Fade-in. The spotlight falls on four chairs standing alone on the stage. Slowly, four actors step in, all clad in neat suits that look too mundane for a theater play. You are bored at their plain sight, but stunned at what they have got: outspoken insults, dirty jokes, and splashing water! Interested? Then welcome to the world of Publikumsbeschimpfung, where you can be both actor and spectator.
“Born in 1978,” “the hottest theater play in 2004 with 97.9 percent of its total seats booked,” and “the most controversial theater play throughout decades”—what comes to your mind? These fancy prefixes are meant for the theater play Publikumsbeschimpfung, or “insulting audience.” Nevertheless, they are not very special, just like actors declare at first: “Do not expect to hear what you have never heard, for we shall not show such a thing.” The show then starts, leaving the audience excited about what is going to unfold.
A series of satirical criticism on crooked politicians draws the audience’s laughter at first, especially when they spit it out like boors at a tavern. All the while, the actors do not care about the audience, as if they cannot perceive their presence, until the director’s voice—supposedly from the second floor—interrupts their heated backbiting: “Stop such political backbiting! This is a theater play, you know, art!” shouts the director from behind, and hurries to the stage to give the actors specific directions. Most of the audience accustomed to the traditional play would find it a refreshing violation of the theater doctrine, as they probably have had no chance of seeing a director popping up around the stage in the middle of a play.
However, such heretic deviation forms a sense of “pleasing” suspense—since no one knows for sure what will happen next—and drives boredom away from the faces of the audience, which is rarely observed in traditional plays. The director then actively engages the audience in the play, often inviting one of them to improvise on stage, or directly asking them to give actors an order instead of him. By doing so, he denies the generally assumed role of actors and audience, as one actor exclaims, “You don’t need actors, for you are actors yourselves!”
These four witty actors are sometimes more of crew of psychologists than stage performers. They boldly ask the audience to stop blinking their eyes, breathing, and—though impossible—listening and not listening at the same time. All the actors do is curiously observe their subjects—the audience! While the audience does their best to follow the directions, you can see the pleased faces of actors and bewildered faces of the audience nicely juxtaposed around you, feeling as if you were performing and the actorswatching. Then, you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Well, the purpose of this role-reversal is pretty obvious: they want you to be more than a mere spectator.
Though it has been nearly five decades since the advent of such an audience-engaging theater play, this avant-garde performance is still a fresh shock to most Koreans. When they go to a theater, they mostly expect to kick back on the cozy recliner, staying half-nodding during the whole play. The Sprechstückgenre, or “language play,” defies such a stereotype. It requires the audience to critically examine the relationship between performers and spectators by pushing them onto the stage—and it really does!
In this play, gone is the wall that used to separate the actors from the audience—there is neither passive watching nor plot-based performance. Sometimes, actors dare raise their fingers to point at the audience and insult them. In return, the provoked audience swears back at the actors, filling the theater with something akin to anger. This hot air of a provoked audience soon morphs into a dramatic emotional uplift we call “catharsis”, and makes them—surprisingly—burst into laughter, just like patients in a lunatic asylum!
▲ One skit included in the play. Provided by Eda entertainment
Then an actress speaks as if reading a first chapter of the textbook, “Introduction to Cinematography.” She articulates each word while making gestures perfectly irrelevant to the content of her own narration, and—as intended—puts the audience in great embarrassment. It takes just a few minutes for the audience to grasp the incongruity between her language and her actions. She talks with vehemence that she neither intends to convey a message through her acting nor please the audience, while fixing her blazing eyes at the audience who are eager to grasp the intention of her speech. This glaring incongruity between the language and behavior stirs up great confusion in the audience, who are unfamiliar with such intended linguistic transgression.
It also nudges the audience to reflect upon the role of language in communication by purposely mispronouncing words—and those mispronounced words do sound offensive. A cheesy wordplay would have been the best description of their performance, had it only been meant for mere entertainment. As the play proceeds, however, a profound meaning hidden behind slowly unfolds: It not only functions as an attention-grabber, but reminds the audience of the role of nonverbal communication.
Still the greatest surprise is unveiled, until you see the director hurriedly jump onto the stage. He steps out with a washbasin as the play draws near to the finale, and—voila!—splashes water on the audience! A burst of joyful screaming ensues, and the play finally comes to its end. All of the people are soaked but smiling, insulted yet enthralled. That sounds strange enough, yet the strangest thing is that the two hours of running time do fly by, which would never happen if the play were a mere replica of some self-claimed Broadway hits.
▲ Actress and actor improvising. Provided by Eda entertainment
▲ Actors improvising. Provided by Eda entertainment