The Korea Herald


'The Clowns' explores the contortions of an outsider coming in

By Paul Kerry

Published : June 24, 2015 - 18:36

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How much should an outsider give up to become part of society’s inner circle? That is the main theme of Kim Tae-woong’s award-winning play “The Clowns,” Busan English Theatre Association’s next production.

A translation of the play was published in 2005, but this will be its first production in English.

The play looks at the relationship between 15th-century Joseon King Yeonsangun and his court clown Gong-gil.

Gong-gil is part of a troupe performing for the king under the ultimate pressure: Be funny or die. But when the king sees Gong-gil, he falls for him and invites him into his chambers. The plot then explores the idea of an outsider entering the inner circle of high society.

“We have a clown as a main character who you might say dabbles in leaving being a clown, giving that up, and in the process giving up his heart and soul -- his integrity, his loyalty to the clowns,” said director Jeffrey Schoenfeld.

“There is a whole political social element very vividly there in the text. One of the main themes is the power of writing. … It was during King Yeonsan’s reign that the newly invented writing system was banned.

“Of course, (Hangeul) was a huge boon for the common people when it was created, because instead of Chinese characters that only a select few people could study and master, suddenly writing became available to pretty much anyone.”

Schoenfeld says that it is Gong-gil who suggests the ban.

“That is the main character at his greatest lack of integrity. He’s gotten about as far as he could possibly get from the true clown he started as.”

Actors rehearse for Busan English Theatre Association’s performance of “The Clowns.” (Kelly Bryan) Actors rehearse for Busan English Theatre Association’s performance of “The Clowns.” (Kelly Bryan)

BETA took up the play at the suggestion of member Choe Sang-min, who is theater liaison for the performance and helped arrange a meeting about the performance with the playwright.

To their surprise he was very relaxed about how they would put it on.

“I was almost taken aback, in the best way. We were all slightly nervous that he might have very high expectations about how he wanted it,” Schoenfeld said.

“When it came to the specifics of traditional Korea, he basically said change anything you want,” said Schoenfeld. “He didn’t go so far, but it was almost like he was saying you can set it on the moon for all I care, as long as the characters and the themes are there.”

“In his opinion it is the sort of story that could take place anywhere and still resonate.”

This freedom also comes across in the translation, which was very heavily scrutinized before it was endorsed, but still makes the changes needed to make it sound natural to English speakers.

“The clown puns just run amok, and of course puns don’t really translate, so Will Kearn obviously had a bit of a tightrope walk there,” said Schoenfeld.

But BETA’s production still used Kim’s original ideas as its starting point for the physical aspect of the play, through a video of the initial production the playwright directed.

Schoenfeld said that the script did not call for acrobatics specifically, although the focus on clowns implies a lot of physical performance. But when he saw the acrobatics of the original production, he called on Jacob Elgin, who was an acrobat in university, to direct the stunts.

“This whole project has been serendipitous, a coming together of lots of different talents in a completely unexpected way,” Schoenfeld said of the ability to include acrobatics.

And he said that the mix of socially relevant themes made it an unusual treat for audiences.

“It is such a rich and powerful and well-put-together commentary, and it doesn’t shy away from so many themes,” he said. “I cannot imagine any other situation, where we could put on a play in Korea that discusses all these themes, from censorship, politics, social issues, gender issues, sexuality, you name it.”

“The Clowns” will be performed at Container Arts Terminal (CATs) on Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., July 4 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and July 5 at 2 p.m. Tickets are 10,000 won in advance or 15,000 won at the door. Email for reservations.

A video documentary about BETA's production of the clowns can be found at

By Paul Kerry(