wig off in Material Girl (showing that it was Jo Kwon, of the 1 million twitter followers) got a response I’ve never heard before. Bernadette’s tampon moment was met with silence – we still can’t figure that out – many theories have been put forward from Koreans not liking it when people are mean to women, Korean women being more pad-centric than tampon-friendly, or possibly the line just not translating. But overall it was an ecstatic response. And the second preview, with an entirely different principal cast, was even louder. It was an exhilarating feeling after all the work everyone had put in, and how much they’d taken the show to their hearts.

Btw, Cynthia got a great response and the audience practically threw themselves onto the stage to join Country Boy.

Our team left after the 4th preview. Opening nights aren’t really celebrated here in the same way – there was no gala party, reviewers don’t really come for a few weeks – so we had a goodbye with our producers and the creatives in a classy Korean terrace, then a messy one with the cast with fried chicken and soju (now my mortal enemy). It was typically melancholy leaving a group of people you’ve connected to over two months – the beautiful cast, who never complained, the incredibly hardworking crew and producers, and of course, our gorgeous translators Seri and Layla who looked after us in every way, and who will always have a place in our hearts.

Chicken, soju and goodbye.
Chicken, soju and goodbye.

It’s a bold move programming Priscilla in Korea. But it feels like the country is broadening every second, opening it’s eyes and learning who it is in the 21st century. I hope that our show plays a small part in the acceptance of the gay community, while retaining their spirit of generosity and warmth. Cambe!

Published by bryantandfrank

Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank make musicals. And other things.

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