Knowing nothing about Korean theatre – one of our blind spots, we’re afraid – our ears pricked when we heard Assembly were hosting an inaugural Korean season at this year’s Fringe. It sounded like a chance to broaden our theatrical horizons, so we had a word with Artistic Director Angella Kwon to find out more…

(And it was she who mentioned Gangnam Style, not us. It never even crossed our minds for a second!)

What is the theatre scene like in Korea?

There is a sort of ‘West End’ district, located in a popular tourist area, with ongoing premieres of new shows. There’s also an ‘off-Broadway’ scene in Seoul. In other cities, it’s mostly a situation of tours that originate in Seoul, where a full representation of theatre genres can be found.

What reputation does the Fringe have over there?

The Fringe is fairly well known in Seoul, and in the popular district of Hongik they have initiated their own smaller ‘Korean Fringe’ festival which has been going for less than a decade. Mostly, knowledge of the Edinburgh Fringe began when Nanta visited in 1999, resulting in press coverage.

Why is now a good time to have a Korean season?

It’s been seventeen years since Nanta was the first Korean show in the Fringe, and this current decade has seen the popularisation of Korean culture worldwide, starting with Korean fusion food trucks in the USA, and continuing with the general wave of popularity of Korean cuisine in general in North America. The recent success of Youtube artist Psy has also brought Korea to the forefront of the internet generation, and Korean dramas continue to make inroads into the western market.

This is the first time a Korean selection has been made for Fringe, and it has the potential to build on that new found world interest in this faraway place, by bringing the best of this country to the world’s stage, and broadening the audience’s experience of it beyond the odd TV drama or Youtube video.

The producers of Lotto have been to the Fringe before (with Cookin’ (aka Nanta) and Jump). What are they doing this time?

The producer has been coming since 1999, but she’s also bringing with her the veteran fringe actors/co-directors from Lotto, who have been in the Fringe for over a decade as well. Previous shows were blends of comedy with percussion and martial arts, but this time around, they are throwing magic and illusion into the comedy mix.

Dance is a feature of several of the shows. What is distinctive about Korean dance?

One Fine Day involves contemporary dance, unlike Pan and Leodo which are more traditional. It’s hard to put an image to the term ‘Korean dance’. Whereas it once evoked the traditional whirling ‘sangmo’ with a long tassle ribbon, the range of styles and genres now popular in Korea far outnumber the people who still think of sangmo as ‘Korean dance’. Particularly popular are breakdancing, b-boying and hip-hop in general, and it would be remiss not to mention K-pop dancing, which is sort of an outgrowth of backup dancing, and is more found in studios than in clubs.

Tell us about the ‘gut‘, the shamanic séance art that is part of Leodo…

The ‘gut’ is a rite in which the shaman offers a sacrifice to the spirits and, through singing and dancing, begs them to intercede in the fortunes of the world. The shaman wears a colourful ritual costume, speaks while in a trance, and sings and dances to the accompaniment of music. It is not only a dance spectacle to be enjoyed by onlookers, but also a vital mystical connection to nature and the spirits for many Koreans, whether Christian or Buddhist. There is a Shaman Festival every year, where the culture is showcased non-competitively, and in fact many other festivals involve aspects of shamanism (such as the Ha Hoe masked dance festival).

What should audiences be expecting from the Korean season?

Variety, energy, surprise, old friends!

There will be a range of shows, from modern to old, from truly Asian to fusion, and the energy level seen previously in high-kicking martial arts will be maintained throughout.

But there should also be a surprise; something unexpected, something that doesn;t fit with the viewer’s idea of Korea (beyond kimchi and flying kicks). There should also be an element of the familiar, well known and comfortable, since the two ideas exist in Korean culture and also on the national flag (the yin-yang symbol).

Korean Season is @ Assembly from Thu 6 Aug 2015 @ various times