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Korea's iconic theatrical show 'Nanta' set to return
  • November 26, 2021 | Other

Korea's iconic theatrical show 'Nanta' set to return

Updated : 2021-11-23 17:24

By Park Ji-won

Wearing sweatpants, five performers gathered together for the first time in 21 months, in an empty theater in Myeong-dong, Seoul, designed especially for "Nanta," a non-verbal, cooking-themed, percussive, theatrical performance.

Premiering in October 1997 and based on the rhythms of samulnori, a type of percussion performance involving four traditional Korean instruments, "Nanta" revolves around four chefs, who, using their cooking tools as percussive instruments prepare food for a traditional wedding ceremony. With the tools, they make sounds by chopping vegetables, as well as fighting with brooms and throwing dishes at each other to create a percussive maelstrom.

The five ― Choi Hye-in, playing "Female," Sul Ho-yeoul, playing "Manager," Ko Chang-hwan, playing "Head Chef," Jung Min-goo, playing "Sexy Guy" and Na Woo-rin, playing "Nephew" ― looked upbeat on stage while quietly stretching hard and practicing their paired choreography, including drumming with knives, one of the highlights of the performance.

The drumming sounds filled the empty hall, making the scene feel as if the performers were actually in a kitchen. Sometimes they exchanged comments on the choreography, but otherwise they didn't talk much, as they know each another so well.

"We have performed together in this show for more than a decade. So I am not that nervous about the forthcoming performance. My body remembers the rhythm and choreography. We are used to it," said Na Woo-rin, who plays Nephew in the show, when asked how he felt about their forthcoming performance 21 months after the outbreak of the pandemic.

They were practicing the highlights of "Nanta" to promote their upcoming Dec. 2 gig, to be performed for the public for the first time since the pandemic started. For a one-month trial period, they will test out whether the theater can remain open, depending on the response of the audience.

The backstage dressing room, which is the same as it was 21 months ago, was filled with tension and excitement at the same time. As the actors dressed themselves, the room was not that big, but it held the necessary props and clothes.

"How about tying up my hair?" Sul Ho-yeoul, who plays Manager, asked the other members. "Tie it up as it is more eye-catching," Choi Hye-in, playing Female, answered.

Due to its energetic and eye-catching performances, it has established a unique position in Korea's theater industry, becoming increasingly popular as time goes by. It first targeted local customers, but since it opened its first Nanta-only theater in 1999, it has also been popular with foreign audiences.

It is now one of the longest-running performances in Korea, and the first theater run surpassed the 10-million mark in ticket sales in 2015. It has attracted a total of 15 million viewers and opened Nanta-only theaters across the country. Countless actors have joined its productions. Some of those who have previously performed in "Nanta" have since risen to stardom, such as Ryu Seung-ryong, who had the lead role in the film, "Extreme Job," (2019) which drew in more than 10 million viewers.

Not only has "Nanta" established a big presence in the domestic market, but it has also actively expanded overseas. It was performed off-Broadway in New York between 2004 and 2005, while also opening in theaters in Guangzhou, China and Bangkok, Thailand. There are plans to open another dedicated theater in Hawaii.

The show's huge success is largely attributable to foreign spectators accounting for about 80 percent to 90 percent of the audience at some points. Of the total, 66.6 percent of the spectators, or 10 million, were foreign nationals. Some foreign tourism companies included tickets to the show in their travel package deals.

Thus pre-COVID-19, PMC Production, the show's production company, had focused its marketing on foreign audiences and overseas tours ― and the expansion of the show seemed unstoppable.

However, as Nanta became largely dependent on foreign tourists, the decline in numbers led to a decrease in the show's earnings.

After China's government banned group tours from coming to Korea in 2017, the number of foreign national customers drastically dropped, resulting in the closure of one of the show's largest venues, in Chungjeong-ro, Seoul, for good.

The pandemic made things worse. Compared to other countries hit hard by the coronavirus, Korea had been one of the few relative sanctuaries for artists, with fewer infections and no government-mandated lockdowns. The country has continued to hold small and big concerts despite some limitations, being able to fill about 70 percent of the seats in theaters, and recently, with the introduction of the government's "Living with COVID-19" plan, more overseas-based artists were able to get quarantine exemptions and come to Korea to perform.

But the limitation on the entry of foreign tourists due to the virus situation saw audience numbers for the show fall drastically to nearly zero, so the production company decided to temporarily close its theaters in Myeong-dong, Hongdae, and Jeju and its overseas venues, to wait to reopen once the situation improved. But that day was slow in arriving.

"We didn't know it would take this long to be able to sit down backstage to have a cup of coffee and discuss the performance and resume the show," Song Seung-whan, the chief producer of the production and a famous actor in his own right, told reporters during a press conference held recently to promote the first show after the hiatus, scheduled for Dec. 2. "We had performed almost every day for more than two decades and had never closed the theater this long. Even during the spread of MERS and SARS, we just had to shut down the theater for a few days."

The theater was supposed to be closed for just a few months, but as the number oeing infections surged and new social distancing measures were introduced, running the show became impractical. And so the company and actors had to find ways to survive on their own.

"Like other theaters, we had to borrow money to enable the company to stay afloat. The actors were also forced to work temporary jobs, such as delivery workers, servers at restaurants or drivers, to make a living," Song said. "We were afraid of reopening the theater before the entry of foreign tourists was permitted. But we decided to do so anyway because we were afraid of getting forgotten."

Actor Jung Min-goo, playing Sexy Guy, was unable to talk for about a minute, as he began to cry thinking about the times he had been unable to perform.

"I was so proud of being a part of this performance. It is widely loved by all age groups and everybody knew the name of the show. It was so precious to me as an actor … I am just so happy to be back on stage, to be able to entertain the audience," Jung said.

The actors were forced to choose between quitting or looking for ways to perform. Some of them opened study cafes or tteokbokki restaurants to make money.

"Since I want to work as an actor, I wasn't able to get a full-time job. So after the hiatus, I worked temporary jobs including making deliveries and as a laborer at a distribution center, in order to make a living," Ko Chang-hwan, who plays Head Chef, said.

Some left acting completely, but others returned to the stage to resume acting.

"Over the last few years, when I was not able to perform, I reflected a lot about my reasons for being an actor. I came to one conclusion: I didn't want to give up. I did not forgot about the preciousness of my colleagues who I meet more than my own family members. There were negative sides to the pandemic, but I became more positive and am ready to work hard," Cho Hye-in, who plays Female, said.

Back to square one

Even though people have gotten used to streaming videos and watching shows at home during the pandemic, Song believes in the power of in-person performances. He says that the show, which has been continually revised since its inception, is ready to give its performers the long-awaited chance to provide comfort and entertainment to its pandemic-hit audiences.

"Performance, as an art form, can be fully enjoyed when being presented in realtime, in person and communicating with the audience. We realized that Nanta cannot be replaced by videos, and thus we have endured the pandemic in order to resume performing it live. We have made minor updates to the gig over the last two decades, such as introducing video projections at the back of the stage; but the basic concept of providing fun, entertaining and cathartic moments through slapstick comedy, based on the rhythm and drumming of samulnori, has not changed," he said.

It will be hard to get foreign tourists to attend, but Song is planning to expand the show both to more local customers, as he did when everything began in 1997, and foreign residents; while also planning a U.S. tour starting May next year.

"Before opening the first Nanta-only theater in 1997, we promoted the show to local audiences and it worked. We premiered our show when people were suffering from the financial crisis. People found that our show reduced their stress and gave them comfort. We are actively promoting the show to young local theatergoers via social media, as well as to foreign residents of Korea who are interested in our culture. It may be far more than difficult than 1997, but Nanta might be able to give hope and energy to those who have been hit hard by the pandemic."