Passions and Obsessions

This man—who Korean stars like Park Seojoon and Son Ye Jin have in common—visits Manila

South Korean theater icon and arts educator Duk-Hyung Yoo, who taught many of today's K-drama stars, is in Manila for a lecture with PETA

DukHyung Yoo, the man behind SeoulArts institute: The rigor, discipline, creativity of arts education is at the core of the Korean wave that has gone global.

South Korean actress Son Ye Jin (Crash Landing On You) is widely regarded as the Queen of K-drama.

This is a footnote to her legion of fans, but way back in 2001, when she was cast in Delicious Proposal for her first leading role as the daughter of the owner of a restaurant business, Son Ye Jin was a freshman film student at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, or what is popularly known as SeoulArts.

‘Delicious Proposal’ poster of Son Ye Jin’s first starring role

She was able to finish her degree, and as we all know, she went on to become one of the biggest K-drama stars known all over the world and real-life wife to her CLOY co-star, Hyun Bin.

Like Son Ye-Jin, another SeoulArts alumnus is Jeon Do Yoon, the first Korean to win Best Actress in the Cannes Film Festival. She won in 2007 for the family drama Secret Sunshine, playing a young widow who moves to another town with her son to start a new life.

Son Ye Jin in her younger years (Image from her Instagram account)

Jeon DoYeon photo from her Instagram account

Sixteen years later, Do Yeon was trending among the younger generations for playing an assassin on Netflix’s hit movie, Kill Boksoon.

What do these two top K-drama actresses have in common? They were taught by South Korea’s theater icon and highly respected arts educator Duk-Hyung Yoo, the longest serving president of SeoulArts.

Screenshot image of Duk-Hyung Yoo in a newspaper article during the ‘Rashomon run’ at Dallas Theatre Centre in 1966

“Their creative energies were like shamans. They were both excellent students,” Duk-Hyung told Saturday (Nov. 11, 2023) upon arrival in Manila. He and his wife, Nam Sang-nam (a former Olympic swimmer), arrived Friday near midnight from Seoul to start their cultural tour of Manila, Bohol and Iloilo.

“Why do you ask?” Duk-Hyung asked, apparently unaware of how famous his former students have become, especially in the Philippines.

Duk-Hyung’s name may not ring a bell among K-pop and K-drama fans, but he and his father, the late playwright and director,  Yoo Chi-jin, are among those senior artist-educators who, unknowingly perhaps, have helped create the Hallyu Wave.

Duk-Hyung Yoo in Russia sometime in 1973 as delegate to the International Theatre Institute Conference. He was the first South Korean to enter Russia during the Cold War. (Photo courtesy of Duk-Hyung Yoo)

The older Yoo was the founder of the 61-year-old Seoul Institute of the Arts, one of the top and prestigious schools not only in South Korea but Southeast Asia as well, specializing in theater, film, broadcasting, music, and the performing arts.

After serving as president for almost five decades, the 85-year-old Duk-Hyung retired in 2019, but continues to be SeoulArts’ guiding light as President Emeritus.

American tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III with Duk-Hyung Yoo in the 1970s. Duk was given a JDR III grant several times during his stay in the US. (Photo courtesy of Duk-Hyung Yoo)

There have been many alumni who may not have been Duk-Hyung’s students, but were graduates of SeoulArts when he was actively running it.

There’s the heartthrob Park Seo Joon (Itaewon Class, What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim, Hwarang), who has a theater arts degree from SeoulArts. Another is Jo Jung Suk (Hospital Playlist, Oh My Ghost), who, unknown to his fans, was another theater major at SeoulArts. He has acted in landmark productions like Spring Awakening and Hedwig and the Angry Inch before becoming a household name.

There’s also Jang Hyuk, known for his roles in You Are My Destiny and Family: The Unbreakable Bond. He graduated from SeoulArts with a film degree.

Actor-singer-TV personality Cha Tae Hyun, who K-drama fans remember for his roles in My Sassy Girl and the reality show Unexpected Business, among others, was a SeoulArts broadcasting major.

“All my life has been with SeoulArts,” he told on Sunday afternoon during a follow-up interview.

“But I did go outside the country to study. When I wasn’t presiding SeoulArts while I was in the US, I still sat on the board of directors. Then when I was in the US, I’d spend six months in Seoul every year. It’s been back and forth. Now? Not anymore,” he said, smiling.

At 85 years old, he admits he has difficulty recalling all the names of the artists whose craft he helped shape. When showed him photos of SeoulArts alumni posted on FamousFix website, with 186 faces and short biographies of famous K-Pop and K-drama stars, he would just smile and nod.

“Most of them I cannot recognize but (am sure) they can recognize me,” he said, followed by a giggle. “To be honest, I find it hard even to say the right term or word in English. Old age has caught up with me.”

“Almost 50 percent of these celebrities graduated from SeoulArts,” said his wife, Nam Sang-Nam, who continues to sit as director of the board of SeoulArts.

The long list includes Seol In Ah (Business Proposal), Hye Jin Han (The Book of the Three Hans, Divorce Attorney Shin), pop singer Kim Bum Soo, Kang Hye Jeong (Wedding Palace, Miss Ripley, Running Man), Min-jong Kim (Secret Door, Along With The Gods: The Last 49 Days), Ha Neul Kim (Blind, My Girlfriend Is An Agent, Misbehavior), Jin Yi Han (The Empress Ki, My Secret Hotel, A New Leaf), singer-songwriter Kim Gun Mo, Lu Han (Chinese singer who was a member of the boy group EXO and its sub-unit EXO-M), Mi Seon Jeon (Memories of Murder, Moon Embracing The Sun, Hide and Seek, Love is a Crazy Thing), Shin Ha Kyun (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Beyond Evil), Min Young Won (Boys Over Flowers, Brilliant Legacy), and thousands of actors, singers, performing artists, and media personalities behind the success of the K-wave.

Duk-Hyung, however, remembers actors much older than today’s K-drama celebrities.

“Some student actors, they take a leave from their studies to pursue a career in film and television. They have special arrangements with the school so they can come back. Some have become professionally famous, they still go back to get a degree.

“Choi Min-soo, he is one of the best and most expensive actors. He took seven years to graduate,” he said, again with a giggle.

Min-soo acted in SeoulArts resident theater company for teens, Dongnam Youth Theater. He became active in the 1990s until mid-2000 doing films like The Marriage Life, The Terrorist, Assassin’s Code and TV series like Lawless Lawyer, The Royal Gambler and most recent, Numbers.

“Not only actors but novelists, SeoulArts have produced also excellent literary writers,” he added.

There’s Shin Kyung-sook, 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize winner (Asian version of the Booker Prize) for her novel, Please, Look After Mother.

Duk-Hyung went on explaining there are other schools in South Korea teaching the arts but Seoul Arts is the pioneer institute.

“Universities and colleges, they had a drama department and had a film department but not like an arts institute. SeoulArts has practical applications early on. We have a dance company. We have the Dongnam Repertory Company for theater students. Even while studying, they are almost like professional actors.”

Duk-Hyung is no stranger to Philippine theater. In 1971, upon the invitation of Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) founding artistic director Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, he conducted an Asian Traditional Arts Workshop in PETA during the First Third-World Theater Festival. At the same event, La MaMa Experimental Theater founding artistic director Ellen Stewart was consultant.

A scene from the 1974 experimental Korean play titled ‘Jilsa’ performed at La MaMa Experimental Theater, directed by Duk-Hyung Yoo, with Cecile Guidote-Alvarez as lead actress (Photo from La MaMa archives)

Cecile Guidote-Alvarez and Nang Sang-Nam at the lobby of Manila Hotel (Photo by Totel V. de Jesus)

Among the participants were PETA pioneers Felix “Nonon” Padilla (founding artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino), now US-based Lily Gamboa-O’Boyle, Lutgardo “Gardy” Labad, Katsch Catoy, Joy Soler, Pio de Castro, Soxie Topacio, Frank Rivera, current PETA president Cecilia “CB” Garrucho, and a group of Filipino-Chinese martial artists. It culminated in a performance of a Korean play translated by Isagani Cruz titled Alamang at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

A scene from ‘Alamang’ (Photo from PETA archives)

A scene from the 1971 experimental play ‘Alamang’ directed by Duk-Hyung Yoo with PETA Kalinangan Ensemble actors (Photo from PETA archives)

A scene from the 1974 experimental Korean play titled ‘Jilsa’ performed at La MaMa Experimental Theater, directed by Duk-Hyung Yoo with Cecile Guidote-Alvarez as lead actress (Photo from La MaMa archives)

Duk-Hyung was also in Manila in 2010 as a delegate with a performing group to inaugurate the UNESCO resolution of the Dia Del Galleon Festival.

“That was 13 years ago and my memory was much better then,” he said with a chuckle while pointing his right forefinger to his right temple.

“I also remember the senator who initiated that, his name starts with letter ‘A’. I’ve read he died and his son is also a senator now,” Duk-Hyung said, his eyebrows fusing as he tried to recall.

We told him he could be referring to former Sen. Edgardo Angara, the father of incumbent senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara.  His face lit up. The late senator Angara was one of the proponents of the annual celebration of the traditional galleon trade route from Manila to Acapulco.

He lamented that most of the people he met back then have passed on. Last Friday near midnight, after Guidote-Alvarez fetched the Yoo couple in the airport arriving on their flight from Seoul. On their way to their hotel,  Duk-Hyung wanted to pass by Guidote-Alvarez’s home to pay his last respects to Heherson. In the Guidote-Alvarez home is an altar bearing the urn containing the ashes of the late senator, there in the home where the Alvarezes have lived since the 1990s.

Duk-Hyung Yoo, president emeritus of Seoul Institute of the Arts, after arriving in Manila last Friday (Photo by Totel V. de Jesus)

Duk-Hyung and Guidote-Alvarez’s friendship and artistic collaboration started in the mid-1960s.

While taking up their Masters’ Degrees in Theater, he and Guidote-Alvarez were classmates at Trinity University and Dallas Theater Center, under its founding artistic director Paul Baker, on a John D. Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship in the 1960s.

While on exile in the US with Heherson, she and Duk-Hyung eventually became fellow resident actor-directors with La MaMa Experimental Theater in the 1970s. La MaMa is an Off-Off Broadway group founded by Ellen Steward in Greenwich Village in 1961, incidentally just a year older than SeoulArts.

“When I founded PETA, it was in the same decade when Duk-Hyung’s father founded SeoulArts. Duk took over SeoulArts’ leadership in 1971 even before his father died in 1974, and became its longest serving president,” said Guidote-Alvarez.

While on exile in the US with her husband, Guidote-Alvarez founded the Third World Institute of Theater Studies (TWITAS) and acted in Jilsa, an experimental Korean play translated by Isagani Cruz and directed by Yoo. In 2022, La MaMa named Guidote-Alvarez and Yoo among the seven Global Artist and Transformational Leaders awardees; Yoo is also serving as vice president for Asia in the ITI-Social Change Network, of which Guidote-Alvarez is president.

In Duk-Hyung’s cultural visit, part of the inter-regional outreach of the Sustainable Development Goals’ Resili-Art project under UNESCO, he is giving lectures on experimental theater and his innovative project, the CultureHub. It is an intercontinental techno-arts connectivity program on the value of cross-cultural collaboration to generate global citizenship.

“Even before the pandemic when the use of technology like Zoom was beneficial to all, the CultureHub has been using utilizing tele-conferencing to help artists, educators and students from around the world to interact,” Duk-Hyung said.

“Through CultureHub, we are connecting the arts and culture of Korea with the world. We have studios in New York, Los Angeles, Spoleta in Italy and Bandung in Indonesia,” he added.

He is the guest of honor and lecturer in a public forum presentation at the PETA Theater Center, 6:30 pm, Nov.15, 2023, organized by the International Theater Institute Philippine Center and the UNESCO Artist for Peace-recognized Earthsavers Dreams Ensemble, a performing arts group composed of persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples that Guidote-Alvarez co-founded.

CB Garrucho of PETA will give the welcome remarks. There will be video performance excerpts from Earthsavers and Kasing Sining Performing Group from Bohol, courtesy of its director Gardy Labad. The event will be livestreamed on Facebook.

Expected to grace the occasion are special guests from the diplomatic community, Congress, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, and the United Nations Association of the Philippines.

After the ITI Earthsavers’ event with PETA in Manila, Duk-Hyung and his wife will grace the Asian Theatre Festival in Iloilo. Their cultural tour will culminate in Bohol, recently distinguished as a geopark province by Unesco.

Rest assured, unlike his famous students in SeoulArts, Duk-Hyung won’t be mobbed for selfies and autographs.

As parting words, we asked him what advice he can give younger actors and artists.

“Children, those as young as six years old, we should learn from them. They are more creative. Despite technology, they have this world inside them that are very creative. They see a world full of realities.

“When you reach 30 to 40 years old, you have so many personal histories, distractions and experiences, outside what we used to know in this world. All these could be really bad. I wanna go back to being six-year-old because they see reality as it is,” he said, giggling again, his eyes lighting up like an old, great Shaman sans the long beard and gat (traditional Korean hat) in a trending Koreanovela.

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