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'Silent as the grave' gets new meaning in Korean theaters

Complaints rise over some theater fans' attitude of requiring absolute silence during performances

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Dec. 19, 2023 - 16:12

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The cast of the musical The cast of the musical "Sister Act" perform the key scenes from the show during a press event at the D-Cube Arts Center in Seoul on Nov.22. (Yonhap)

Most people can agree that it is ideal for audience members to make as little noise as possible during plays or musicals.

But South Korean theater fans have been divided over the widespread policy that takes it to another level: the so-called "siche-gwangeuk," which refer to the practice of watching while being "still as a corpse."

Last week, a controversy broke out when a reporter wrote a critical article on a production of the musical "Lee Jin: The Woman of Light." He explained that he was asked to move his seat before the start of the show because of a request from a woman sitting next to him. Apparently, the woman had made the request because his writing on a notepad would be too loud.

The incident sparked controversy online, with local theater fans split on whether writing on a piece of paper constitutes "excessive noise during a performance."

It is generally accepted that when watching live performances of plays or musicals, one should refrain from using phones, loudly eating food, or making loud noise. But the question is exactly how much is excessive.

How loud is "loud"?

There is not a universally accepted definition for proper theater etiquette. Arriving well before the show starts, making minimal noise and not using one's phone is generally agreed upon, although opinions vary on what the bare minimum noise level should be.

Most theaters in South Korea do not allow food or drinks inside, except for few exceptions like the Charlotte Theater in Jamsil-dong that allows just drinks in containers with lids. For example, regulations of the Arko & Daehakro Arts Theater in Jongno-gu specifically states: "All drinks, food, bouquets and any other items that may hinder others from watching the performance are not allowed inside the theater."

The cast of the musical The cast of the musical "Macbeth" perform during a press event at Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul on Dec.5. (Yonhap)

Mark Robinson, the author of the "The World of Musicals: An Encyclopedia of Stage, Screen and Song," says that while eating and drinking in theaters were discouraged in the past, it has changed in recent years. In his post on Broadway Direct, he urged visitors to check the theater's policies on whether food and drinks can be brought into a theater.

"If concessions are being sold (in the theater), then you are in the clear to enjoy a snack before and after the show, or during intermission," he wrote.

In South Korea, not abiding by the unspoken rules of the theater is called "gwan-ku," a derogatory term depicting poor manners while watching play of musical. Being accused of gwan-ku, however, is based on the subjective criteria of the accuser.

Star TV and film actor Son Suk-ku was accused of gwan-ku in 2019 while watching a play called "Pride." Multiple online posts claimed that Son "kept coughing," "was laughing during scenes that weren't funny," and "watched the play with his upper body crouched down."

Son claimed that he "laughed quietly and cried quietly," and said that he was bewildered by the "wrongful, narrow-minded, coercive and even abusive theater culture of some fans" that are spreading falsehoods, maintaining that he did nothing wrong.

The cast of the musical The cast of the musical "Macbeth" perform during a press event at Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul on Dec.5. (Yonhap)

Some fans claimed that the "watching like a corpse" culture has gone too far -- to the point where people even make a fuss about taking off one's jacket, or mechanical noises from a hearing aid.

Won Jong-won, a professor of performing arts and media arts at Soonchunhyang University, suggested that the expensive ticket prices of performance arts may have attributed to this phenomenon.

"(Promoters) have spread the image of performance arts as something that is 'expensive but worthwhile,' leading many fans to think that they don’t want to be bothered (in theaters)," he was quoted as saying in a recent media interview. Since watching theatrical productions is so expensive in South Korea, people react fiercely when their experience is hindered by even the slightest disturbance.

He said a solution would be to lower prices, so that more people can enjoy plays and musicals with less hypersensitivity.