Which would be greater: the geographical distance between Mansfield, Connecticut,
in the United States, and Seoul, or the cultural distance between gugak (traditional Korean music) and
Shakespearean theatrics? Lauren Ash-Morgan is bridging these seemingly two separate worlds.
Lauren Ash-Morgan performs a gayageum sanjo on the lawn at Namsan Park in Seoul.
There would be few Koreans — even among professional performers — who can sing chang (traditional narrative ballads) to their own accompaniment on a native zither. Indeed, few would even want to learn this archaic music form, called gayageum byeongchang.
For a foreigner, naturally the barriers are many and high — language, techniques, and difficulties grasping emotional nuances. But Lauren Ash-Morgan has made possible the seemingly impossible. On most weeknights, she can be found at the National Gugak Center in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, learning and practicing traditional Korean dance and song, and instrumental music.
“It was humiliating when I started out because it was an entirely new form of movement. I don’t have a typical dancer’s body, I didn’t have the right dance clothes, the classes were conducted in Korean, and as the only non-Korean in classes, I stood out and doubted that I would ever look right doing this,” Ash-Morgan said, recalling her first lessons in Washington, D.C. “But it is a style and technique that even Korean people have to learn nowadays, and the adults in my classes are learning it, just as I am. In some ways, I have an advantage, as an art major, over many of my classmates.”
Her Korean teachers agree. “Ms. Lauren can catch the drift of what I’m saying and does exactly what I tell her to do,” said the master who teaches her to sing chang while playing the gayageum (12-stringed zither). Her dance teacher noted the way she immerses herself not just in techniques but the meaning of every movement.
How Did it Begin?
Ash-Morgan’s stage career is far longer than can be imagined from her age of 34.
A native of Mansfield, Connecticut, she has been performing since age 10 when she began taking theater workshops. At the age of 11, she joined the Kid’s Company, a youth theater ensemble in her hometown, and grew up performing on stage. At school, she took a particular interest in Shakespeare while being involved in music performances. She majored in music education in college, specializing in voice, and received a Bachelor of Music from Ithaca College in New York State, where she developed an interest in world music and ethnomusicology.
After graduation, she spent a year in Seoul in 2005, working as a music teacher, and began to study traditional Korean music, particularly the gayageum and janggu (two-headed drum), at the National Gugak Center. She then attended graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park, studying under Dr. Robert Provine, an East Asian music expert, and earned her M.A. in ethnomusicology with a focus on Korea. During her studies, she spent two years learning traditional Korean dance and pansori (narrative song accompanied by a drummer) at the Washington Korean Performing Arts Center as well as taking some gayageum and janggu lessons.
In 2010, she was invited to participate in the National Gugak Center’s International Gugak Workshop and has remained here ever since to study traditional Korean music in connection with Korean dance.
In 2011, Ash-Morgan auditioned for the Seoul Shakespeare Company’s production of “Macbeth” and was cast in the lead role. That’s when she met Michael Downey, her then onstage husband who is now her real husband. Since that time, she has been active in Seoul’s English-language theater scene, playing major roles in many productions, and even landing the leading role in the independent feature film “Amiss.” In 2014, she became the artistic director of the Seoul Shakespeare Company, and has also been the producer of the company’s shows while continuing to act and create costumes for the group.
“I am trying to remain balanced artistically between the worlds of gugak and classical theater, and find ways to bring elements of gugak training and aesthetics to the world of Western theatrical practice, presenting the techniques and spirit of Korean traditional performing arts to a wider audience,” she said. “I am preparing workshops for teaching Shakespeare with hopes of incorporating Korean dance and vocal training into classical theater training in the future.”
Ash-Morgan believes that gugak and Western theater can benefit each other. “Music has a definite influence on theater by helping to train breathing and gracefulness in voice. Both movements and emotions are interconnected, as the extension of the other. By practicing pansori, for example, I could acquire a stronger, lower and deeper voice, which I use on the theater stage without worrying about injuring my vocal cords,” she said.
“In Korea’s traditional music, there is also a concept called han — a sense of accumulated and condensed sadness and bitterness — from which real artists create a cathartic effect with passion and energy. This intense emotion of sadness is almost universal, a quality shown in lots of classic tragedies on stage. However, we should not necessarily remain in a passive feeling but push against it to share cathartic feelings with the audience.”
Lauren Ash-Morgan is both an actor with the Seoul Shakespeare Company and its artistic director. She plays the role of Beatrice in the 2016 production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” directed by her husband, Michael Downey.
A Triple-role Player
Ash-Morgan’s typical week is divided between three major activities: teaching four classes (16 hours) at Kwangwoon University; learning Korean music and dance, mostly at nighttime; and acting and producing Shakespearean plays. As her work with the Seoul Shakespeare Company is voluntary, her entire income comes from teaching English conversation and presentation. “The university teaching job gives me financial support and time to engage in artistic pursuits,” she said.
Aside from diligence, passion and commitment, Ash-Morgan must have something else that has enabled her to learn traditional Korean music and dance in a relatively short time and seemingly with fewer difficulties than some might expect.
Korean dances that are considered traditional today developed under the influence of prominent teachers, each with their own style that has been passed down over the last couple of generations in teacher-to-student lines, sometimes hereditary, and sometimes non-hereditary, she explained.
“I’ve studied four different lines of Korean dance, with four different teachers, and they’re all quite distinct from each other. I’ve found that any time I begin with a new dance teacher, I need to quiet my own movement instincts and focus on the details of what makes that teacher’s style unique; not just the technique, but her own personal neukkim — her feeling, character, or aura, or how she expresses her personality and feelings through the dance,” she said. “It’s not just about learning choreography; for me, it’s about emulating the character of my teacher when she dances, which requires attention to every complex detail. Then I can try to find that feeling within my real self, like I do when I am performing as a character on stage or in film.”
Ash-Morgan is grateful that she had the opportunity to learn the basics when she was still living in the U.S. among a supportive group of people. As she sees it, Korean traditional dance movements are so integral not only to the dances themselves but also to singing and instrumental performances that it’s easy to think of the movement style as a part of “Koreanness,” as if it’s something passed down through the blood.
“Over time, my teachers realize that they can just leave me alone and allow me to blend into the group, and that I will learn just fine on my own,” she said. “At the National Gugak Center, when a new year of classes starts, at least a few of my classmates have either shared a class with me in the past or seen me perform in the annual festival, so it’s much less awkward now than it used to be.”
When she was living in the U.S., she spent a lot of time in Korean linguistic and cultural spaces. The idea of migrant minorities’ cultural areas, and the importance of such cultural spaces where people can gather and be themselves, was one of the points she emphasized in her graduate work.
“With the Seoul Shakespeare Company, I find the mirror image of that experience. In the U.S., I was doing gugak; in Korea, much of my life is focused around doing Shakespeare,” she said. “Having performed pansori back in the States and now being in Korea and doing Shakespeare, in each case, I am performing something foreign to the nation in which I live, but sometimes considered archaic in the nation of the art form’s origin.”
“I am trying to remain balanced artistically between the worlds of gugak and
classical theater, and find ways to bring elements of gugak training and aesthetics
to the world of Western theatrical practice, presenting the techniques and
spirit of Korean traditional performing arts to a wider audience.”
A scene from “The Winter’s Tale,” staged in April 2017 under the direction of Michael Downey. Lauren Ash-Morgan performs the role of Paulina. On the left is John Michaels in the role of Antigonus, and on the right is Josh Kroot as Camillo.
Gugak and Shakespeare:
In comparing the similarities and dissimilarities of gugak and Shakespearean theatrics, Ash-Morgan said, “To most Korean people, gugak is unfamiliar, difficult to understand, perhaps boring, though performed and loved by a vibrant and innovative sub-community of gugak artists within the larger Korean society. It is a similar case with Shakespeare in English-speaking countries; many people consider the language awkward, old, and potentially boring. Shakespeare is a large part of the shaping of our culture, and, particularly for the U.K., a part of national identity.”
Likewise, gugak, while unfamiliar to many Koreans, holds a special place as a symbol of Korean national identity. Ash-Morgan said she finds the parallels between gugak and Shakespeare guite fascinating: “Both seem old and weird to the uninitiated and yet enjoy enormous popularity and vibrancy among a particular subset of the population. Both have historical and cultural depth, but also room for artistic innovation and the ability to touch modern audiences.”
Between teaching, dance and music lessons, and theater, Ash-Morgan has little time for anything else. Even on weekends, she edits videos of her productions or creates stage costumes, including hanbok (traditional Korean clothes). Her hectic schedule makes her a fan of Seoul’s superb public transport system, especially the subway. “I do much of my work in subway trains. Had the Seoul subway not been this convenient, it would have been much harder for me to juggle three balls at the same time,” she said.