From the 29th of March to the 1st of April, Beings, a theatre troupe belonging to Ewha’s English Language and Literature department, performed American Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cellphone. And, unlike the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie which I had the pleasure of attending, this performance kept the play’s language of origin: English. With every performer being a second-language English speaker, the performance took a voice of its own and supplied the already surrealist tone of the play with a significant extra dose. All the better for it, I thought, as it provided the audience and I with a rare experience: seeing an English performance in Korea, by Koreans. Furthermore, it also provided the performers with said experience, and the added challenges and rewards that come with it. During the preparatory stages of the production, once the play to be performed was decided and the performers confirmed, the first of many hurdles began to materialize itself. “Some of the subtleties were difficult to understand due to cultural differences,” said Cho Joo-young, who took on the role of Dwight, the titular dead man’s brother. The director took care to help the players understand what was needed of them, and in turn the players did some research to deepen their own understanding. However, as more contextual difficulties arose, a decision was made; most of the script was retained in the performance, but the more obscure references would be cut. “Our decision to tweak the play sometimes felt like a degradation of the original work, but we were also considering the audience,” told Kim Ju-an, who played the wife of the deceased, Hermia. “If we did not understand some of the cultural aspects even after doing the research, we shouldn’t expect the audience to understand!” given these challenges, another decision was made to provide subtitles for the audience. Ju-an felt that this development was bittersweet: “While I think it was a nice touch and gave us the chance to accommodate a wider audience, those not exactly comfortable with English were fixated on the screen, and missed out on some of the actions and subtleties of the play.” While the decision to perform in English was a given due to the theatre troupe’s home department, said decision was met with a mix of enthusiasm and anxiety. “I am not an English major,” states Chae Eun-sol, a German literature student who played the role of Mrs. Gottlieb, mother of Dwight and Gordon, the dead man, “so, on top of having to learn the dual meanings and subtleties of the plays, I had to spend a lot of time working on enunciating.” While she is handily more comfortable in Korean and will look to continue acting in her mother tongue and perhaps in German, she was still happy to have the chance to perform in English. “I am far more confident in Korean, but this play specifically may have lost some of its style if it were to be translated, so I was happy to rise to the challenge.” With English being a hurdle for both performers and audience members, the play was chosen carefully to compromise between interpreting and being entertained. Ju-an believes that “the play’s cinematic nature, with its emphasis on lighting, rapid pace from scene to scene, and music choices, could help properly steer the attention of the audience and stir up excitement that may not be accessible through the subtitled dialogue.” “And the slapstick humor found in the play definitely helped, too,” adds Eun-sol. Humorous fights scenes and visual gags pepper the play, the performers agree, and help alleviate the burden of understanding for an easier laugh. The opportunity to act in English was not the only new and exciting challenge for this cast; Jooyoung was given the opportunity to play a male role, something she attributes to “being an Ewha student. At a co-ed university, the male roles would have more than likely gone to male performers, so I was able to tackle a much more interesting role for myself than I could have otherwise, on top of performing it in English!” She wanted to play a male role to push her boundaries as a performer, and was very enthusiastic when the opportunity to play Dwight arose. “This character has many personality traits that I can identify with, so it was a relatively comfortable experience.” Overall, the performers were absolutely thrilled to perform in English. “As an English major, it was a ton of fun, and a really rare experience to be able to perform in English,” exclaims Ju-an. “I think it was also a rare experience for the audience,” adds Joo-young. “We get to perform in English, and they get to see it. There aren’t many chances to see plays in English here, so it hopefully it was interesting for them too!”
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