Interview with South Korean Translator Walter Byongsok Chon


You and I met at a conference at Cornell in 2018. I believe you teach at Cornell, is that right?  How did you begin translating? 

I actually teach at Ithaca College. I joined IC as Assistant Professor of Dramaturgy and Theatre Studies in 2016 and have been developing a new dramaturgy program there. I teach Script Analysis, Dramaturgy, and Theories of Performance, while mentoring student dramaturgs on department productions.

Translating has been an interest since I started pursuing theatre as a graduate student, which started when I entered the MA program in Performing Arts at Washington University in St. Louis in 2005. My first translation of a full-length play was Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Doppelganger, which I translated from German to English for James Magruder’s class Translation and Adaptation at Yale School of Drama in 2009. I chose this German play not only because of its intriguing frame, theme, and structure but also because of my desire to relearn German. I was born in Germany, spent my childhood there, and have research interests in German Romanticism.

I translated Inching Towards Yeolha in the summer of 2010 via the request of Korean director Kon Yi. Yi was a student in the M.F.A. in Directing program at Columbia University and was looking for a play for his director’s thesis project. As there was – and still is – a lack of Korean plays produced in the U.S., he wanted to direct a translation of a Korean play and found this play to be suitable. My translation was then adapted by playwright Kyung H. Park into Walkabout Yeolha and was staged in October 2010.

What should we know about the playwright and the play? 

The playwright’s bio can probably sum up his accomplishments:

“Sam-Shik Pai is an acclaimed contemporary Korean playwright and a professor of playwriting at Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. He launched his career with his play November, which premiered at the Seoul Performing Arts Festival in 1999. He has written award-winning plays including The Woman from Afar (2014 Cha Beom-Seok Drama Award for Best Play), The White Cherry (2009 Donga Award for Best Play), Inching Towards Yeolha (2007 Donga Award for Best Play, Dae San Literary Award), and A Fairy in the Wall (2005 Donga Award for Best Actress). His recent play 1945 premiered at Myeong-Dong Art Theater in July 2017. He holds a B.A. in anthropology from Seoul National University and an M.F.A in playwriting from Korea National University of Arts.”

About the Play (from my article, “A Contemporary Korean Play Meets New York Audience”):

“Inching Towards Yeolha premiered at Towol Theater in Seoul Arts Center in South Korea, directed by Jin-Taek Sohn, in March 2007. A literal translation of the original title would be “Inching Towards Yeolha,” Yeolha being the destination of Jiwon Park (a.k.a. Yeon-Ahm), an 18th-century Korean philosopher who traveled to China in pursuit of practical ideas to modernize Korean society. Based on Yeon- Ahm‟s travelogue, The Jehol Diary, Pai created an allegorical satire, exploring the questions of tradition and innovation. Pai introduces us to a nearly-fossilized, fictive village in a desert, and guides us through the turbulence the village undergoes at its first encounter with what the villagers call the “exotic.” Yeon-Ahm, the narrator of the play, is a “four-legged beast” and, as she tells the villagers of the world outside the village, provides the initial conflict of the play. Her talking eventually makes her the scapegoat to save the village from being ‘erased.’”

We don't see many South Korean plays on American stages. Why do you think that is? 

Overall, I believe translation is still an underexplored and underutilized area in theatre practice and production. While theatres in the U.S. strive for more diversity and inclusion, both for the season selection and for the personnel involved in production and administration, the focus at the moment is more on representing marginalized American (or U.S.-based) voices, rather than international voices. Also, while there are many productions of translated classics – of European classics, Chekhov, and even Shakespeare – productions of translated contemporary works are still very rare. Many questions accompany this situation: How can new translations connect with contemporary audience?; How can they please subscribers?; If selected for production, how can the cultural difference be represented authentically?; What are the risks for the board of directors of the theatre?, etc.

South Korean plays face a particular challenge because of the short history of modern theatre development in Korea. Korea’s theatre scene suffered a disconnect in the early twentieth century while it was under the occupation of Japan. Only after 1950 could Korean theatre emerge again. While the Korean theatre market has been growing, especially in musical theatre, it has yet to build a more solid national foundation in order to expand its reach abroad.  It is, though, promising to see many new voices, such as Pai’s, that portray Korean topics and sentiments, experiment with different forms (both Korean and Western), and connect with contemporary theatre goers in Korea. Translation offers a possible pathway to spread word about the richness of Korean theatre.

More about Korean Theatre in the U.S. (from my article, “A Contemporary Korean Play Meets New York Audience”): 

“In the American theatre scene, contemporary Korean playwrights are only to be found by avid researchers aiming to find them. Part of the reason is that Korea’s theatre development suffered a disconnect in the early twentieth century while it was under the dominance of Japan. Only after 1950 could Korean theatre emerge again. In the director’s note, Yi mentions he found only three Korean playwrights whose works had been translated into English – Taesuk Oh, Yun-taek Lee and Kang-baek Lee – which gave him a strong incentive to bring Yeolha to life in New York. Though the three aforementioned playwrights are some of the most recognized playwrights in Korea, hardly any of their work has received a professional production in America. In theatre history education, the significance of Korean theatre is mostly allotted to the ritual tradition of Kut and mask dance called Talchum. However, these modern and contemporary playwrights are hardly covered compared to well-recognized Asian playwrights such as Gao Xingjian (China, The Bus StopThe Other Shore), or Yukio Mishima (Japan, The Lady Aoi). While Korean-related themes are depicted by playwrights such as Young-Jean Lee (Song of The Dragons Flying to Heaven) and Lloyd Suh (American Hwangap), it is reasonable to say that these two authors write from a distinctive Korean-American perspective.

The American audience was first exposed to a Korean theatre production with the LaMaMa production of Prince Hamul, an adaptation of Hamlet, directed by Minsoo Ahn, in 1977. A revival of this piece called Hamyul/Hamlet played LaMaMa in July 2011, directed by Byungkoo Ahn, the son of Minsoo Ahn. Recently, more Korean troupes have been bringing their acclaimed productions to America. In 2009, Sadari Movement Laboratory performed their adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, directed by Do-Wan Lim, at the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Seoul Factory for the Performing Arts (SFPA) put on their adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, called Medea and Its Double, at LaMaMa in January 2010. These companies imaginatively fused western classics with traditional Korean performance elements and created original works crossing over both cultural traditions.” 

In the 2010s, “several new Korean and Korean-American voices have emerged, including Hansol Jung (Cardboard Piano at Humana Festival, Among the Dead at Ma-Yi Theater Company), Celine Song (The Feast at MAP Theater in Seattle), and Jihae Park (Peerless at Yale Repertory Theatre). Yet translation of contemporary Korean plays still remains an underexplored field. In the current climate where theatres actively pursue diversity and inclusivity, I believe translation can offer an additional international perspective. A production of a new translation opens up intercultural communication. For this reason, revisiting and reposting my article on translation will hopefully bring new attention to the value of translated works.”

What projects do you have coming up? How can we learn more about them? 

For translation, I am visiting South Korea this summer and will look for another play to translate. I am a co-managing editor of South Korea for The Theatre Times, so I will watch several productions in Korea, write about them, and hopefully will find a play that I believe will resonate with the U.S. audience. I will seek opportunities to present my translation at LMDA, ATHE, or ALTA conferences and possible theatres. I will post my accomplishments on social media (although I still have much to learn about self-promotion and advocacy.)

Inching Towards Yeolha | South Korea

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

6:30 - 9:30 PM

Instituto Cervantes Chicago (map)

Playwright: Sam-Shik Pai

Director: David Rhee

Translator: Walter Byongsok Chon

In collaboration with Token Theatre


Interview with Romanian Playwright Saviana Stanescu

Romania pw photo.jpg

We are so pleased to be presenting your work for the first time. Can you tell IVP audiences a little about yourself?

The short story:

I am a Romanian-born playwright with Balkan roots who spent her formative years during the totalitarian system of dictator Ceausescu. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Romanian revolution (30 years ago!), I worked as a journalist for the newly created free press. I was ‘on the wave’ as a poet and playwright. Two weeks before 9/11, I arrived in NYC with a Fulbright fellowship, and I started again, from scratch, as a graduate student at NYU (Performance Studies and Dramatic Writing). My creative work grew to revolve around topics of identity, displacement, and reinvention. 

The long story:

In Romania I was a journalist for the most circulated daily newspaper – Adevărul (The Truth). We finally had free press. I was so excited to be a writer at that time! I was writing poetry, prose, theatre/film/book reviews for various cultural magazines. I was a contributor for Radio Free Europe. I even worked as a TV talk-show host for TVRi (Romanian Public TV – International channel). Our talk-show was called Necessary Polemics, I was moderating a sort of debate between two public persons. It was intense. But I’ve always been a little subversive, a rebellious artist, speaking truth to power…

After covering theatre productions/festivals and publishing two collections of poetry, the natural next step for me was to write a dramatic poem, The Outcast. It was translated in English and French, staged in Romania, and then made it to Théâtre Gérard Philipe de Saint-Denis, in Paris, for their Du Monde Entier festival in 1998. It was my first trip to the West, and that’s when I was called a ‘playwright’ for the first time. It rang totally true. I had considered myself a poet before that, a writer, a journalist, but I gradually grew to believe in myself as a playwright. I went to Germany to study playwriting in English at the International Summer Theatre Academy. I wrote my first play in English there – Final Countdown. It’s still getting produced around the world, most recently in Mexico City. Then I wrote The Inflatable Apocalypse in Romanian and it won the Best Play of the Year UNITER (Romanian Theatre Guild) Award. 

In 2000 a Romanian critic named me “the hard poetess-playwright at the border between millennia”. The UK tour with my multi-media poetry performance Scriptease consolidated my reputation as a feminist poet-dramatist in Europe. A Fulbright grant followed. I chose not to use it as a visiting artist but to enroll in the MA in Performance Studies program at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts.

I was in my early 30s when I pressed ‘reset’ on my life, becoming a student again, and writing in a second language: hello, American-English! I was living uptown, at International House, thanks to a Women’s International Leadership (WIL) fellowship, and going to NYU downtown, when 9/11 happened. A new reset… A new perspective about life. 

I started to write plays about immigrants as I became more aware of and concerned with that non-stop negotiation between the American Dream and the small (and big) daily “nightmares”… 

I fell in love with this piece a few years ago and I am so happy to be directing it for IVP. Can you tell our audiences about this play. When and why did you write it? 

In 2008 I was a playwright-in-residence for Women's Project in NYC, developing Aliens with Extraordinary Skills before Obama got elected as President. These days, before the 2020 elections, immigration is an even more concerning issue, as so many people are deported or not allowed to come to the U.S. … 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, powerful leaders are still building walls to keep people in/out, to divide and conquer… We don’t seem to learn much from history. 

The play speaks so strongly to the current moment, don't you think? 

Yes, the play speaks even stronger to the current moment… 

Un/documented immigrants still experience the fear of not belonging, of being THE OTHER - a stranger, a foreigner with a funny accent, an alien who doesn't deserve to be in the U.S.A. The American dream can turn into a nightmare at any given moment. However, despite hardships, regular people are supporting and helping each other. 

New York, with its special energy, is a microcosm of the entire world. Folks from abroad or small town America come to chase their dreams in the city that never sleeps. Their struggles are sweetened by the daily magic of community, hope, and resilience.

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills is based on some of those true stories of migration, explored and fictionalized by a playwright who tries to understand her own journey. Dramatic living and dramatic writing. Regardless of our roots and native language, we – immigrants – are here in the U.S. in search for decent work, recognition of our skills and talents, love, respect, and a place to call HOME. To quote a line from Hamilton: “Immigrants – we get the job done!”

More specifically, in Aliens with Extraordinary Skills I tried to dramatize the daily fears experienced by un/documented immigrants. I have two fictional characters INS 1 and INS 2 (these days they would be called ICE 1 and ICE 2…) who pop up in the main character Nadia’s mind each time she fears she might get deported. I also tried to show that love and friendship are part of the solution for these newcomers. 

And the play is funny too, I hope. We have a saying in Romanian: one eye cries, one eye laughs… I like that laugh-cry way of telling a story. As George Bernard Shaw said: if you are to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you…

I hope to be able to tell people the truth in my plays and still live a long life full of love and good friendships. J

What projects do you have coming up? How can we learn more about them? 

I realize that all my plays are still about “outcasts” - immigrants, minorities, the abused, the oppressed, the different, the Others…

I had a workshop production of a new play called BEE TRAPPED INSIDE THE WINDOW with Civic Ensemble. We hope to develop it further in NYC and get a good off-Broadway production. In this play I go deeper into the daily lives of immigrants of different racial backgrounds: a Russian mother, her black daughter, and an Asian undocumented domestic worker, all living in the suburbs of CT.

In May I will present my performative lecture NEW YORK WITH AN ACCENT in NYC as part of Between the Seas festival.  

I got commissioned by the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca to write a play for kids/young audiences. I wrote the first draft, it’s called UNICORN GIRL, and it will be produced in July at the Hangar Theatre. 

I am also working on a new play called GUN HILL – about gun violence in high schools - that will have a staged reading at The Kitchen Theatre late April, and further development in NYC with Women’s Project.

But most of all, I’m looking forward to my sabbatical semester in the fall. (I work as an Associate Professor of Playwriting and Contemporary Theatre at Ithaca College.) I will spend it in Romania, in residence at the National Museum of Romanian Literature. I will work on a new play about the Romanian revolution (again – we celebrate 30 years in December 2019!) and on a novel in Romanian. The prodigal daughter is going back home. Exciting!


Aliens with Extraordinary Skills has had multiple productions in the U.S. after the original production at Women's Project in NYC, and it's published and licensed by Samuel French:


It also had productions in Mexico City at Teatro La Capilla (translated as "Immigrantes con Habilidades Extraordinarias"); in Bucharest at the prestigious Odeon Theatre (translated as "Viza de Clown"), and in other countries around the world. There has not yet been a production of Aliens with Extraordinary Skills in Chicago.

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills | Romania

Thursday, May 30, 2019

6:30 - 9:30 PM

Instituto Cervantes Chicago (map)

Special Guest Playwright: Saviana Stanescu

Director: Patrizia Acerra


Interview with Italian Curator Valeria Orani


How did you get started working with the Italian community in New York? 

I arrived in New York five years ago with the wish to connect Italian contempory culture to US and vice-versa.

It is a big challenge.

I’m Italian, I was born in Sardinia, a big and ancient island in the middle of the Mediterranean, plenty of beauty and ancient venues and rituals. I love my roots and my origin counts a lot in my vision of art and life. I started in theatre when I was very young, I feel theatre as home.


Why do you do the work that you do? What would you like our audiences to know about you and your work?

I became passionate about all things theatre since my teenage years. I was initially fascinated by what happened onstage, and then I became more and more interested in all the work that goes on backstage. Theatre production turned into a job when I was twenty years old, and since then, I was in charge of management, having to first focus on all organizational aspects, and then on production. Umanism was set up in New York City in 2015 and puts together two aspects of my job: planning projects on the bases of funds (including philanthropy) and the good quality agency services that I offer to cultural and creative businesses. 

Can you tell us more about the Italian & American Playwrights project?

Immediately after its setup, Umanism has worked side by side with Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of the Graduate Center of CUNY to develop a project whose objective has been the promotion of contemporary drama. Frank Hentschker and I develop the Italian Playwrights Project which has now come to its second edition and which includes a two-year period in which parts of the work of Italian playwrights are presented and read to the audience, then translated completely into English and finally published.

The Italian and American Playwrights Project supports workshops with Italian playwrights in US with the collaboration of American translators, actors, directors and vice-versa.

It also produces public presentations, readings, conversations with the authors both in Italy and in US. Last year we started a collaboration in London.

The initiative aims at producing full performances of the plays and the publication of a translated anthology in English of the selected Italian plays. This initiative is year-round with the mission to support the development playwrights' work over the course of a year.

In 2017, we also started developing a sister initiative which promote the work of American playwrights in Italy. The experience of running the Italian and American Playwrights Project has emphasized how important it is to introduce Italy’s contemporary theatrical work in the US and vice versa. This has also helped us establish a more consistent dialogue between the two arts scenes, which has always been rare and accidental in the last 25-30 years.

In 4 years, the Italian and American Playwrights Project has grown a lot as well as our team and the desire to become a point of reference for dramaturgy and translations, a center where authors can find support and help to spread their work.


What are your upcoming projects? How can we learn more about them?

At this time we’re working on the second edition of translations of our Italian plays, whereas in Italy we’re having a hard time finding funds for the publication of the translations of the American plays.

Among all the projects, one that is important for me to mention is the creation of an artistic residence for the authors and translators in New York and in Italy.

Furthermore, I’m working with Le Albe on their “Dante Project” which sees cycles of conferences, shows, and “calls to the public” around the Divina Commedia.

I invite you all to follow our activities on the website www.italianandamericanplaywrightproject.com. All of our projects are the results of great work but they’re only made possible by our many friends and supporters whose donations are fundamental to continue our growth.

A Notebook for Winter and Events Horizon | Italy

Tuesday May 14 at 6:30 pm

Playwrights: Armando Pirozzi & Elisa Casseri

Director: John Green & Matt Masino

Translator: Adriana Rossetto

In collaboration with Italian & American Playwrights Project and Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago

Instituto Cervantes of Chicago

Interview with French Translator Samuel Buggeln


How did you begin work as a theater translator? 

This is a sort of interesting origin story. When I was in college I discovered theater directing and more or less immediately knew that that was something I could happily spend the rest of my life on. At the same time, I’d learned to speak French as a child in the public school French Immersion program (I’m Canadian), and then learned pretty good Spanish in college. There was a moment in my senior year when I’d accompanied a friend to the campus careers office, and sitting in the waiting room waiting for her, I saw a pamphlet in a rack on the wall “be a translator“. And I thought, “if I didn’t already know I wanted to be a theater director, that’s something else I could spend the rest of my life on.“ It was many years before I discovered I could combine those two callings. Living the dream!

Why do you do the work that you do?

I aim to use my theatrical skills and language skills to try to bring a diversity of international theater voices to the United States who wouldn’t have made it here otherwise. I do this is a director, as a translator, and as an artistic director of my company the Cherry Arts in Ithaca New York. I do it because the theater world in the United States, like many worlds in the United States, though we don’t think of ourselves this way, is very inward-turned and quite mistrustful  of work from other countries. I think that every way we can broaden our horizons and understand that people from other places are still people like we are, and that even if they tell their stories in different ways these stories are ones in which we can find commonality, that’s a good thing for all of us. And moreover, when we discover the ways in which people tell their stories differently than we do, but still in ways we can enjoy, that can hopefully allow us to expand our own horizons of art-making and storytelling practice.


Can you tell us about the Cherry Arts?

My company the Cherry Arts supports a wide range of projects in many different artistic disciplines by hosting them in the Cherry Artspace, our flexible performance space on the Cayuga Inlet in Ithaca, New York. So we work with companies and artists who make music, puppetry, dance, performance art, installation, all sorts of things. BUT the central project we support is the Cherry Artists Collective, which is an ensemble of professional theater artists based in Central New York, many of us faculty members in area theater departments (including Binghamton U, Ithaca College, and Cornell). The Cherry Collective’s work focuses on what we call the “Radically Local, Radically Global, and Formally Innovative.” So we create boundary-pushing works that we commission close to home, or translate from exciting contemporary work in other languages. In the four years we’ve been producing we have produced four commissioned world premieres (two were headphone walking-plays, a new form we are loving to explore) and six English-language premieres, with a number more on the way next season. 


What are your upcoming projects? Where can we learn more about them?

As I write this the Cherry is two weeks out from announcing next season, so I can’t tell you specifics yet! But I can say there will be a Latin American play, two plays from countries we haven’t represented yet, and a play from a beloved playwright whose work we have produced before to great enthusiasm from our audience. By the time you read this, we may have announced them! So go to www.thecherry.org to find out everything about what we have going on, and come visit us in Ithaca to see one of our productions! 

George Kaplan | France

Thursday, May 23, 2019

6:30 PM  - 9:30 PM

Instituto Cervantes Chicago 31 West Ohio Street Chicago, IL, 60654

Synopsis: George Kaplan the character is the fictional spy in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and George Kaplan the play is at once an anarchic comedy, a spy thriller, and a dizzying exploration into the relationship between reality and fiction. A hall-of-mirrors journey through conspiracy theories, the quality of coffee, and the nature of identity itself, the play forces an uneasy reckoning with the ways in which media narratives drive our politics and shape our understanding of the world. George Kaplan was first produced in Copenhagen in 2013 and since then has become an international phenomenon translated into a dozen languages, receiving countless readings and fifteen full productions throughout Europe as well as North and Latin America.

Playwright: Frédéric Sonntag

Translator: Samuel Buggeln

Director: Warner Crocker


Interview with Chile Translator Adam Versenyi


How does one become a professional translator? Did you study this in school? 

While I did take a seminar on literary translation with Suzanne Jill Levine (preeminent translator of Latin American fiction) when I was in college where I produced a rather ghastly translation Julio Cortázar's short story Cartas de mamá, I began translating Latin American theatre when I was in graduate school at the Yale School of Drama in the MFA program in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism.  An Argentine named Alberto Minero was running the theatre department of what was then the Institute for Iberoamerican Affairs (now the Americas Society) and had produced a festival of Latin American plays in Spanish in New York City.  He sent two of the plays by Griselda Gambaro to the Yale Rep for consideration and Gitta Honnegger, the dramaturg there at the time and one of my professors, knew I had the language and gave them to me to review for consideration at the Rep.  Up until that point I had read and studied Latin American poetry and prose but for some reason it had never occurred to me that there was theatre in Latin America.  I read the two plays, fell in love with them, translated them, and began my life long mission to introduce English speakers to the vast richness of Latin American theatre.  A labor of love that expanded to include theatre from any language in the world translated into English when I founded my journal The Mercurian: A Theatrical Translation Review in 2007.

How did you meet and come to collaborate with Ramon Griffero? 

I first met Ramon in 1991 when USIA and ITI sponsored director/dramaturg teams on trips to Latin America.  The then Artistic Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company, David Hammond, and I took a trip to Mexico City, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile during which we met with actors, directors, producers, and government officials in each location and saw a lot of theatre.  While in Chile we met Ramón who was both running a cultural center called El Trolley in a warehouse that had formerly been used by the trolley workers union, and had his own theatre company, Teatro de Fin de Siglo.  I found him and the work done by his company quite compelling.  Several years later we were both part of a grant proposal out of City Theatre in Pittsburgh to do a production of a Calderón de la Barca play.  The idea was that I would do the translation and then Ramón would take it and apply his magic to it.  That project never came to fruition, but we kept in touch and when I was back in Santiago in 2011 we got together for dinner.  As we were saying our good-byes Ramón handed me a collection of ten plays that his company had produced.  I read them on the flight back home and immediately contacted him to ask to translate them.  Those are the plays in my collection Ramón Griffero: Your Desires in Fragments published by Oberon Books in 2016. Since then I've also translated his play Prometheus, the Beginning as a commission for Ohio Northern University's International Play Festival and am working on a translation of his little book of aesthetic theory, The Dramaturgy of Space.

What languages and types of plays do you translate?

While I consider myself to be fluent in Spanish I only translate from Spanish to English.  There are so many nuances of language and culture that a non-native speaker of the language being translated into will miss.  I've focused on translating Latin American theatre and have done plays by the Argentines Griselda Gambaro and Agustín Cuzzani, and the Mexican Sabina Berman, in addition to Ramón's work.  I translate plays that offer something that we don't find in our US theatrical culture, dramaturgically, formally, or theatrically.  I'm often drawn to plays that I don't initially understand but find theatrically compelling.  Translating them, getting inside of them, enables me to understand them and create an English translation that does the same for both my collaborators in the US and for the audience.

Cups of Wrath & Legua’s Gynecologist | Chile

Thursday, May 2, 2019

6:30 PM - 9:30 PM

Instituto Cervantes Chicago 31 West Ohio Street Chicago, IL, 60654  (map)

Playwright: Ramon Griffero

Translator: Adam Versényi

Director: Jon Dambacher

Partner: Instituto Cervantes of Chicago

Join us after the show for a champaign reception to toast our 10 year anniversary!