Written by J.L. Murdoch, Junior Researcher ’08-09

When I arrived in Seoul in August of 2008, I had yet to see a talchum performance. My previous research on the subject had garnered two books, a handful of websites and a limited number of images of masks and masked performers. A graduate class in Asian theatre had brought talchum, Korea’s masked dance-drama, to my attention, and the lack of information in English eventually led me to apply for a Fulbright research grant to learn more.

A trip to Andong early in my grant period led me to the Hahoe Mask Dance Drama Preservation Society. The friend who accompanied me introduced me to the group of men and women talking in the large office. There was a sudden flurry of activity; two places were made for us at the conference table; water, coffee, and snacks were brought; and my questions were given full attention. And so began my journey through Korea discovering, documenting, and learning talchum. I was assigned to an instructor who taught me the dance steps to each character in Hahoe talchum, as well as the symbols and meanings preserved in the design of the masks, and the history and theory of the tradition. Once I had finished this process, he began introducing me to other practitioners in other talchum disciplines. Each mask-dance community has welcomed me generously and their combined efforts at sharing their beloved performance tradition have given me a broad and ever-deepening understanding of talchum and the nation that created it.

Hailed as a popular as well as therapeutic form of entertainment in historic Korea, the folk masked dance-drama form of talchum was nearly lost during the Japanese occupation in the first half of the twentieth century. Since the early 1960s, though, practitioners and historians have revived thirteen regional practices of talchum and have built thriving tourist and educational programs designed to celebrate, preserve and perpetuate the form. Performances are held in a large, open area called a madang and are, most often, free to anyone who would like to attend. At the vast majority of performances, seats for the audience are placed around the outside of the madang so that the performers are nearly surrounded by those to whom they are playing. Some performances, though, have taken on a more Western feel, with a raised stage and with the audience seated immediately in front. Generally the performances last one hour, but these are usually abbreviated versions of a longer repertoire. Once a year most of the traditions hold a full performance of several hours in length that are worth the time and effort to attend. The energy of the performers and the audience is high, and masks and characters that are not often seen come out to “play.” Regardless of length, though, there is no intermission; audience members simply come and go as they need to. Because of this, there is a rather constant shuffling of seats and vying for better sight lines.

One of the critical elements of talchum is the active role played by the audience. Characters speak directly to the audience and are known to enter the seating area to hide from another character or converse with a specific observer. The audience calls out to those performing and they, in turn, are answered by those in role. Each performance begins with an introduction to the specific type of talchum as well as the call-and-response element of that particular form, which helps newcomers to the tradition join in the fun. This relationship is rooted in the ancient use of talchum to satirize the difficult living situations endured by the lower classes, and to vent accumulated negative emotions. Today the circumstances of most audience members have greatly improved over historical conditions, but the ability to participate in dialogue with the performers remains a significant draw. Every individual that I have spoken to about this interaction speaks of this relationship between the actors and the audience as unique, important, and a highlight of the overall event.

Talchum masks are as varied as the regions that produce them. Many are made of materials that could be burned ceremonially after the performances, some are designed to be permanent so are carved from wood. Nearly all of the masks are colorfully decorated with symbols of their character’s station in life, though, a notable exception to this generalization is that of the Hahoe masks whose colors are primarily muted. Distortions in the size or shape of the nose or forehead indicate excesses in the character’s personality and the shape of the eyes and mouth often relate the character’s sorrows or amount of agency within the larger community structure. The size of the masks affects the motions of the dances that accompany them. Masks that are large in size require movements that are not lost in their shadows while smaller, more realistic masks are paired with gestures that are closer to what an average person might use in daily interactions. This rich and varied performance tradition currently faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is attempting to simultaneously preserve its history and find relevance for a current, international audience. Much has been written in Korean about the masked dance-drama, but finding ways to assist non-Korean speakers in accessing that information and ways to help them understand the cultural indicators embedded within the plotlines and the design of the masks is another significant obstacle to be overcome, In my experience thus far, however, the benefits gained by exploring talchum are well worth the effort required to overcome these barriers.