Stage & Screen

Where Greek Tragedy, K-Pop and Pansori Collide: Trojan Women’s Director & Creator Keng Sen Ong

&ASIAN chats with renowned director Keng Sen Ong on artmaking within capitalism, the transcendence of cultural exchange and the timeless tension of being one in a collective.
Trojan Women: conceived and directed by Keng Sen Ong.
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Where Greek Tragedy, K-Pop and Pansori Collide: Trojan Women’s Director & Creator Keng Sen Ong

CW: mention of blood

Hi Keng Sen! To introduce the artist behind the art: what does identity mean to you?

I think that identity is useful up to a point because it also starts to imprison you. And because we live in a world where most people have to take a stereotype or a cliche to understand – let's say, what nonbinary means, or what queer means – then it just fixes you into that category. And so for me, a lot of my early work dealt with Asian identity, and after a while I felt that it was actually becoming ghettoised; I was not quite content with that. I think that there's always kind of a glass ceiling where identity could also become entrapment, unless you can harness it when it works for you and let go when it doesn't.

What would you consider as your own identity?

My early work was very much about killing the father, killing the patriarchy, and beginning from a kind of new consciousness and breaking away from the old ways. It's related to how I work with Asian traditional arts as well. But I think that as I grew older, I started to have much more of a sense of empathy, as well as some kind of solidarity, with a larger consciousness than just myself. So I think of what it means to age as a human being, and in the last decade, there's been a lot of focus on post-human and non-human, thinking of artificial intelligence and about the Earth itself. 

I think that kind of affected me a lot because in terms of identity and politics, it's very much a kind of human construct and how we are engaging with that. And then you realise that the human age is only a very short time on this planet, and how do we actually engage beyond that? Identity tends to be a political construction. And at a certain point, we've reached late capitalism; we need to leave behind the human being, and try to understand how we can reconcile ourselves to nature and to the planet. 

In mentioning your life’s work, you’ve built an assertive reputation in simultaneously challenging viewers and trusting your artists. What do you think is your greatest life’s challenge in progressing Singaporean arts and theatre? 

I think what's happened in Singapore is very much related to a kind of transactional value [of] the arts, which we see a lot in late capitalism, and especially in societies which have become very globalised. Because of that, I found it very hard to actually continue to make art [in Singapore] in a deep way, because it doesn't have the history or relationship with arts and culture in a way where you see certain continuities; you see certain traditional arts having a position, and are being transformed and negotiated as it goes into new times. The most important thing is the relationship art has with the economy, and with the environment, and with the changing times: [this] is something where I feel certain Asian countries have found a way to strike a balance and to move forward with the past, while quite a lot of them have ended in the route of a slash-and-burn, where you feel like a lot of things are slashed off because they’re seen to be valueless as they lack a transactional value for the moment. 

That's one of the reasons why I can make such works as Trojan Women with the National Theatre of Korea, because there is a sense of continuity. And that for me, it's really the largest challenge I feel that surrounds us. Even New York, I think that it's come to a point where I think we are going to lose live arts to just tourism. The idea of the arts as more like an intrinsic relationship with self and culture, rather than touristic value, it’s really what I miss, I think.

It’s really poignant to hear you speak on this shrinking space for expression, especially for future generations. From your own past, how challenging was it to ask people to place their trust in you? And how did you stay consistent to your strength of vision despite the pressure of the transactional nature?

It's about the timing, right? When I was beginning to make art, Singapore was really looking for a different way, kind of moving out of the conservativeness, to find a new self. I was very lucky in Singapore in the 90s, to come to a moment where I think the politicians and the governments were actually asking very basic questions like, “Okay, we need more self awareness; we need more expression.” And so I was at that pre-Millennium point, where many people were asking what would the new millennium be in terms of identity, in terms of art and expression? So that was a good moment, and I think that for most young Singaporeans now, they probably don't have that because it's more crystallised and more set. It's become much more about “we'll get the grant, if we don't politicise,” or “we'll get the support, if we don't become too critical.” 

The question of trust: I feel that the basic thing is always asking yourself, “what does it mean?” Why are you doing this work, right? Because in the end, being a director is really a very small, small part of the equation. There are many more things, many more jobs we can go into to make a living. And I think it's kind of a profound question of why we make art? And that's where I think, at the end, the trust will be created if you continue to ask yourself. I think that most producers, and most commissioners, and most audiences follow that when they feel you have a deeper reason than just being a professional and being a working artist in the industry. 

I’m curious to know what’s your perception of the cultural appropriation spectrum, ranging from what is necessary and beneficial to cultural exchange and advancement, to the other end of what is problematic, reductionist and exploitative?

It's a very complex question: for whom is this for? 

In a way, Trojan Women is quite straightforward. Let's say, you take the form of pansori [a traditional Korean style of narrative song], and then you bring it somewhere else, and it becomes a kind of aesthetic exploration, and perhaps it's just all about making art; but I will say, it should really be looking at the intentions and the context. Of course there are moments where you might have certain cultures refusing to collaborate with you; perhaps it's a people or culture that is under threat, and then the non-inclusivity is justified.

Trojan Women, it was made with Koreans and they perform it; it's something that has been produced for seven years, there's a long-term relationship. I think that then these questions of appropriation, perhaps not so relevant. So I think that I will look at it as: Who is it for? What is the temporal time of the project, the context of whether it's actually a kind of a culture or tradition that's actually under threat – all these things – and whether or not it becomes an element that's being traded around, like a commodity.

2016 Trojan Women ⓒ National Theater of Korea. Kim Kum-mi (left, Hecuba), Yi So-yeon (right, Cassandra) and Chorus.

What actually first led you to collide Greek theatre, pansori and K-Pop together?

I was invited by the National Changgeuk Company to discuss a collaboration in 2013. It took a couple of years to come down to actually rehearsing the work, and we premiered in 2016 because it's a very complicated process of making pansori, or changgeuk [a play in the style of pansori]. Changgeuk is very limited due to the fact that there are only five existing full pansori’s left. Pansori is storytelling and is usually made by one storyteller with a drummer, so they're narrating the entire two-hour or three-hour play.

As a young director in Singapore, I had already done a production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s translation of Euripides’s Trojan Women, and he saw it in the context of the First Indochina War: it's a perennial universal play. So when I was asked by the National Changgeuk Company, I said, “Let's try to develop a new pansori and a new changgeuk from from some other source, rather than using Korean sources.” Our aim should be that we're trying to create a new classical pansori which will return year after year after year, and be loved by Korean audiences. Because of the form, you think of the storytellers in Greece, for example, and I felt like there were so many tensions in Asia, where if I introduce a Japanese or Chinese source material, it could become like “Are you saying that Chinese work or Japanese work is more important than Korean work?” So it's about finding a neutrality to reach that end.

When we think about K-Pop abroad, we just see Gangnam and that kind of music video. I had a kind of limited view of K-Pop from outside of Korea, but when I came to Seoul, it was about “what do you mean by K-Pop?” There are so many different sorts of K-Pop, and perhaps what joins into the pansori is actually a strong emotionalism. In a more American or European culture, we’d think “Oh, that's too cheesy,” or “that's too direct.” It's too on the surface, can we just imply something rather than being so direct, so emotional? You don't see that with a K-Pop ballad; you really feel that they don't think about something pretty, but they actually get into the urgency and the depth of this emotion. There is a sense that the entire personality, the entire body is invested into it. 

Within this shared emotional setting between pansori and K-Pop, what is to be gained from revisiting these Greek classics that feel so temporally far away?

Theatre today has this complexity because so much of our expression has become so specific, for example in talking about queer culture. I was actually trying to talk about all this yesterday in rehearsal, because Helen is played by a man. There is a moment where they talk about the shame of Helen [as the estranged wife of Menelaus of Sparta] living with Paris; what happens when you have a nonbinary character, and you realise that this doesn't fit into most people's understanding, and that was the scandal in the palace? When Helen says that, “You know, it's not me, it's Aphrodite, it’s the gods; I didn't choose this, it happened to me, I was born this way.” This text is given a new meaning once you make a twist in the casting.

2016 Trojan Women ⓒ National Theater of Korea. From the left side of the first row: Min Eun-kyung, Na Yoon-young, Kim Kum-mi, Seo Jung-kum, Kim Mi-jin, Cho Yu-ah, Lee Youn-joo, Jung Mi-jung, Heo Ae-sun.

All three of these mediums – Greek theatre, pansori and K-Pop – employ the voice as the primary vehicle for expression and they all emphasise synchronous vocal work in different ways. With a societal lens, what is there to say about synchronicity, homogeneity and the voice?

I'm still rehearsing with [the cast of Trojan Women] after seven years, and I'm always amazed at how synchronous they are. They are so careful not to step out, they're always watching; they're sensing with their bodies, not the eyes necessarily. For example, we have two new chorus members: every time there is a moment, all the different women – even the leads – are telling them how they should do a sequence of movements. So I always joke to them, “There are just too many mothers and too many grandmothers and too many aunties and too many sisters!” It breaks the ice, and everyone laughs, but at the same time, it is a truth about these societies where it's very much about community; there is a sense that you should not be overly selfish, overly expressive. 

What’s amazing about Euripides’s work are the strong individuals: Hector's wife, who rejects this communality and just wants to be with her child [and] Helen, who chooses her individuality. So you see in them the ambivalence that is expressed by Euripides, that the individual positions were so clearly put forward. That's why I think that we become all the poorer when we start to censor ourselves today, while you can see Euripides did not censor himself and expressed both commonality and individuality, and made that into a kind of tension or contestation. That is a very strong thing for me, that they could immediately identify with the synchronicity and the feeling of being a group, that “her fate, is my fate, is our fate,” or “this is her child, is my child, is our child.” 

I'm not thinking about it so much as a formal thing about synchronicity but more as a cultural position of perspective, and also of Helen being on the border as she says, “I'm hated by both the Greeks and by the Trojans because I'm an outsider.” So I see this question of synchronicity as, like, the self and the other. 

Veteran pansori performer Ahn Sook-sun composed and scored the solos of the production, whilst the more K-Pop chorus portions were scored by Parasite composer Jung Jae-il. How was it to work with Ms. Sook-sun in scoring this new classic?

It was important for me to have a woman's voice in making this; I've always been very conscious of the politics of pansori, which is that it was very often used by the patriarchy to teach the values that they wanted the people to have: loyalty to authority, loyalty to your husband, loyalty to your father, loyalty to to your comrades, and live together harmoniously. I knew Ahn Sook-sun was very famous, so I would really love her to be Hecuba and to compose the music. Of course, as it turned out, Hecuba is a very physical role and it’s impossible for a 73-year old woman to do.

Sook-sun agreed to meet me and she didn't say very much; I think she just wanted to hear my depth of feeling but she didn't give me an answer. A week later after I’d left, she told the producer that she would [compose it]. It was quite a laborious process for her because they don't write it down on the score: she sings the lines and she composes it with this oral tradition. The thing that was very post-postmodern was everybody recording their part to a cell phone; so there's this woman who's beating the rhythm with her hands on the table and she's singing and everybody is recording their part so that they can listen to it later on.

Sook-sun took two months perhaps to do it, and very often she was coughing blood because quite a lot of the music is sung on an extreme register. It's sung on the edge of a shouting volume that then has an immediacy in emotion. It transfers immediately to you as the sound of rage, or the sound of sorrow; it's no longer the physical nor the words, but the edges of sound. To compose that, Sook-sun had to put herself into that state to sing every day at that high level—it's difficult because each character has a different manifestation. Only Helen’s solo is composed by Jae-il, because Helen is accompanied by the piano. 

Hearing about all this process, I cannot wait to witness the artistry myself. I’m especially excited to see the BAM stage transformed: how involved were you with the production design and what’s a favourite production detail of yours?

I was quite involved with the whole production on a conceptual basis. The idea of becoming more elemental with the video [projection], because the play has these four women characters: Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache and Helen, and each of them has their time in the sun, so to speak. We didn't do it as four seasons, but we went to the elements of water, fire, air, etcetera. There was a sense about time, because this is travelling 2,400 years to the present moment and perhaps Trojan Women will travel another several thousand years if mankind continues to stay alive for that time. And with the collaborators that I've worked with for a long time: Myung-hee Cho, who is a Korean-American set designer, and Scott Zielinski doing the lights – it’s easy to talk with them – we talked a lot with Jae-il because I think most of us were a bit worried about how to remain embedded in the historicity but at the same time have a sense of projecting into the future.

2016 Trojan Women ⓒ National Theater of Korea. Kim Kum-mi (centre) and Chorus.

There are some moments where you are just completely gripped by the emotional reality, where it transcends the austere form of pansori. I'm then completely devastated, because it remains its formal quality and suddenly it breaks; then it reforms again and it keeps happening in this way with each of the women. When the women are actually alone, there's nothing else that's going to help them. They have to find something from within themselves and they manage to do that kind of flip at the end. It’s these moments when it breaks through the formal austerity and it becomes even more powerful because you don't expect it.

Keng Sen, I’m so looking forward to experiencing this complete emotional destruction and artistic euphoria at BAM with Trojan Women. Thank you again for speaking with us at &ASIAN!

Trojan Women runs at Brooklyn Academy of Music for November 18-19. Tickets can be purchased here.

Keng Sen Ong can be found on Instagram and Facebook, and his company TheatreWorks Singapore can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

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