The History of Korean Western Theatre FTA Festival TransAmériques 2022

The History of Korean Western Theatre comes to Montreal c/o Festival TransAmériques

An interview with creator Jaha Koo ahead of his play’s run at the FTA in June.

It was in 2008, when he was a student at Korea National University of Arts, that Jaha Koo began considering the themes he is contending with in The History of Korean Western Theatre, part of the Festival TransAmériques 2022 schedule.

“I had to study theatre history, of course, but at the time, I had a big question. Most of my studies focused on western theatre, like Shakespeare or Molière, not about Korean traditional theatre or folk theatre,” Koo recalls. “I felt really strange. Why did we only focus on western canon, western theatre and western heritage?”

This questioning followed him throughout that year, as the arts world was celebrating 100 years of Korean theatre. He wondered, how could they calculate that Korean theatre had existed for 100 years?

When he began research for what would eventually become his Hamartia Trilogy, of which The History of Korean Western Theatre is the final installment, he learned that 1908 was a year of Japanese incursion in his country’s theatre history, as Korea has a bitter history under the reign of Japan. 

Koo had to wonder, what was Korean theatre independent from all these external influences? Even today, he believes contemporary Korean theatre draws heavily on old-fashioned methods. 

The Harmatia Trilogy is Koo’s long-term project dissecting these questions of influence, identity and evolution in the past and present of Korean theatre, and Korean history more broadly. After the second piece in the series Cuckoo pleased Montreal audiences in 2018, Koo returns with the third and final piece.

Hamartia: noun. a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine. (Oxford Languages)

“The concept of the Hamartia Trilogy is basically that I start to see our contemporary issues, political issues, social issues and economic issues, and then try to think about the root of these tragedies in our history. So, I want you to think about theatre imperialism based on Korean modern history,” says Koo.

The History of Korean Western Theatre FTA Festival TransAmériques 2022
The History of Korean Western Theatre comes to Montreal c/o Festival TransAmériques (FTA). Photos by Leontien Allemeersch

The History of Korean Western Theatre blends performance, video, soundscapes, documentary storytelling and some autobiographical anecdotes to delve deeper into what makes Korean theatre unique, and how to imagine a future that is bright and inclusive. Koo also explores social justice issues and political challenges faced by the Korean people, as he tackles notions of western and colonial imperialism and their lasting effects.

But it’s done in a fantastical, at times comedic way. Those who had the opportunity to see Cuckoo, in which Koo dialogues with a rice cooker about themes similar to the ones discussed in this latest piece, will likely be pleased to know that Cuckoo the rice cooker reappears. This time, Koo is also joined by an origami robot, totalling three performers on stage. 

The History of Korean Western Theatre follows Cuckoo thematically, but not literally, and can be enjoyed whether the audience is familiar with the previous installment or not. Presented in  Korean with both English and French subtitles, it promises an insightful and meaningful dive into a colonial past, and a reflection on what the future might hold. ■

The History of Korean Western Theatre will be performed in Montreal as part of Festival TransAmériques (FTA) at the Centre du Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui (3900 St-Denis) from June 2 to 5, various times, $27–$42.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.