In June, Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan and longtime CPT artist Holly Holsinger, Cleveland State University’s theatre and dance department chair, went to South Korea at the invitation of Global Women’s Performing Arts Festival (GWPAF). This trip, facilitated by acclaimed international lighting designer and professor Jakyung Seo of Kent State University, had several goals:
- Share CPT’s approach to building community through the arts with leaders in South Korea.
- Share theatrical techniques to empower artists to devise their own works.
- Empower women artists in South Korea.
- Share practices to assure safe and harassment-free rehearsal spaces.
- Advocate for gender equity in the international theatre field.
- Develop workshop productions for two performances.
The Global Women’s Performing Arts Festival led by Korean artists Hyeja Ju and Jisook Lee was formed as a place to celebrate women in theatre and dance, and to address systemic misogyny in the arts and throughout the world.
On the first day, Raymond conducted an intergenerational community workshop for Busan Bukgu Cultural City Center. At this workshop participants shared and performed each other’s stories based on the concept of HOPE. One of the participants, an elderly man in his 70’s, shared a story of his struggles in fighting for democracy in the 80s and 90s. This moving story of sacrifice and risk was performed for the whole group by an 11-year-old boy. “It’s moments like these that I just feel so lucky to be in the room. Something so personal and deep is being shared and transmitted. The sense of silence when the story was complete was stunning, “ said Raymond.
Meanwhile, Holly was in rehearsals for Dear Helen, a new version of a show created by Festival Chairman Hyeja Ju. The play features three key moments in the life of Helen Keller. Each scene was performed by a woman from a different country. The first was performed by Hyeja’s company member Eom Ji Young, Sato Nakashima, executive artistic director of Fourteen Plus Theatre in Japan, and Holly. It was an amazing experience for these three incredible performers to share one role in such different moments of growth. “I learned a lot from my colleagues and Hyeja in the process,” said Holly. Hyeja reflected “Holly’s power on stage is so palpable and she was able to work with such detail and emotion.”
Holly and Raymond co-led a workshop in performance creation focusing on women’s rights and empowerment. Sharing stories of courage, imagining the whispers of our female ancestors (Ancestra), creating scenes about what women have been told they are and can be in South Korea, and embodying a better world for the future. “The resulting show had an incredible resonance that was hard to define. At moments I started tearing up and I wasn’t sure why—it was just so beautiful,” said one audience member.
Here’s what some of the participants had to say:
“ The process of how various stories that started with one word and were transformed into a single work was truly amazing and mysterious.”
“It was a precious time that made me think deeply about my basic attitude as a performer.”
“As a professional who has been working in the field for well over 20 years, this workshop helped me find my original purpose. I remembered why this work is important.”
“I discovered the value of telling my real story — our own story.”
Raymond and Holly also led a workshop and discussion on how to undertake activist work in order to create safer spaces for performers in the theatre. Just as in the United States, many theatres have not upheld standards to protect women from sexual harassment, and there was a real desire to hear about CPT’s experience with this work and to explore together cultural differences and how a movement could be supported in South Korea.
Raymond and Holly also participated on a panel with Jisook Lee, managing director of GWPAF, Sato Nakashima, Choreographer Dongwon Lee, and facilitated by Jakyung Seo. The panel sought to explore ways for theatres to engage more meaningfully with communities and how to work across the spectrum of amateur and professional artists.
The trip concluded with an official signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Fourteen Plus Theatre, Busan Bukgu Cultural City Center, Global Women’s Performing Arts Festival, and Cleveland Public Theatre, in which the companies committed to continue to work towards cultural exchange and shared activism, artistry, and learning.
Festival Director Hyeja Ju envisioned this project based on her experience of Cleveland Public Theatre in 2019 and Raymond’s subsequent visit last year that included a workshop for actors.
“I was deeply moved by the work of CPT and wanted to share this inspiration with my own community! Last year, we invited Raymond to share the CPT story of utilizing theatre to engage communities and to share the work CPT has done of championing women playwrights and directors. This year we are taking this work further. I believe that the work of Raymond, Holly and Jakyung will make a lasting impact on the Busan theatre scene and support our work in transforming our practices to be more inclusive, nurturing, and safe.” –Hyeja Ju
“This was one of those trips that spirals well beyond any one person or one experience. Something magical happened for us all, I think. For me it felt like a true exchange where we had much to give and even more to receive.” Raymond Bobgan