Paper costumes fluttered around the stage and traditional masks with exotic faces crossed left and right as the drama troupe Freedom performed its first play at a small theater in Myeongdong. April 1966 was when stage-artist Lee Byung-bok (’48, English) founded the theater troupe Freedom with director Kim Jung-ok. From that time, Lee made costumes and props for the theater in her unique way of constructing them and designed stages for 40 years, until 2006, when Freedom disbanded its troupe.
During her time as a college student at Ewha in the late 1940s, Lee established a club called Women’s Little Theater, which performed student-made dramas in theaters as her first move toward theater performance. Interested in plays, Lee played roles both as a staff and an actor in her club.
“I loved doing plays when I was a student at Ewha,” Lee said. “But, I had to give up my dream as an actor since I could not change my broad Gyeongsang-do dialect. Also, I was too tall for a woman, so it was hard to find a male partner for me. I was 169 centimeters, so guys from Yonsei University called me Ewha B29—the longest plane back then.”
However, the Korean War stopped all her works and desire for the theater and plays. Lee’s family moved to Busan, where she married her husband. Six years after, she flew off to Paris with her husband and studied at the University of Sorbonne for five years in search for her in-depth study on theater.
While she was working as a tailor in need for money after finishing her studies in Paris and coming back to Korea in 1962, she was suddenly struck again by her passion for theater, and this led her to found the theater Freedom.
Freedom aimed its performances to express a progressive and creative way, not restricting itself to the then-existing drama style. With director Kim, who became a play director that produced over 100 plays after graduating from the University of Sorbonne with Lee, they both founded the troupe Freedom in an effort to popularize theaters and plays as an art form. Director Kim’s logical personality and Lee’s sensible character were complementary, making up for each other’s drawbacks and together creating successful works such as “Bodas de sangre,” one of the three tragedies by Federico Garcia a Lorca, a well-known Spanish poet, and “Hamlet,” one of the four tragedies by Shakespeare.
Lee’s preference for hanji, Korean traditional paper, in designing stages is also something that attracts audiences.
“Hanji, different in texture from other, is soft but tough and durable at the same time,” Lee said. “That’s because hanji has spirit. I think a special soul dwells within hanji, and that’s why hanji contains so many stories.”
Lee first started to use hanji to reduce the costs of the first play performed by Freedom. An actor had to change clothes 72 times, so Lee tried making clothes with hanji. It was hard to make them durable and comfortable, but it became the main material of stage clothing for the Freedom troupe.
“Few people came when we first performed our play at the small theater in Myeongdong, nor did many come in the years that followed, but after receiving two awards (in 1991 and 1999, respectively) from Prague Quadrenniale, an organization that aims to present contemporary scenography—including stage, costume, and other elements of performance design—people started to gather, so the theater for the last play was packed with people at last,” Lee recalls.
Lee also started a small theater movement to popularize theater. She opened the first small theater in Korea, “Café Theatre” and left over 1,000 stage props, which are now regarded valuable in Korean theater history.
“Actors are those who act with lines but props I make for the play are also actors, though without lines,” Lee said.
Lee never used the same clothing and stage twice, not even in the same play performed again. She always made new stage for each play. This made Lee’s passion in stage construction well-known in the industry.
Lee disbanded her troupe at age 80 and left Seoul, but she was a pioneer of Korean theater, constructing plays for about half a century and showing innovative ideas.
With the start of Lee’s first exhibition in 2006, “There is no Lee Byung-bok,” which exhibited all her works for the theater, she has been directing her museum.
“Concession” is what she learned as a motto through her 40 years of her devotion to Korean theater.
“People are all different, and they all have both good and bad sides,” Lee said. “When producing a play, those people need to cooperate. Whatever personality they have, I had to concede things within myself and try to understand them to make a successful play. That’s where I learned my motto in my life.”