K-Musicals / a global view

I have been at the birth of a global brand this week, and a way of working which could change the face of theatre and our way of doing show-business in the future. We need change, and whilst aspiring and emerging UK and US producers are looking at how to do things differently in their show-business, it is the Koreans who have this week taught us some very exciting new ways of thinking.

A group of Broadway producers, West End and UK/International British producers, and I were guests of the Korean Arts Management Services, a government agency dedicated to the future of theatre business and delivery. They presented K-Musical 2021 supported by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Seoul Arts Centre with Wooran Foundation. We were welcomed with open arms (covid  carefully of course) and offered new inspirations.

I have been lucky enough to visit Korea many times, and to have seen shows in the Daehangno theatre district which outshines any other off-Broadway off-West End scene anywhere in the world. 156 theatre spaces all vibrantly blazing out their programmes all along a single street interspersed with eateries, university bookshops, and theatre producers’ offices. Think the vibrancy of Soho in London packed tighter and higher and louder, cross with an all year Edinburgh Festival Fringe type buzz of theatre multiplexes.  It blew the minds of my colleagues seeing it for the first time, before we settled into a wonderfully well organised convention on Musical Theatre hosted by the wonderful Seoul Arts Centre (think Lincoln Centre or South Bank – a complex of concert halls, opera house, galleries and very tasty restaurants with lots of open plaza space to enjoy the autumn sunshine).

K-pop is globally recognised, as are Korean movies including the latest phenomenon of Squid Game. But K-musical is new. The genre is developing. The ways of presenting Korean subject matter to a relatively non-global aware musical theatregoing audience need to be explored and tuned. The best ways to have a flourishing inbound theatre tourism market is a year or two away yet. But what we witnessed over 3 absolutely full-on days was something the UK and US has never explored.

Over 3 days investment banks and sophisticated investors followed pathways through the convention programme alongside two other more expected sets of delegates – experienced Korean producers of work in Korea and on Broadway/West End, and aspiring/emerging producers of the future who were either early career Fringe producers or at college/university exploring this as a career pathway.  Plus we had writers/producers presenting and pitching work to both investors and producers.  It was awesome – and we as international non-Korean delegates were cared for and supported with translation throughout, so we felt completely part of this K-Musical launchpad.

I was doing some teaching/sharing core knowledge of the UK (and US) scene with over 90 producers in classes and workshops, but I still had time to slip into showcases and see some amazingly exciting new pieces.  I saw new ways to present showcases (and wow I thought I’d seen every way over the years), and a mix of ideas which I sense can (and some maybe can’t) translate to a non-Korean global audience.

What is clear is that, unlike the UK, they are light years ahead in harnessing a government, finance, artistic, tourism and creative understanding of the power of the Musical Theatre business to be a respected business brand.  They get the synergy potential of show and business. Plus they respect Musical Theatre as an artform that dares to speak its name.

The UK is changing, but they are now starting a global journey from a place of confidence and business vibrancy which did not exist when I launched the first Festival of Musicals in the UK in 1990.  [More on that in my next Tik Tik Boom blog].

When I created the first UK Conference on Musical Theatre none of the West End producers chose to have the time to be there.  There were, even then, top Japanese and Broadway producers at the conference. We showed a vast array of work, but all without any government support. Spin forward 30 years and the Arts Council England is now supporting some Musical Theatre support, but we still don’t have a single government supported venue for MT development – no Traverse or Royal Court for musicals. We have never attempted an investment/show convention.  And 30 years on they are starting their journey of brand development and new work nurturing with a phenomenal collaboration between money and art,  government and private, commercial and non-profit organisations and individuals.

I am sitting on the plane back reviewing what I have seen, feeding back my thoughts, and then preparing proposals for some 2022 and 2023 initiatives which we discussed in a corner of the convention hall.  I am sure my UK and US colleagues are doing the same.  We have each of us made new friends, met old collaborators, and had our eyes opened to how the business could be different.

Don’t get me wrong – we in the UK are doing some things they have never tried, and we have a rich co-production and collaboration system for theatre which they envy in us.  We have an international tourist trade for theatre, and the advantage of working with a globally learned language.  But we should be aware that we also do it in particular ways ‘because we have always done it this way’, and we can tend not to be fleet of foot to take advantage of new ways to work. 

Each one of us take away some great new ideas of ways to work, and have left with our delegate colleagues some experiences and successful models for them to use, adapt, and build on.

If you are a theatregoer (either professional in the biz, or enthusiast for seeing shows), I recommend you keep an eye on the Korean scene and book a theatre-break in 2022 or 2023 to Seoul.  You will be inspired by the Theatre District and you can enjoy some old favourite musicals performed in Korean, and some ultra new work which draws on k-pop and contemporary music along with traditional and universal musical theatre storytelling.  Or nearer to home look out for K-musicals developed and playing in the UK and US very soon.

Thank you KAMS and all those who made us so so welcome.  Next time though I will need to go and be a bit of a tourist too.

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