Ko Kang-min, the Leader of Mabangzen
The life as both CEO and producer of a theater company
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The history of theatrical plays traces back to Ancient Greece. Since then, different forms of entertainment emerged. From private films to musicals, the demand for performance arts have increased rapidly in the modern era, overpassing a number of theatrical plays. Yet, there is work to retrieve from the golden age of plays, and Ko Kang-min (Business and Administration ’01, ERICA Campus) is one individual who supports it as the CEO and producer of the theater company, Mabangzen. It is also known as a 'playfactory' where original plays are created from scratch in order to promote the theatrical plays of Korea. For Shakespeare, the world was a stage, and all the men and women were actors. For Ko, the stage is his life, bringing life to Korean theatrical plays.
Q1. Can you tell us more about Mabangzen and its origin?
Ko: "Mabangzen is a company that produces and performs plays for the public. Our plays are all original plays where we develop everything, from the script to the stage setting, from the beginning to the end. The company was first established in 2005 by the play director, Ko Sung-wong. And it was named after the Korean traditional game Mabangzen, similar to Sudoku, in hopes of promoting the importance of teamwork. Like a game of Mabangzen where all the numbers added on each side must equal in sum, when all the members of the team cooperate to put together a play, the results will follow. Today, there are 46 members in the company including actors, producers, and directors."
Q2. What is your role in the theater company? What do you like about your work?
Ko: “Currently, I work as the CEO and producer in the company. I like to say that I am a supporter who manages the financial aspects, renting theaters, and finding sponsors, as well as practical aspects such as making the final call of which play to perform. I totally love my job here because I get to interact with the actors and the staff which reminds me of the days when I was just like them.
I came to Mabangzen in 2010 after Ko Sung-wong convinced me to collaborate with him in the small theater company. It was a tough decision but when I believed that the goals we had as playwrights matched - forming a systemic method to generate quality plays - I agreed to it. I was also a big fan of Ko Sung-wong’s theatrical pieces. I think we work very well together.”
Q3. Can you tell us about the company’s work?
Ko: “The most well-known piece of our company is called 'Hongdo', a play first introduced to the Korean public in 1936. It is a melodrama and a tragedy. The basic synopsis is about a woman, Hongdo, who is a gisaeng, or Korean geisha, who lives in a melancholic life after a heartbreaking incident with a man. This piece was very popular back in the mid-21st century; however, the writer of the play defected to North Korea which resulted in the public to shut off interest. We have performed this play since 2014 in major venues like the Seoul Arts Center and the Coex Arts Hall, as well as on the international stage in places such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Belarus, Turkey, and Chile.”
Q4. You have also acted onstage. When did you first get involved in theater arts?
Ko: “Yes. I have experience on stage as an actor as well. I don’t recall the exact year, but when I was in high school, I saw a poster that recruited members for the theatrical play club. I took part in it. It was a small-scale play but from that moment on, I developed my passion for plays. I desired to major in theater and film at university, but my father, who was an officer in the military, was strongly against it. Even though I studied business at Hanyang University (HYU), as soon as I entered HYU, I went straight to the theater club to take part. Then, I began to get involved in all-round plays by acting onstage, building stages, writing scripts, and producing performances. I think the lengthy experiences that I had in theater clubs helped me to acquire the know-how to become a CEO and producer.”
Q5. When was the toughest time of your life as a producer?
Ko: “I think the toughest time was definitely when we went overseas to perform 'Hongdo'. Out of all the international performances, I remember the first one, in China, as the one that I consider unforgettable. It was the first time our crew went abroad for performance, which was why the preparation process, which depended entirely on my abilities, was a burden. From getting visas to controlling the excessive exhilaration of young members, I even remember crying one night in the hotel bed! Aside from this trip, though, the job as a producer is always hard-hitting. The company has to receive financial support from external sponsors, and the concern regarding the successes and failures of each plays are something I must endure every day.”
Q6. Adversely, when was the most memorable moment?
Ko: “I feel like I've focused too much on the depressing parts, but there is a reason why I still love my job and theatrical plays. Generally, after the end of each performance, I sit at the back of the room and watch the faces of the audience as they walk out of the venue. When I see their faces explicitly showing awes, I am the happiest person alive then. I didn't foresee the success of our plays internationally. Traditional plays are about Korea and we, the members of Mabangzen, are the bridge that links the our culture and a foreign one. It is arduous, but it brings me joy and great memories.”
Q7. What makes theater arts special? Why do you think the public should enjoy watching theatrical plays?
Ko: “For me, I loved watching plays because it was like taking a break from mundane life as a student. I used to watch about few hundred plays back in the old days. The funny thing is that I recently watched a blockbuster film at a cinema after years of not watching movies. Honestly, I was shocked to see the spectacular scenes and action that captivated most movie-watchers. That’s when I understood why people go crazy about these films. Even so, plays are not movies or musicals. It has its own 'something' to it. Even for me, it's extremely difficult to say which factors make plays valuable. All I can say is that there is that 'something' that only plays can portray and deliver to the audience. And our job is to continue to seek out the exclusive style of our plays, to let the audience know what plays are all about.”
Q8. What are your goals for the future?
Ko: “Practically, I want to enhance the quality of plays by improving the conditions of our company members. I am planning on building a villa near Seoul to create an effective practicing space for the entire crew. Members run under tight schedule and to practice in a typical training space requires immense amounts of energy but no time. I think establishing a system like camp training will increase efficiency and teamwork among the members. Other than that, I hope to produce plays that many will enjoy watching."
Q9. Any last comments for the readers?
Ko: “To be honest, I wasn't a bookish student when I was in college. Even though I majored in business, I attended more of the general classes that included literature and theater arts. Still, I stood strong to my passion and to what I wanted at the time, which naturally led me to where I am today. Right now, I don't know for sure how I will run this company in the next few years. It’s not like I don't have a plan, but usually, nothing happens according to plan. So I think it's important to enjoy the moment you have now and to have full faith in the work you do. We must let our lives flow just like the flow of dialogues in a play.”
Park Min-young firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Kim Youn-soo
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