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Daehangno, where the Humanities and Social Sciences Campus (HSSC) of Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) is located, is the center of Korean theater arts. Theater companies in Daehangno, some of which date back to the 1960s, continue to this day and provide us with moving experiences. However, despite their storied histories, Daehangno’s theatrical arts face multiple difficulties. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) will thus look at the emergence of Daehangno, its differentiating factors, struggles, and solutions to these difficulties.

The Growth and Present State of Daehangno

Daehangno’s emergence as a cultural street was mainly fueled by the artist community in the 1970s. The community pushed for cultivating a cultural space in a large unoccupied area around Yeongeon-dong, previously occupied by Seoul National University before it moved to Gwanak District. After cultural policies were put into motion, such as the Arts and Culture Center construction in 1976, artists began to flow into Daehangno. Later, the area was named a “street of culture” in 1990 and designated as a “cultural district” in 2004. Since then, Daehangno has formed the base of the Korean culture industry and has developed into the center of Korean theatrical arts. Some celebrities who started their careers in Daehangno include veteran actors such as Lee Soon-jae and Song Kang-ho. Additionally, Memories of Murder, director Bong Joon-ho’s first mainstream success film, was based on the Daehangno play Come See Me. There are around 160 small theaters currently operating in the Daehangno area. According to the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System (KOPIS), out of the 245,000 tickets sold for plays during this past October in Korea, 74.9% were sold in Daehangno.

The Number of Small Theaters around Daehangno (daehakroticket.com)

The Differentiating Factors of Plays in Daehangno

Diversity within the Theatrical Works

Veteran Actors Performing in Daehangno (sbs.co.kr)

One characteristic of theater productions in Daehangno is that they offer a wide variety of creative works, from the genre of the play to the actors as well as the staff. From light-hearted plays like Rooftop Cat, a romantic comedy, to more exhilarating works like Living Alone, a thriller, Daehangno offers a wide array of genres. There are even occasional small-scale performances of renowned musicals such as Les Misérables. On the other hand, an innumerable number of artists, each with a differing background, come together in Daehangno to perform on stage. These include students, office workers, and even professional actors. Kim Ji-hwan, an amateur actor, commented, “Such variety, I believe, stems from the fact that the theatrical arts are an exciting form of art for those who enjoy acting on live stages.” Daehangno also provides a space for diverse producers and stage workers. For example, while a university theater club would be manned by students, a large scale play at Daehangno would involve career artists with years of experience. Thus, Daehangno is a notable area in the fact that it offers diversity in both genre and artists.

The Independence of Theater Companies

Another differentiating factor of Daehangno is that theater companies are run in a relatively independent manner. Plays can be staged more efficiently when compared to musicals or movies, as they require less capital before their debuts. Musicals or movies often require a large amount of capital investment, leading to the involvement of large entertainment companies such as CJ ENM. However, the lower financial pressure on small theater companies in Daehangno allows them to stage plays independently. The independence of Daehangno’s theater companies also plays a positive role for audiences. The financial strain on production companies drives up ticket prices, but this is often the opposite for Daehangno plays. According to the KOPIS, while 48.8% of musical tickets cost over ₩100,000, most plays in Daehangno are sold for under ₩50,000, which is half the price. Additionally, plays are more suitable for staging new or experimental theatrical works than other types of performances, enabling a more flexible attitude from Daehangno’s theater companies. The independence of Daehangno’s theater companies thus reduces the audiences’ financial burdens and promotes a more relaxed environment for new dramatic works.

The Future of Theatrical Arts in Daehangno

Daehangno and its theaters are suffering financial hardships despite their influence due to rising rents and interest declines. According to a 2017 paper by Professor Yang Eun-a from Korea Nazarene University (KNU), Daehangno is experiencing gentrification, whereby the original inhabitants are pushed away. Prof. Yang points out that some small theaters have already been forced to move away from Daehangno. To solve this issue, the Jongno District office and civic organizations are leading an effort to support the artists of Daehangno. For example, the Arts Council of Korea operates a financial subsidy program for artists to preserve and develop theater culture in Daehangno. Moreover, the Jongno District office plans to build a cultural information platform by 2025. The office expects this policy to improve accessibility to the theater culture in Daehangno for the public, leading to further development in the area. Public interest is vital for these supportive policies to have a real impact. Simple acts, such as watching or promoting plays around Daehangno will significantly help the preservation of theater culture in Daehangno.

The “Welcome Daehakro”, Was Held to Promote Tourism (heraldcorp.com)

Daehangno, and the theater culture formed around the area, has been around since the 1970s. The differentiating factors of Daehangno’s plays have managed to attract hundreds of thousands of people each year, and the influence of Daehangno is immense in the Korean cultural industry. Despite this, Daehangno is on life support as interest has declined. The time is more than ripe for all Kingos to take an interest in this beautiful heritage of theatrical arts, available right at our doorstep.

노규원  tdcby@g.skku.edu

<저작권자 © THE SUNGKYUN TIMES, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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