▲ Nanta, Korea’s longest-running show, tells a comedic, fast-paced story of restaurant chefs preparing a wedding banquet. Photo courtesy Nanta
To categorize Nanta as any specific genre of theater is a difficult task. It is a performance, a spectacle that doesn’t adhere to any conventions, but only seeks to entertain its audience. With one part Benny Hill, one part variety show, two parts samulnori (traditional Korean drumming) and a dash of Stomp, Nanta is an energetic, non-stop show for all ages.
Currently performing in four theatres throughout the country, totaling more than 11,000 performances over a 10 year period, Nanta is the longest-running show in Korea. Its success is due in large part to the universal appeal that attracts more tourists than Koreans. In fact, according to Nanta’s statistics, almost three quarters of audiences at the Jeju Media Center in Jeju City are comprised of East Asian and Japanese tourists, with only 17 percent of attendees identified as Korean nationals.
Kim Moon Soo, one of the creators of the show who is currently acting in the role of restaurant manager at the Jeju theater, explained that the performance is geared more towards tourists than local theatre goers because Jeju’s theatre culture “is not strong and [Jeju] people don’t think that it will be interesting, so when we planned on coming to Jeju our target audience were tourists. We thought that Jeju is famous for tourism.”
Nanta’s success on the island can be attributed to its inclusion in Jeju tourist package deals. “Since tourists don’t have a place at night to go in Jeju, we thought that it would be a good idea for them to see a performance,” said Yim Yun Hee, a member of the marketing team for PMC, Nanta’s production company.
“I feel that the tourist audiences are very comfortable about the show and are easily excited and it makes me happy.” Kim Moon Soo said.
Though Nanta offers a 50 percent discount to Jeju residents, this promotion has not been as enticing as one would expect. “Jeju people are not familiar with this kind of performance. So even though they get a 50 percent discount, they doubt whether it is worth it,” Kim Moon Soo said.
This coming April 18th marks the show’s second year in Jeju. According to organizers, more than 200,000 people have seen the Jeju show thus far and the projection is that its popularity will continue to increase. Due to this success “eventually PMC has a goal of building their own theatre in Jeju” specifically for Nanta, said Kim Yun Kyung, the Jeju Nanta house manager.
▲ Nanta actor Kim Moon Soo. Photo by Darryl Coote
The performance is non-verbal and is authentically Korean, combining ancient musical instruments with modern slapstick humor and pop music. Kim Moon Soo said the inspiration for the show was to reinvent samulnori and that “a lot of people felt that theater needed some changes. We wanted to do something with samulnori and do something with it in a new way. We did it and it was a breakthrough.”
Kim Moon Soo was himself a trained and working actor before Nanta came into being “I felt that this was a new performing event and I wanted to participate in it,” he said. He first created a five-minute video which was built on during rehearsals as a collaboration.
He said that he didn’t realize that the show would be such a success, financially or critically, until its first overseas tour to Great Britain for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where all Nanta performances quickly sold out. That was when Kim Moon Soo and company began to realize that their Korean production “could be a big hit.”
While the conceit of the plot remains the same at all four locations, Nanta attempts to localize the performances with set dressings and props. Yun said that these differences change the show to the extent that it is worthwhile to see the variation between the performances on Jeju and those in Seoul.
In seven teams, the performers rotate between the theatres at two month intervals. The majority of them, Kim Moon Soo said, are trained actors, while “all the girls majored in dance.” As for their multifaceted samulnori skills, “those who majored in acting usually learned Korean rhythms at their university.”
As well as performing Nanta on the Jeju stage, Kim Moon Soo is working on a new piece to be produced by PMC. While still in its initial stages of development, he knows that he wants to use ornate and ancient Korean masks.
Nanta hopes to build off its previous success of being the first Asian-created musical to perform on Broadway and plans to open a show in Las Vegas. Its ultimate goal is to become a long-running Broadway show.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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