“The Gugak Shakespearean”
Expat Thespian – Lauren Ash-Morgan
With a Bachelor of Music in Music Education(Voice) and a Master’s in Ethnomusicology, Lauren Ash-Morgan has been acting since the age of 10. This actor, director, writer & teacher is proving that art has no limits here in The Land Of The Morning Calm.
How long have you lived in Korea?
Nearly seven years total. One year from 2005-2006, then I went back to the U.S. for graduate school, and I returned to Korea at the end of 2010.
What has been the value of being in Korea?
There is a solid community of English-speaking theater artists and filmmakers here, I’ve been able to get back into acting in some very high-quality projects. I happened to come to Korea at the time that Seoul Shakespeare Company was starting. I scoped out the company a bit, then auditioned for their first main stage production, Macbeth, and was cast as Lady Macbeth. From there, I continued to get major roles on stage with SSC and other theater companies.
What does being an expat actor mean to you?
It’s the chance to develop as an artist on my own terms and try out new things. And that’s partly because I have a really good university teaching job, which allows me full financial support and time to pursue artistic activities. If you want to start your own theater company, people have done that here and made it happen. This can be a place to come and develop a skill, like acting or directing, film-making, writing, or photography, while having a steady job.
What other artistic interest do you have? The other half of my artistic life is in Gugak—Korean traditional performing arts. In that area, I’m getting training that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else, and I’m constantly applying that voice and dance knowledge to my theater performances. That specialization is the main reason I’m here. Gugak has been a huge part of my artistic life for more than ten years now.
Why should an actor choose to become an expat thespian?
I can really only speak about the community here in Seoul. The main things Seoul offers are 1) an abundance of steady day jobs, mostly teaching English in various types of educational environments, 2) an active and supportive creative community, 3) access to the Korean TV and film industry, 4) the experience of being an expat, which is a life-altering experience in its own right.
What skills have you acquired since becoming Artistic Director of Seoul Shakespeare Company that could help you in New York or West End?
I don’t know about those particular locations, but I feel like I could start a theater company and put on productions pretty much anywhere, with minimal resources. Since becoming artistic director, I’ve been able to experience handling nearly every aspect of putting on a theater production, which is something that every actor should learn.
The other important part of that is the ability to teach, and that’s what I’m working on now. If you can create a resident theater company that offers classes for adults & students, workshops for schools, and summer camps, I think it’s possible to survive as an autonomous artist.
What are your major challenges & strategies in keeping people aware of Seoul Shakespeare Company?
We are always looking for talented people to audition and absolutely need large audiences to come to the shows, so letting people know about us is really vital to our survival. Because the community here is so transient, it’s important to let them know that we are here.
With the emergence of Facebook ads, we’ve been able to focus our advertising there and almost all of our performances of Much Ado About Nothing last May were sold out, so that was a great success. We also emailed international schools about the show and they brought lots of students. In addition, we have an email list of about 500 people, and over 2,400 likes on our Facebook page.
What is a day in the life of an artistic director during the height of production?
Busy, all the time! I’m teaching my university students, plus studying Gugak with 3 to 6 master teachers at any given time, plus running Seoul Shakespeare Company, so it’s pretty busy. There are so many things to organize at all points in the production. It’s also lots of communicating and messaging during my nooks and crannies of free time between classes and on the subway—thank goodness for Seoul’s subway having full, fast internet access!).
What makes Seoul Shakespeare Company so effective?
At Seoul Shakespeare Company, we’ve been increasing the quality of productions to that of a small professional company, but we’ve still welcomed and trained talented people with little or no acting background. We’re always in need of people, so it’s a great place to come and develop one’s talents in a supportive environment. A great place to start is by performing a monologue in one of our Shakesperiments workshops.
How do Koreans react to Shakespeare? As for Korean audience members’ reactions, we had a lot of Korean university students come to Much Ado About Nothing this year, and they seemed surprised that it was so enjoyable. Many audience members (expats and Korean students) told us that they hadn’t expected to like a Shakespeare production, but they loved it.
How do you respond when people say that theater is a dying art?
I’ve actually never heard anyone say that. I do have some film-making friends who say they don’t like theater, which absolutely shocks me, since theater and film are so closely connected. Saying you don’t like theater is like saying you don’t like movies. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Movies are easily distributable, you can see the work of the best film actors and directors from your home. However, you have to physically go to where the world’s best theater-makers are performing. Lots of people have never seen a play outside of a high school or community theater production, so some people think of that quality of work when they think of theater, whereas when they think of film, they think of Spielberg or whoever they consider to be the best.
Imagine if you could only see films made in your local area, and what opinion you would develop about the quality of films as a medium. Theater is actually very much like film, but as an audience member, you get to be physically there with the actors. That is amazing and can be very powerful.
In reference to theater in Korea, do you see expat actors becoming more involved?
It’s a nice idea, but most expat actors I know find Korean theater acting to be very much at odds with what they consider good acting. It’s very big, and in Shakespeare productions it’s very formal, with a very forced-sounding speech cadence.
As far as expats acting in Korean productions, the rehearsal schedule for such productions can be pretty frustrating. When I was in a Korean production at the National Theater(not their in-house company) I had an experience that was extreme, but it followed what are common general patterns in Korean theater.
Everyone was called for every rehearsal and there was no schedule of what scenes would be performed. We rehearsed for 30 hours per week (38 hours during the last few weeks), in the evenings, for no pay, and when we weren’t rehearsing our own scenes, we had to sit and watch whatever scene was being rehearsed, which made for lots of wasted time, with pretty mediocre results. But I’m sure there are better situations out there!
What do you find impressive about Korean theater?
The most impressive thing about Korean theater is the visual design. I also admire the Daehangno area, the theater district, for its rough-around-the edges little theaters, which are constantly putting on independent and experimental productions. The level of activity that goes on in that area is just amazing. That’s where we perform our SSC productions, and it’s inspiring just to be making theater in that area.
Is there any aspect of Korean theater that you would love to be part of?
The one area of Korean theater that I would LOVE to perform in is Changgeuk. It’s like opera, but the singers and orchestra are trained in Gugak, rather than in Western classical music. In recent years the company has premiered a number of original works, including one based on the film Seopyeonje, and a number of others based on ancient Greek plays. They’re just out of this world good at what they do and I would love to be involved with them.
Have you done or have aspirations for Korean film?
I haven’t done any Korean films yet. I’ve done a little bit of independent film, most notably the feature film Amiss, which was a great experience for me to develop as a film actor. I’ve gotten a few calls about Korean auditions for specific roles, but I’ve just been too busy with Seoul Shakespeare and my Gugak studies to be able to commit to anything. I’d be interested in getting involved in the industry if offered parts that were right for me.
What do you want most for Seoul Shakespeare Company?
My long-term hope for the company is that it continues to produce high-quality work, that it gives good training to the people involved, and that it’s known & respected in Korea and abroad. Also, that our members do great things professionally, and that having Seoul Shakespeare Company on one’s resume will be a badge of honor, both because of the ongoing quality of the work and the success of our “alumni.”
When is the next performance for Seoul Shakespeare? Our next show, The Winter’s Tale, will be in April 2017, with auditions in early December and rehearsals beginning in early January. With Seoul Shakespeare Company, the main event is our annual main stage production, but we have smaller events and workshops at other times of the year to raise money for the main stage show.
What’s next for you “The Gugak Shakespearean?”
I’m interested in getting either an MFA or a Ph.D. and teaching at the university level. I’m leaning towards an MFA and teaching performance courses in Shakespeare and Gugak.
As a long-term performance piece, I’ve been working on a two-person version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women for my husband(Michael Downey) and myself that I would like to tour with his solo play, The Orderly, and take to festivals. I started to develop the idea about four years ago, as a piece that would utilize my training in, and the aesthetics of, Gugak, and I’ve been slowly working on the text this year.
Lauren Ash-Morgan is an actress of fierce focus and eclectic emotion. After this interview I’m honored to call her friend and I’ve gained a new respect for this fellow Expat Thespian.
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Till next time thespians,