The Korea Herald


[Anniversary Special] Stage lights stay lit, but flicker now and then

A year and a half in, the performing arts scene is adapting to the prolonged COVID-19 crisis

By Im Eun-byel

Published : Aug. 14, 2021 - 16:00

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The Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul is seen empty as viewed from the stage. (Sejong Center) The Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul is seen empty as viewed from the stage. (Sejong Center)
It has been a year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Though we are still struggling to find our way out of this global crisis, the local performing arts industry has learned to cope through trial and error.

Unlike the situation early last year, when South Korea’s performing arts community was pushed to the brink, theaters and performing arts companies are finding ways to keep the arts going in trying times. 

The show must go on

The performing arts sector has been one of the most vulnerable during the virus crisis. In March and December last year, when two waves of COVID-19 swept the nation, the performing arts scene went into a near-complete shutdown for weeks.

The current fourth wave, however, has failed to put the lights out at theaters. Though the Greater Seoul area has been placed under the toughest distancing measures, the stages remain lit.

Performances are mostly taking place as scheduled, though cautiously and with limits that must be observed, such as shifting the performance hours to comply with the semi-lockdown.

According to the data from the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System managed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the combined revenue of musicals, classical concerts, plays and other performances marked 116.9 billion won ($101.1 million) in the first six months of this year -- a 19 percent increase from the 98 billion won recorded in the same period last year, suggesting signs of a recovery.

Even during this fourth wave the performing arts scene posted total revenue of 22 billion won in July, as compared with 16 billion won in July 2020 and 17 billion won in July 2019.

Shows were able to continue their runs with the relaxation of spacing rules in February. Theaters are now required to leave a seat vacant between audience members who did not come together.

But though big musicals and classical performances are still going ahead, small theaters are still finding it difficult to make ends meet. 

New systems for a new era

To cope with the changing times, the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, one of the biggest performing arts theaters in Korea, recently developed a ticketing system that automatically puts vacant seats around parties as required by law.

The new system will be in place for performances by troupes under the Sejong Center’s wing, starting with the musical “For Forgotten Heroes,” set to open Sept. 17.

According to the theater, the new ticketing system eliminates the need for ticketholders to make new reservations when the government announces new physical distancing measures.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sejong Center has been developing new systems to ensure the safety of the audiences,” the theater’s CEO Kim Sung-kyu said in a press release. “Culture should continue through everyday life.” 

Stage to screen

Going online is no longer an option but a necessity for the performing arts industry.

The National Theater of Korea recently announced that it will start its project “The Closest National Theater” in September, expanding the number of platforms through which it shares its performances. The aim is to expand its traditional audience base and promote its work internationally.

Through the project, the local multiplex operator Lotte Cinema will screen the performances of troupes affiliated with the National Theater of Korea live from September through November at its 18 branches across the country.

The National Theater will also stream recordings of its past works for free through the mobile streaming platform Wavve in September and will feature a new lineup in October and November.

In February the Korea National Opera launched KNO My Opera, an online streaming platform for performances, hoping to enhance the audio and visual quality of the streamed performances. It said it hoped to add value to the process of online streaming and make it more than just a poor substitute for in-person performances. 

Closed gates still a barrier

Though arts troupes and theaters are doing their best to ensure that performances continue, visits to Korea by foreign artists remain a challenge due to the mandatory two-week self-quarantine rule.

“For foreign artists, the self-quarantine rule is a huge obstacle,” an official from the performing arts industry said.

“Non-Korean nationals are randomly assigned to a government-designated quarantine facility, without the guarantee that they will be placed in an appropriate environment for practice,” the official said.

In June the Sejong Center had to postpone its Hong Kong Week 2021@Seoul event for two years, having failed to obtain the mandatory self-quarantine waiver for the visiting artists from Hong Kong.

Earlier this year Kim Ki-min, the principal dancer of the prestigious Mariinsky Ballet in Russia, could not take part in the Korea National Ballet’s “La Bayadere” in Seoul as he was not granted an exemption from the quarantine requirements.

With the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and maestro Riccardo Muti scheduled to perform in Korea in November, the organizers are working out the details of a quarantine exemption.

The local performing arts industry is asking the disease control authorities to relax the rules -- either to shorten the quarantine period or allow foreign artists who have been vaccinated to isolate themselves in accommodations of their own choosing.

On Aug. 15, 2021, The Korea Herald celebrates its 68th anniversary as South Korea’s No. 1 English-language daily. To mark the day in a time of pandemic and turmoil, The Korea Herald has prepared a series of stories on the challenges that we face and the prognosis for life with, or after COVID-19. -- Ed.