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[Interview] Yellowbomb Producer Lee Youngchan Talks ‘The Waitress &the Robber’ Online Presentation of a Seoul-New York Co-Production

People > [Interview] Yellowbomb Producer Lee Youngchan Talks ‘TheWaitress & the Robber’ Online Presentation of a Seoul-New YorkCo-Production
[Interview]Yellowbomb Producer Lee Youngchan Talks ‘The Waitress & theRobber’Online Presentation of a Seoul-New York Co-Production

The Waitress & the Robber poster

Please briefly introduce yourself to the readers of the KFNewsletter.
I am Lee Youngchan, a producer with Playfactory Mabangzen andYellowbomb. After majoring in theatrical art at college, I worked ininternational exchange at the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) andthe Korean Cultural Center. I joined theWaitress & the Robber project as I was losing interest insimple invitational performances.

Would you kindly elaborate on the project?
The Waitress& the Robber is a joint production by New York City’s ConcreteTemple Theatre (CTT) and Seoul’s Playfactory Mabangzen. Given theCOVID-19 pandemic, it is currently available online. The story waswritten by CTT artistic director Renee Phillipi, who found inspirationin Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers) and Heo Gyun’sHong Gildong jeon (The Story of Hong Gildong). Tony Awardnominee Lewis Flinn wrote the score for the production. Assuming thesetting of a future world, the play delves into such serious subjectsas technological advancement and ageing—as well as the interpersonalalienation these phenomena can cause—in a fun way that employs humor,song, and dance.

Tell us a little more about Playfactory Mabangzen and CTT.
Playfactory Mabangzen is a theatricalcompany that was foundedin 2005 by Koh Sun-woong, the general director of the 2018 PyeongChangParalympics opening and closing ceremonies. He is highly acclaimed fordirecting such theatrical works as the National Theater Company’sThe Orphan of Zhao: Seeds of Revenge and the National ChanggeukCompany’s Madam Ong. Playfactory Mabangzen is deeply interestedin magical realism and exposing the strange characters and phenomenapresent in the world. Aiming to retrieve the originality of theatricalart, its various productions are performed both at theaters and on thestreet for youths and families as well as general audiences. CTT is acompany that produces theatrical performances, dance and musicproductions, puppet shows, and visual art performances. It was foundedin 2004 by off-Broadway director Renee Phillipi and actor, stagedesigner, and choreographer Carlo Adinolfi. CTT strives to move awayfrom conventional theatrical performances focused on and designand new forms of performing arts.

How was The Waitress & the Robber planned and produced?What roles did you play in the preparation and productionprocess?
The seed of the project was sown when Renee, with all herinterest in Korea, asked Han Hyo, the program director of the KoreanCultural Center New York, to introduce to her a Korean theatricalcompany well-suited for an exchange opportunity. This is whyPlayfactory Mabangzen representative Ko Gang-min and I often call theproject “a small ball shot by Renee” (parodying the title of famousKorean novel-turned-movie A Small Ball Shot by a Midget). Renee,Carlo, Eric Nightengale, and I met at a studio in New York for thefirst time in the winter of 2017. There we confirmed that our twocompanies had staged very different works, but at the same time sharedthe belief that such differences would give us an opportunity to fillin the other’s missing parts. I was particularly drawn to Renee andCarlo and told Mr. Ko that it would be great to work with CCT. The twocompanies agreed to co-produce a project and develop it overalternating visits to Seoul and New York. My role involved overallmanagement and facilitating communication between the two sides. Atthe beginning of the project, when Yellowbomb had not yet beenlaunched, I led the project as a freelance producer from PlayfactoryMabangzen; since the establishment of Yellowbomb in 2018, producersfrom the company, including myself, have been collectively involved.

Did you run into any particular difficulties or problems whilepreparing the performance?
Compared to the scale of the project, our budget was limited,so our actors and staff had to make lots of sacrifices. Not only didthey work for inadequate compensation, but they also gave up otherprofitable activities as they had to make overseas trips for theproject. To cut back travel costs, they also had to endure staying insubstandard lodging. Under such circumstances, some actors and staffmembers left and we had difficulties maintaining a full team. Still,the biggest problem was COVID-19. The project was originally scheduledto premiere in New York in April 2020. The COVID-19 situation in Koreahad been poor since that February, whereas the United States wascomparatively calmer, having had few confirmed cases before March. TheUS government, probably keeping tabs on the COVID-19 situation inKorea, kept delaying visas for our performers and staff with littleexplanation, which led us to wonder if we would be able to carry outthe project as planned. Then a confirmed COVID-19 case was reported ata New York City theater. All scheduled performances across the citywere cancelled, and The Waitress & the Robber seemed to bedoomed, too. Just as we were giving into despair over the loomingcollapse of the project, the Korean Culture and Information Service(KOCIS) selected it for online production, and it came alive again. Ifit had not been for the KOCIS’s intervention, we would have run intoserious trouble indeed.

(Form left) Producer Lee Youngchan, Playfactory Mabangzenrepresentative Ko Gang-min, production manager Casey McLain, anddirector Renee Phillipi meeting in New York in February 2018.

A joint workshop held by Playfactory Mabangzen and CTT in April 2018.

The Waitress & the Robber seems to be unprecedented inmany ways. What significance do you think this transnational projecthas for the theatrical community and what challenges does itpresent?
Co-productions are common in the field of dance and music, buttheatrical performances require a more complicated process and come atgreater expense, so international exchange in the form of invitationalperformances, let alone productions likeThe Waitress & the Robber, has been rather limited. Incases in which such attempts have been made, the performances wereoften lacking due to insufficient rehearsal and production time. Mr.Ko was most concerned about this aspect. We decided to pursue qualityinstead of aiming for a one-time international exchange event andprepared over a long period of three years. The two companiesinitially faced problems stemming from differences in style, pursuitsand approaches, and artistic perspectives, but eventually all thestaff members and performers became like members of one family, onecompany. I think it is the role of organizers like me to coordinateand lead in a way that strives to smoothly settle such problems. Lastbut not least, I have to mention the government’s financial support,for it is impossible to produce quality work without it. I thinkfinancial problems will become the foremost challenge for multifariousinternational cultural exchange endeavors in the future.

Do you have any tips on how people can best enjoy and appreciatethe performance online?
The play’s theme and background may seem heavy, but through theintegration of song and dance, it’s easy for all viewers to enjoy. Aswe are living in the COVID-19 era, audiences will be able tosympathize with the characters on stage and appreciate the work as awhole. In New York, no theatrical works are being staged as all thetheaters are closed down, so it’s possible thatThe Waitress & the Robber, which can be watched with easeat home, might have been the only new performance presented in NewYork last year. In hopes that the pandemic situation will improve, weare planning again to hold a New York premiere next year. It would betruly meaningful if we could do so, as 2022 marks the 140thanniversary of Korea-US diplomatic relations. We hope we will be ableto meet everyone who enjoyedThe Waitress & the Robber online in theaters next year.


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