Walkabout Yeolha: Interview with Kyoung H. Park

Korean theatre is a rarity in New York.

But Kon Yi, MFA Directing Candidate at Columbia University and Kyoung H. Park, Dean’s Fellow at Columbia University’s MFA program in Playwriting, are about to change that.

On October 20-23, Columbia Stages presents Walkabout Yeolha, an adaptation of contemporary Korean playwright Samshik Pai’s award winning Inching Towards Yeolha, first performed in Korea in 2007.

Set in an industrial warehouse with a multi-ethnic cast, original score and rollicking dance numbers, Walkabout Yeolha is a rowdy, satiric retelling of a village’s struggle to fight the intrusion of a powerful Empire. As the villagers fight off the Empire, they struggle to hold onto the past, while finding practical solutions that will bring them a brighter future.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with playwright Kyoung H. Park about the process of adapting Inching Towards Yeolha for American audiences. We touched on the creative process, the struggles of cultural translation and the challenges of being one of the few theatre artists presenting Korean theatre to American audiences.

When did you first come across Inching Towards Yeolha?

I came across the text over the summer when director, Kon Yi, asked me to work on the adaptation of Walter Byongsok’s translation. I received the translation in late June and by the time I received the script, I had received a script in Korean, seen a Korean production and knew what Kon wanted to do in terms of adapting the script […] I came to the play with the playwright’s, the translator’s and the director’s work in mind, and took it from there.

What are the biggest differences between Walkabout Yeolha and Inching Towards Yeolha?

The biggest difference, besides the change in location and the ethnicity of the cast, is translating the political and ideological questions the play raises into relevant questions for an American audience.

Right now, Korea is undergoing rapid economic growth and change. Traditionally, Korea was an isolated country – in the 1940s and 50s, Korea was known as “the hermit kingdom.” The first half of Inching Towards Yeolha deals with Korea’s history of isolation and the villager’s fear of what lies outside their town. In the second act, the tone changes when the Empire’s Inspector arrives, and demands a political ideology from the villagers. The villagers must confront their beliefs, and in the process, the play becomes a story about the search for a Korean ideology. This is an important issue in Korea because it is an ideologically divided country.

As a political playwright, I needed to inspect the dramaturgical mechanism used in the play and translate it into an American context. The questions the play raises are similar to questions being asked in economically depressed communities in the US, like Detroit, where globalization and capitalism has left a flourishing community in crisis. From there, I tackled more pressing questions like the economic collapse and its affects on American communities. In this way, I was able to make the play’s mechanism reflect the same intent, with different parameters. It is about what has come from the outside and changed the way we live.

Does the play suggest a means of reinvention that will address economic collapse and external threat?

One of the solutions Inching Towards Yeolha considers is psychic nomadism. In 2007 when the play was first performed in Korea, there it was a trend that considered moving a solution to political and ideological problems.

Historically, Korea was populated by nomadic people who came from China. It is a part of our history to move from one place to another. That is the same way people came to America. Psychic nomadism asks the question: why are we staying here and why are we here if everything is shifting elsewhere? In my title, Walkabout comes from the idea of taking a ritual journey. Walkabout evokes belonging, wanting to be somewhere better and the implications of moving somewhere else.

Did you confront any challenges in translating the play from one culture to another?

Absolutely. Korea is a very hierarchical and male oriented society. Much of the Korean sensibility clashes with the New York sensibility. I struggled. I realized that I couldn’t hide the things New Yorkers would find objectionable, I had to explode them. […]

One example has to do with sex. There is never sex in Korean literature. So when the translator translated the original script, which had sex in it, he would not be explicit about the nature of the sex. I think here, for the content to translate, it needs to be shown.


Striking a balance between the Korean and American influences in this play was like getting into a dodge ball game. I had to be ready to be attacked and be on the offense. If you play on one side or the other you will be too Korean, or too American. Understanding you can play both roles is part of the fun on of it. As artists our role is to strike this balance in the middle of both cultures.

This is a really unique project. Are there many Korean plays being produced in the New York?

No, there are not a lot of contemporary Korean translations being produced in the states. Because there aren’t very many, there isn’t much space for discussion about the topic. Because we are one of the few producing a contemporary adaptation of a Korean play in NY, by default, we end up representing “Korean Theatre,” which puts us in a high stakes position.

Why should people see the play?

Walkabout Yeolha is a combination of lyricism, absurdity and burning political satire. There is a lot of humor in it even though it strays into the lyrical. It also offers very insightful perspectives on the contemporary political and social climate and concerns itself with where we are now, in 2010. And it is just really entertaining. We have music, amazing choreography and a large, talented cast.

And… characters sing Lady Gaga!

Interviewed October 13, 2010

Walkabout Yeolha will be performed October 20-23, 2010 at The Riverside Theatre 91 Claremont Avenue Between 120th and 122nd Streets. $15 General Admission/ $5 Seniors FREE with Columbia University ID or any other valid student ID

Join the Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre Program for wine and cheese and a pre-show conversation on the Columbia Stages thesis production, Walkabout Yeolha.

Walter Byongsok Chon and Kyoung Park (SOA Playwriting ’12) will discuss their translation and adaptation of Samshik Pai’s Korean play about a community struggling to retain its identity in the face of cultural intrusion. Following the event, we will walk over to the Riverside Theatre for the 8PM performance.

For more information about the play and to reserve a ticket (FREE with CUID), visit Columbia Stages at www.columbiastages.org.

The Talk-Forward is FREE and open to all. Please RSVP to theatretalks@columbia.edu.

For more information about Public Programs, please visit the School of the Arts’ new website: arts.columbia.edu.

Friday, October 22 · 6:30pm – 7:30pm
Columbia University, Neiman Gallery, Dodge Hall, Rm 310
2960 Broadway at 116th St
New York, NY

Rosie duPont BC ‘10
ArtsLink Associate

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