Lee Jong-il, president of KIFT's executive committee
GEOCHANG, South Gyeongsang Province — It was 25 years ago when the small county of Geochang, South Gyeongsang Province, held its first theater festival. Now it's aspiring to become an international hub for thespians, a central part of its plan to boost tourism.
Forty-seven theater companies from 12 different countries are participating in this year's Geochang International Festival of Theater (KIFT), which continues until Aug. 11. Lee Jong-il, president of KIFT's executive committee, says the festival has just begun to grow as an international attraction. Hopefully the festival can establish itself as the Korean equivalent of world-renowned performing arts festivals at Avignon and Edinburgh, he said, and elevate Geochang's international profile with it.
"Before there was the KIFT, Geochang was nondescript as a culture destination," Lee said.
"But because there was nothing much to start with, I believe that the theater festival grew that much faster."
Lee's ambition is to eventually turn the entire county effectively into a performance venue.
"We want to connect five districts in the county to form a belt. A network of shuttle buses will interconnect these venues, turning the whole county into a theater. We are talking with municipal authorities over the possibilities and hope they will commit," he said.
"This will become a reality in 25 years — slowly and steadily."
The festival attracted 200,000 visitors last year and this year's target is 220,000. The Samsung Economic Research Institute valued the economic worth of the festival at 32 billion won (about $28 million).
"In the beginning, about 70 percent of the audience was Geochang residents. Now 60 percent of the audience is from other cities," Lee said.
"The festival has been boosting tourism. This is important for municipal officials, who want to create a region where people want to stay, instead of losing taxpayers to other cities."
Lee, who settled in Geochang in 1980 as a middle-school teacher, soon moved to pursue his passion in theater, creating the drama company "Ipche" in 1983. Part of his motivation was giving youngsters a taste of performing arts.
The plays of his company began to garner attention from area residents and Lee began exploring the idea of combining the lure of theater with the beautiful natural environment of Geochang to help draw tourists and boost the regional economy. He brought together five regional drama companies to start the festival in 1989.
It wasn't until the sixth event in 1995 when the festival featured its first international teams, theater troupes from Russia and Japan. The festival has been quickly growing as an international event since.
"We set France's Avignon festival as our benchmark. We started off with a pioneering spirit, like we were cultivating a wasteland," Lee said.
"We are beginning to gain respect. There have been foreign drama companies from countries such as Germany and Spain who garnered popularity in their home countries after performing here."
Lee's theater company has also frequently performed in foreign festivals, mostly in France.
"Of all the international theater festivals, our role model is Avignon. In Avignon, every little corner of the city becomes a stage. There are only few permanent theaters and when the festival season comes, every imaginable venue, including prisons and kindergarten playgrounds, they all become stages for play. We want to benchmark that format," said Lee.
"We still need a lot of research to attract foreign audiences. We only have foreign officials from the embassy or culture centers at the moment. Since it's difficult for Europeans to visit Korea just for the festival, we will have to focus on attracting Asian audiences from China or Japan."