A few days ago, I asked some friends to point Geochang County (of South Gyeongsang Province) on the map. Nobody could do so. I have been to the county only twice. One was in 2000 to cover a story on the Baekdu mountain range and the other was two years ago. It was ignored by even a travel journalist. It remains as one of the last travel destinations that remain unknown, despite the governments efforts to promote it as a tourist destination under the slogan Every corner of the country.
Yet, it does not mean that Geochang is not worth looking around. Few places are as special as Geochang. It is about the annual Geochang International Festival of Theatre. Some would say it is no big deal. It is because similar events take place in other regions such as Miryang and Masan of South Gyeongsang Province), Busan, Yeosu and Suncheon of South Jeolla Province, Jeonju of North Jeolla Province. If it is similar to them, I would not have said special. It is special because theater companies from the world perform on the outdoor stage for vacationers who camp in the valley of Sooseungdae.
It was around the end of July two years ago. A friend brought me to the outdoor stage in Sooseungdae. Mokhwa, a theater company, performed The Tempest that day. I did not expect much because it was on the waterfront of a valley and on an outdoor stage. Neither the stage nor lighting would be good. Moreover, I could not see the scenery of the valley because I headed straight to the theater when it was dark. The scene on the stage, however, surprised me. Family audiences including elementary school students were entering the outdoor theater. The seats were filled with family guests waiting for the performance to begin fanning themselves. As I used to perform, I knew what the theater business is like. It was the first time to see that seats were filled with families.
It was not the end of my surprise. It continued to performance. The stage was a little messy by bugs flying towards lighting and actors and actresses in masks, and costume were sweating in the sweltering heat and lighting. Still, they were serious and their passion was felt by audiences. A theater consists of three elements: plays, actors, and audiences. Plays do not matter whether they are performed on an outdoor or indoor stage. Actors and audiences are different, however. They let less immersed and lose concentration when they are in outdoors. Therefore, the number of audiences at outdoor theaters should be lower but it was not the case. It is rather increasing. The number of visitors to the festival passed 150,000 three years ago. This year marks the 25th anniversary and 51 theater companies from 12 countries perform 200 times.
The success was made possible by Lee Jong-Il, a man of the theater and the chairman of the Geochang International Festival of Theatre, and numerous actors and actresses who stood on the stage for 25 years. This years festival, which will start with the A hundred Hamlets on the water on July 26, marks 30th anniversary of a theater company formed by Lee to help students in backwoods experience what a theater is like.
Lee produced the festival after visiting Avignon in France, the origin of an outdoor theater festival, and the event was made on this Sooseungdae in 1998. Now, it is trying to make a leap forward to become Avignon of Asia. Sooseungdae is not enough, however, because it is small. What we hope is to use the entire Geochang County as a stage. We hope, the festival, now a DNA of Geochang, can go beyond Sooseungdae so that people can enjoy performances all year around.