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5 May 2012

The Arrival – On Thursday night I had a remarkable experience—so remarkable that I feel I have to take time out of my insanely hectic schedule to write about it. I actually wrote this entry last night—I wanted to do it while the experience was still fresh in my mind—but it was late when I finished and I was very tired, so I decided to save it for today so I could give it one final look.

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to see The Arrival on opening night here in Seoul.”

What I want to write about today is a play called The Arrival, based on a book by Australian author Shaun Tan and performed by the New Zealand-based Red Leap Theatre. We were able to see it on the opening night of its four-day run at the LG Arts Center in Seoul (near Yeoksam Station) thanks to my wife’s connections with the New Zealand embassy here (she teaches Korean to a lot of the embassy staff).

The Arrival tells the story of a migrant who leaves his home country and travels to a strange new land, where he hopes to make a new life and eventually be reunited with the wife and daughter he left behind. Interesting enough, of course, but it’s not the story itself that made the experience so remarkable—it’s the way the story was told. The original book consists entirely of drawings with no words at all, which is interesting from both a stylistic perspective and a narrative perspective. The play, however, is a reinterpretation of the story and as such does have words. Well, it has words of a sort, I guess. As soon as our hero (called “the Traveller” in the program) arrives in the new land, he is greeted by people speaking a strange language. At first I thought it sounded like German, and then I thought it might be French, but it was neither of those languages. In fact, it was no language spoken by anyone on earth. At the same time, it was not gibberish—it was an invented language, and the Traveller does pick up some words along the way. If I remember correctly, “nill” was “food” or “eat,” and “mecken” was “work”—two elements crucial to establishing a new life in a strange land.

The Traveller himself speaks English, but only on rare occasion (usually to a strange dog-like creature he befriends). Most of the time he attempts to communicate using sign language and simple vocalizations—although he does use two Korean words at two points in the play (“annyeonghaseyo,” or “hello,” and “gamsahamnida,” or “thank you”). The cast incorporated these especially for the Korean audience, and judging by the response their efforts were much appreciated.

I guess I’m focusing on the language because it seems to be the easiest thing to start with, but it is also a very important part of the play. By using an invented language, as opposed to an existing language or just gibberish, Red Leap Theatre allow the audience to join the Traveller in his journey as he floats, adrift and aimless, on a sea of words. Soon, the Traveller (and by extension the audience) begins to make out a few landmarks—the greetings used by the natives of this new land are fairly easy to pick up on, for example. What is at first very strange and foreign soon becomes familiar, even if we don’t really understand what it means.

Because the audience cannot understand the vast majority of the dialogue, the play relies heavily on visual imagery, which makes sense considering the source material (if you didn’t click on the link above, you’ll want to click on this one to see some images from the book). Dark, frightening “dragon’s tails” represent the fear and oppression of the homeland, and these occasionally haunt the Traveller’s dreams in the new land as well. Birds also play a big part in the imagery, both during the long journey by sea and in the new land as well—origami birds are used to represent letters sent by the Traveller back to his family.

All of these images are, of course, manipulated by the surprisingly small cast—with as much as goes on in the play, it seems like there should be a much larger cast, but in fact it is only ten people. Not only do the remainder of the cast act as characters in the new world and manipulate the images mentioned above, they also form the scenery and props themselves. This may sound a bit odd, but it works very well. Here is an example: when the Traveller finds a place to stay, he walks into the small room to find a coat hanger, a sink, a window, and other props—but all these props are actually people. The window, for example, is two actors holding four pieces of wood that represent the frame (complete with a sash that goes up and down). The sink, which the Traveller has a hard time figuring out how to work, is two actors sitting in boxes and reacting to the Traveller’s attempts to get water to come out. Oh, and there’s the shower as well, which is another actor holding a long hose.

I couldn’t help but think of Japanese kabuki as I watched the play. The style is very different from kabuki, of course, but the fact that the curtain never goes down and scenery is changed on the fly, mainly by wheeling in various pieces, is quite similar. Unlike kabuki, though, there are no stage hands—all the scenery changes are done by the actors themselves, and they make no attempt to hide themselves (say, by dressing all in black). In theatrical terms, this gives the performance a very organic and fluid feel, but it also effects the performance in narrative terms as well. By “personifying” the scenery, the Traveller’s surroundings are made that much more strange and foreign. For as odd as a shower or sink may look in another country, it’s still a shower or a sink. But when the Traveller turns the wrong knob and the shower literally starts screaming, we see just how foreign his environment is. It also happens to be really funny, which doesn’t hurt.

As the story progresses, the Traveller meets “natives” who help him in one way or another. They all carry around books—in the Traveller’s book is a paper cutout of a dragon’s tail, representing the fear and oppression of his homeland. He meets a woman who shows him where to find something to eat, and she shows him her book, which has a cutout of a ladder. Every time a character opens their book, the scene fluidly changes and we are treated to that person’s history. The woman with the ladder, for example, was a chimney sweep. The only props used in that scene are a ladder and a brush, but the ladder, which is manipulated by other cast members, serves as both her place of work and a prison. It was fascinating to see how much the cast managed to do with so little—all of the personal histories were very sparse in terms of scenery and props, but they were all very effective and moving stories in and of themselves.

It’s quite interesting to see how these people, who at first appear to be “natives” of the new land, were all in fact immigrants just like the Traveller. Their stories offer him a glimmer of hope that one day his liminal period of migration will come to an end and he, too, will become a “native.” This is an especially interesting message for Korea, where the concept of multiculturalism has become something of a fad these days—perhaps more fashion than understanding.

It would be impossible to convey the experience in words alone, especially when so much of the experience was conveyed without words. But I can describe how I felt while watching the play, and if I had to describe that feeling in one word, it would be: connected. Although my experience was different from the Traveller’s (I did not flee an oppressive homeland, for one), I went through a lot of the things depicted in the play when I first arrived in Korea. The language barrier was the first thing I picked up on, but language is simply the most obvious way in which things are foreign. Although the new land is presented as somewhat fantastical—the animals, foods, and even vehicles all look like they came straight out of a fairy tale—it seems so... real. By using fantastical elements as opposed to real “foreign” elements, the audience is free to project their own experiences and memories onto the world of the play. There is a game that the Traveller plays with his co-worker and his co-worker’s family toward the end of the play that involves picking up and moving conical hats. The rules of the game are a mystery to both the Traveller and the audience, and we never get any explanation. I immediately thought of the first time I witnessed a game of hwato (a card game also known as “go-stop”) in Korea, even though it has nothing to do with hats. When the Traveller opens a cabinet and finds a foul-smelling fruit, I remembered the first time I opened up a refrigerator to find a vat of kimchi inside. Anyone who has ever had any experience in a foreign land will be able to do the same, substituting their own experiences.

So I think what The Arrival is ultimately about is understanding—if we can realize that we have all been strangers in a strange land at some point, it might be easier for us to get along. As I mentioned above, I think this is an important lesson now for Korea.

I don’t want to get too much into the multiculturalism issue today, though (I’ll save that for another entry). Instead, I want to tell you about the rest of my experience. The play was only the beginning—after the play, there was a reception sponsored by the New Zealand embassy, and thanks to my wife’s connections we were invited. There was a table of mini-sandwiches, canapes, cookies, and chocolate-dipped strawberries, and on the other side was a selection of New Zealand wines (one white, one red) and beers (Monteith’s Golden Lager and Original Ale). We had a plate of snacks and a glass of wine each in our hands when the new ambassador from New Zealand began his speech. This was when I learned that The Arrival was part of a series of events planned for the 2012 Year of Friendship between Korea and New Zealand—this year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. I also learned that Kiwis sing after giving a speech. After his speech, the ambassador called up the embassy staff and the cast of the play, and they sang a Maori song for us. Then the directors of the play spoke for a little while, and the cast and crew sang us another Maori song.

I didn’t know much about New Zealand before I came to Korea. In fact, the only time New Zealand had entered my consciousness was when a British woman asked me if I was from New Zealand when I was studying in London. (Apparently she knew as little about New Zealand as I did, because my accent is nothing like a Kiwi accent.) Of course, New Zealand is much bigger on the world stage now, thanks in large part to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, but I’ve also had the chance to get to know a lot of Kiwis thanks to Hyunjin’s connections. One thing that has always impressed me is how proud they are of Maori culture, whether they themselves are Maori or not. The new ambassador is Maori, but most of the staff are not, and yet they still all got up and sang a Maori song. This seems to stand in stark contrast to the attitude toward Native Americans in the States. When I mentioned this to Hyunjin, she said that the Maori were very aggressive and fought hard for their rights. Which may be true, but a lot of Native American tribes were pretty aggressive, too, and look how far that got them. I know that this openness to Maori culture wasn’t always the case in New Zealand, but it’s still impressive to see how open to and proud of it the younger generations are.

After the speeches were over, I watched as the cast members drifted off into the crowd. I found myself standing not to far away from the Traveller, and I approached him to thank him for the wonderful performance. I was a bit hesitant at first (I’m not really the type to just walk up and talk to people I don’t know), but as soon as I showed the slightest hint of being interested in talking to him, he turned and smiled. After I told him how much I enjoyed the performance and thanked him, he started asking me about myself. So I told him a little of my own story, and it felt like I was opening up my book and showing him a paper cutout. When I told him that I understood exactly what his character had gone through, he lit up with a huge smile. Then he told me about how he and the rest of the troupe had already experienced so many “Arrival moments” in their short time in Korea.

A short time later I found myself standing next to another cast member, and she also seemed to be waiting for people to talk to her. When I told her how much I enjoyed the performance and how great it was to be able to meet the cast, she said that it was so great for them to actually meet the audience. I’ve been on a stage before, so I know what she was talking about. You know the audience is out there—you can hear them, and you can definitely feel the energy—but all you really see is a sea of black. There is certainly a two-way exchange between performers and audience, but it’s not quite the same as being able to stand there and talk with them. Every cast member seemed to be the same way—all of them were eager to talk, eager to listen, eager to tell their stories and hear the stories of others. It really made the experience complete for me.

Toward the end, when it came time for us to leave, I saw the two directors standing nearby. As I walked toward them, one of the directors stepped toward me and said, “And what is your role at the embassy?” I realized then that I was something of an anomaly at the reception: not a Korean, not a cast member, and not on the embassy staff. I said, “I don’t work at the embassy.” As soon as I opened my mouth, she adopted an expression of mock horror and said, “You’re not a Kiwi!” So I confessed: “I’m a spy.” That seemed to be the right answer, because she laughed. I thanked her for bringing such a wonderful play to Korea, and she shared with me some of her “Arrival moments.” Like the cast, she was very interested in sharing stories.

When we were finished talking it was nearing eleven o’clock and past time for us to go. We hadn’t planned on staying that long at the reception, but it turned out to be far more interesting than we had expected. I feel very fortunate to have been able to see The Arrival on opening night here in Seoul, and even more fortunate to have been able to meet and talk with the cast and directors. I won’t lie: life has been very stressful lately, and I really needed this. Not just as a break from the daily grind, but as a way of putting things into perspective.

I would recommend the show to anyone in and around Seoul, although it may be too late to see it here. The Seoul run finishes tomorrow, with a matinee performance and an evening performance, and I imagine it might be difficult to get tickets at this point. The troupe will be traveling down to Busan next week for the Busan International Performing Arts Festival, though—there will be daily performances in the evening from Friday through Sunday. (And as a bonus, tickets to the show are a lot cheaper in Busan.) If you are in or around Busan, you enjoy the theater, and you are interested in having a remarkable experience, I would recommend it.

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