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Actor breaks ground with nonverbal plays

Producer of megahit ‘Nanta’ puts new twist on ‘Wedding’

Actor breaks ground with nonverbal plays Actor and theater producer Song Seung-whan, famous for his nonverbal performance “Nanta,” poses for a photo in his office in Seoul on Thursday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Actor breaks ground with nonverbal plays Actor and theater producer Song Seung-whan, famous for his nonverbal performance “Nanta,” poses for a photo in his office in Seoul on Thursday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
It’s been more than 15 years since actor and theater producer Song Seung-whan’s famed nonverbal play “Nanta” premiered in Seoul in 1997, becoming a megahit over the years.

Song, now 56, has put together another foreigner-friendly, nonverbal show. And it deals with, in Song’s own words, “one of the most universal events in human life” ― a wedding.

The show, titled “Music Show Wedding,” premiered in Seoul last year, and went through a major revision for its second run this year. The latest version, unveiled to the press on Oct. 21, is a comical portrait of a wedding, where the bride’s father isn’t particularly fond of his future son-in-law. The show was featured at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the U.K. in August.

Unlike the original, the new version no longer includes magic, says Song. What greets the audience is some of the most popular tunes from the U.S., Korea and even China: Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” and Teresa Teng’s “Sweet Honey Honey,” just to name a few.

“I wanted to make a show that’s just for pure fun and laughter,” Song tells The Korea Herald in his office in Seoul.

“There are a lot of Korean producers who make shows that are artistic and serious. What I wanted was something that’s just entertaining and even silly for the foreign audiences. Most tourists who step into the theater at night to see this show are tired from sightseeing and walking around all day. I just want them to relax and enjoy, without having to try to understand what is going on.”

Song, who started his acting career as a child actor in 1965, says working has always been fun for him. One of his favorite memories of being a TV child actor is getting free car rides late at night.

“The nightly curfew was still there at the time,” Song recalls. “So the broadcaster would provide me a ride to get home. It was so nice riding on completely empty streets. It was very liberating.”

Song quit acting when he enrolled in high school, and concentrated on preparing for the college entrance exam. He entered Hankuk University of Foreign Studies’ Arab Studies program, but did not find the classes too interesting. He once again became interested in acting and directing for a student theater troupe.

“Perhaps it was because I had worked as a child actor for a long time, but everything was strangely too easy for me (when I was working for the student troupe),” Song says. “And what was strange was that other kids did not see what I saw ― the lights, the scripts, everything. That’s when I realized I actually had a talent in the field.”

One of his most memorable roles was in college when he played Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play “The Glass Menagerie.” The character is a young man who works at a shoe warehouse to support his family but hates his job and dreams to be a poet.

“I just felt Tom and I were very similar,” Song recalls. “I was an only child and my parents were financially struggling. And I wasn’t sure if I should continue acting, which I loved, or do something else that would help me support my family better.”

When Song finally informed his parents of his decision ― that he wanted to drop out of university and become a full-time actor ― they were mortified. His mother took him to a famed fortune teller for advice.

“The minute we stepped inside the room, the fortune teller just yelled, ‘This man does not need to attend university!’” Song recalled.

“It was our first time visiting the fortune teller, and my mother had not even asked her anything ― but she just knew why we had come and gave the answer right away. It was the strangest thing. After that, my mother just let me do whatever I wanted to do with my life.”

Since the 1980s, Song has acted in countless TV drama series and plays, hosting TV music shows, as well as producing theater performances. He also currently teaches in Sungshin Women’s University’s culture and art management program. The biggest highlight of his career, however, is undoubtedly the success of his nonverbal show “Nanta,” which premiered in 1997.

“I just felt the local performance arts market was too small,” Song says. “You produce a show and perform in Seoul, Gwangju, Busan, and that’s pretty much it. And I thought I needed to break into the international market if Korea could not get at least three times bigger in size.”

A scene from “Nanta” (PMC Production)
A scene from “Nanta” (PMC Production)
“Nanta,” which tells the simple story of three Korean chefs preparing for a wedding banquet, became the first Korean theater performance to be featured at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1999. The show is often cited as one of the early pioneers of hallyu.

“We were featured in the festival’s 52nd edition,” Song says. “For more than half a century, no Korean performance had ever been introduced in the festival. It certainly was moving to stage ‘Nanta’ at the festival. It felt almost like winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games.”

Although “Nanta” and “Music Show Wedding” are hilarious and often even silly, Song says he personally prefers watching tragedies over comedies. His favorites are Tennessee Williams’ 1944 “The Glass Menagerie” and Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play “Equus,” which is about a psychiatrist who tries to treat a young patient who has a religious fascination with horses.

“As an audience member, I like the kind of plays that make you think,” he said. “Tragedies are often cathartic.”

Aside from “Music Show Wedding,” Song says he is interested in producing homespun musicals. “Korea has great actors, there is no question about that,” he said.

“The problem is the lack of local composers and playwrights. It also has to do with the Korean education system, which does not put a lot of emphasis on creative learning. So I want to work on discovering talent and help them in creating their works.”

Song, who is also a member of the Presidential Committee for Cultural Enrichment, says the Education Minister has been attending the committee’s regular meetings.

“Korea has been focusing too much on the economy for the last 50 years or so,” he says. “The committee is thinking of ways for people to be happy not just by material, but by cultural experiences and happenings. And in order for that to happen, quality arts and humanities education are crucial.”

Song, who is known for his multitasking skills ― he’s been working as an actor, a producer, a TV host and a professor ― says he’s only worked on things that interested him, and the things that he thought would be “fun.”

“I sometimes even feel bad on my pay day,” he says. “I just have fun doing what I love to do. So it often feels funny that I get paid for doing that.”

“Music Show Wedding” is currently on open run at Music Show Wedding Theater in the Hongdae area in Seoul. For tickets and information, call (02)739-8288.

By Claire Lee (