Jan Creutzenberg

Panel 5D: Adaptation and/as Transcodification/2
Session 5 – July 3, 11:00 – 13:00

Performative Re-mediations of Tradition. Korean Singing-Storytelling Pansori in the Movie Seopyeonje and its Stage Adaptations

The modernization of tradition is linked to its medialization. Consider the Korean singing-storytelling art pansori which, although acknowledged as National Cultural Heritage, faces increasing irrelevance in modern society. Like other traditions, formalized techniques and canonized content run the risk of turning a once living practice into a fossilized version of itself. In this context, the movie Seopyeonje (director: Im Kwon-taek, 1993), based on a series of novellas by Yi Chung-jun from the 1970s that tell the story of an itinerant family of pansori singers, sparked interest in traditional culture among mass audiences. As a medial recreation of past practices, shown on the verge of extinction, the movie succeeded in drawing popular attention while failing to recreate the immediacy of pre-modern communal performances.

In the following, theatre and musical makers attempted to capitalize on the success of Seopyeonje. Their stage adaptations reference both the movie and the adapted novellas as source material. While featuring pansori singing to varying degrees, they also employ new narratives and media to match changing tastes. A comparison of different Seopyeonje adaptations, in genres ranging from neo-traditional changgeuk (“singing drama”) to Western-style musical, shows different methods of re-mediation, often in hybrid form, that cater to post-cinema audiences, including various attempts of recreating cinematic scenes on a live stage.

These performative re-mediations of Seopyeonje – and, in extension, of pansori – show that a nostalgic narrative of decay may gain persuasive power when told through other media, but at the same time inevitably frames the tradition itself as anachronistic. On rare occasions, though, for instance when communal union emerges through audience response, the performative potential of pansori momentarily comes to the fore. These gaps when hypermediacy of presentation switches to immediacy of participation, provoked and made possible by re-medialization, are instrumental for the survival of traditional arts today.


Jan Creutzenberg holds a PhD in theatre studies (Freie Universität Berlin) and is Assistant Professor at Ewha Womans University (Seoul, South Korea). His research focuses on contemporary Korean theatre, particularly inter/cross/transcultural and -medial collaborations. He has published and presented on the use of traditional arts in modern theatre, contributed to the Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre (2016), and translated various Korean plays into German. He tweets as @JanCreutzenberg and blogs about his research and other performative experiences at seoulstages.wordpress.com.