Focus Tested for K-Pop
Written by Suzen Murakoshi
Given the state of the world with the USA and Korea, this theatre production might be a portal for Americans into the South Korean mindset. While America is at the threshold of war with North Korea, a small theatre production called K-Pop may have the ability to pull focus towards the music of Korean culture that may create empathy.
K-Pop, the musical, is an ambitious co-production between three theatre companies: ARS NOVA, Ma-Yi and the Woodshed Collective (where Teddy Bergman is the Artistic Director who also directs K-Pop). One of ARS NOVA’s last productions made it to Broadway for a successful run, The GREAT COMET of 1812. These three theatre companies are hoping to use the popularity of K-Pop to move this show to the Great White Way, or Broadway. The run has already been extended until 10/21/17 in NYC, and is completely sold out.
The scale of K-Pop is vast, with a cast of seventeen talented Asian actors, and one African-American performer who plays the choreographer. The “set" spans two floors of a building within multiple rooms. The audience begins as one, but after one number and an introduction, groups are formed. The colored wristbands given at the entrance, with the name of the character one follows, decides which group one is to be in.
Teddy Bergman, the director, and his company, the Woodshed Collective, create "immersive theatre.” Immersive theatre allows the audience to integrate themselves into the show. There is no proscenium stage. The audience never sits in a chair. You, as the audience, move through site-specific spaces. Like a school of fish, the actors move through the audience, as you move through them. The action happens all around you as you are moved from room to room by ’staff.' There are some scenes where the actors play once (the first and last scenes). Other scenes happen in spaces where the actors must play the same scene between two to four times, for the moving audience. Other examples of NYC immersive theatre are “Tamara” (1981), “Sleep No More” (2011) and “Here Lies Love” (2013).
But, is it cultural misappropriation to have a White male director at the helm of an all ethnic cast in a play about Korean Pop Music? Thankfully, the playwright, Jason Kim, is a NYC-based Korean. An entire ensemble of Asian actors, led by Ashley Park and Punahou School’s Jason Tam, with other NYC and LA based dancers and singers are hard at work sharing their gifts and talents, is also very powerful. But the weak dramaturgy and direction leaves the actors stranded in a narrative that doesn’t support them.
Because of the vastness of this project, Teddy Bergman’s primary concern is the traffic control logistics of both audience and actors. Within the scenes, the direction, with regards to acting, fell to the bottom of the list. And, sadly, the book doesn’t help the actors, if at all.
The storyline is that we, the audience, are to be the focus group in creating a breakthrough K-Pop band in America. As we travel through the building, we’re in the K-Pop factory that produces the music by soloist MWE (Ashley Park), girl band (Special K) and boy band (F8). The public and private sensibilities are confusing as there are arguments that would be a PR nightmare if these were really witnessed by the public.
Realistically, the project may not have been produced if an Asian director had pitched, launched and directed this show. If K-Pop had been directed by someone Korean or with a clearer understanding of the nuances of the Korean lifestyle, music and culture, the piece may have been better served. On the other hand, the immersive theatre experience, which Teddy Bergman does so well, wouldn’t have been so successful.
The power of a production lies within the creative team. The director, writer and composer call the shots. If one were to forgive the poor storyline for dramaturgy, and simply enjoy the dancing and the music, K-Pop is a fun, frothy and enjoyable way to spend two and a half hours. But, on the other hand, is Asian theatre in America, in a ‘minstrel phase’ where the creative team is White (as in Miss Saigon, Pacific Overtures, and Here Lies Love), but the people on stage singing and dancing are all Asian? Is this cultural misappropriation? Is it better to be playing at the table in some form, than not to be playing at all? Perhaps, it is.
In addition, any artistic endeavor that can bring the Korean and American sensibilities into closer contact with increased understanding of “the other” is worthwhile. Although K-pop, the music genre, is distinctly a South Korean creation, any empathy that can grow towards Koreans by Americans is valuable, indeed. The Nazis never bombed Paris because they valued the beauty of the architecture. If K-pop were so beloved by Americans, perhaps we, too, may never bomb any part of Korea.