Theatre Street at Hyehwa
Biggest in the area, Arko Theatre As I started performing more and more in Korea, I started realising the depth and popularity of Arts and Culture in the Korean society. Although on surface one would see a totally westernised society, but deep inside the people are really bound to their roots. Korean culture is quite old and after the modernisation, since say the 70s or so, attire and some behaviour drastically changed, but lots of old traditional elements still carry on strong in day to day life.
I would say that the Koreans are culturally very rich. Typically by the time they become 30 or so, they have heard, seen, experienced and participated in unimaginable amount of concerts, performances, exhibitions, talks, discussions and so on, as there is humongous cultural activity going on all around them.
I once made a rough calculation of how many events must be happening in Seoul every month. I think there would be about 5000 performances going on in a month. And this is just Seoul ! There are several smaller cities where the figures will be slightly smaller.
There are over 200-250 cafes where you can catch a live performance. Then there are hundreds of small theatres with capacity of about 80-300 in each. These are spread over Seoul. Besides these, there are big theatre complexes of capacity ranging from 700-800 to 1500 in each district of Seoul.
And finally there are the prestigious Seoul Art Centre [There are 5 theatres there], LG Centre, Samsung Theatre etc. And then there are over 300 motels which have live entertainment every day.
So this means 1] There are enough number of performers or all sorts to occupy the stages 2] There is enough audience to support all these!
One of the most interesting areas in Seoul, usually never mentioned in any of the tourist attractions lists, is the area around Hyehwa Metro station. Just come out from the exit number 2 of this station and you shall see several young and some old ladies waiting for you with bundles of leaflets in their hands. These are promotional materials of the concerts, dramas, performances happening in nearby theatres. An open air performance - free to all. There are about 180 theatres in the vicinity of Hyehwa !!! Read again - 180 Theatres in walking distance !!! Unbelievable !!!
As you walk on the left of the exit, you come across a huge area where there is an open air theatre, which artists can book and perform. People just gather and sit listening to you. If you don’t want to book the pavilion, then you can simply pick up your guitar and start singing on the other side of the plaza, people will gather around you and keep listening! While walking around you will always see some guys singing, some street plays going on, someone doing sketches of others and someone reading her poetry. They all have spectators gathered around them all the time!!
On one side there is the big brick building of the Arko Theatre, a big theatre of capacity of about 800. It is famous for the dance performances. Huge wooden stage and state of the art sound and light systems are permanently installed there.
Then you pass that and walk ahead and you shall find several small lanes. And in each of the lanes there are dozens and dozens of theatres. The audience capacity of these theatres is from 60-80 to 300; but most can host about 150 audience. In every tall building there would be 5-6 theatres, 2-3 cafes and so on. In the evening you will always find a large crowd walking around to figure out which performance they should attend. Mostly they are young guys and girls. This entire area once was a University. Once the University shifted somewhere on a larger area, all these theatres and cafes came up.
Usually all these theatres are all booked and busy. I remember in around 2004 I performed in one of the theatres with famous Korean pianist Roh Young Sim. The owner of the theater had come to see it and met me later. She said " I would love to see you performing your own concert here in my theatre some time." I told her "That would be great! I am going to be here in Korea for 2 months now. So we can surely do it" She said "Oh Sorry, My theatre is booked for next 3 months" !!! I performed there in my next visit then.
Point is that the theatres are busy a lot ! Now this is extremely important. The theatres are busy also means that 1] There are enough musicians, performers and artists to keep the stages busy and 2] There is tremendous audience support for all that! Without viewers nothing of all this is possible!
Over the period of years I have performed in many of these theatres in this Hyehwa station area. I have performed in the biggest Arko theatre at least 10-12 times. And every time I go there I feel I am in heaven!
Seoul is surely a paradise for art and music !