In 1994 the German playwright Heiner Müller described in a letter how "You can't do theatre in a bank, and the whole world is turning into one great big bank."[1] I have to say I am lucky when I came to watch, participate in or - at least - be present to the Seoul Marginal Theatre Festival. It is not that I can say I understood, or even that these performances were in any way "for me", or that I was their intended audience. However, I did recognise, as described in the festival's manifesto, the intent towards "an encounter with, and acceptance of, the boundaries". Perhaps as audiences and performers we can only be as imperfect mirrors to each other. Perhaps we are broken mirrors even, and with that the sick, the maladjusted, the disformed. And yet here too begins a space for a journey beyond onself. And it is in this journey that the "I" finds some kind of "You", and where the "I" need not even be "I", but rather "one", so that "one" can find their "other" and that in this space there is the journey towards, as Paul Celan described so well (and here I am reflecting so much his words), an "encounter":


[...] the poem holds its ground on its own margin. 

In order to endure, it constantly calls and pulls itself back from

an 'already-no-more' into a 'still-here'.[2]


Over the past twenty years, that have now seen almost twenty editions of the Seoul Marginal Theatre Festival, there have been along the way cultural institutions and architectures that have realised the infrastructure of a nation that, like any other, is rarely at home with itself. And perhaps because it is not, or cannot be, at home with itself, many such efforts settle into a more ordinary familiarity. Not that the space of the margin is so different. But perhaps in its proximity to 'already-no-more', this margin is conscious of what motivates it to keep open a too often eclipsed space of the poem. And in concentrating on the "still-here", as Celan writes, it may even find a "home-coming". Perhaps this is the margin, and with it the independent spirit, however ambiguous or temporary, of those forced, or compelled, to be excluded.


In its manifesto (2012 - present) Seoul Marginal Theatre Festival states: "SMTF is the theatre festival for everything that is not theatre." And perhaps it needs to be exactly this, when the world is becoming a "great, big bank". So that, almost in secret, between the folds of what appears as every-day life, it rather finds a place for words to be heard, a sentiment - if such a thing can stand up to become an organising effort - that needs to be given form, locations, finance, workers, supporters. And with this too, a space to hear and engage with those unheard, that has included LGBTQi communities, victims of national violence, people with disabilities, those who seek their own voice, their own listening.


I am lucky I found this margin. For in sharing a space, from whatever "distant" place I attended from, in this strangeness was also the solace of knowing it can be possible to see through eyes, or feel through the surface, lived time, of them who is an "other", who speak of their existence, even if it is not their utter existence, but a reflection of: where the "I" becomes "one". 


The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it. 


For the poem, everything and everybody is a figure of this other towards which it is heading.[3]


I was reminded of Celan's beautiful speech The Meridian as I was thinking of this essay. And as Celan mentions too, I had been thinking of Woyzeck, the exploited "little solider", and wondered where s/he finds her or himself in our current global predicament, watching the parades of authority objectifying those of lesser ranks, left just with broken mirrors to look upon stars. This does not matter. What lonely Woyzeck connects to however, an invisibility imposed when forces assume a form larger than the human, probably always will. There are other characters, other experiences that when rubbed, and rubbed - upside down, even - arrive to an image, or gesture, incomplete yet perfect, unseen or uncertain. Yet a quickening, a recalling, dirty or pure, to remind ourselves of a margin - a soul - that is "still here".


[1] Heiner Müller, Theatremachine, translated and edited by Marc von Henning, p.xv, London: Faber & Faber, 1995. 

[2] Paul Celan, "The Meridian" (1960), in Collected Prose, translated Rosemarie Waldrop (2003) p.49, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003. 

[3]  Ibid

James Tyson is a cultural worker based in London, UK. Formerly he was Head of Theatre at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff (Wales) which presented the work of artists from Seoul Marginal Theatre Festival from 2007-2011. He participated in the festival in 2012 (“a circle”) and in 2013 with the workshop project, “tomorrow”.


Korean translation by Young Nae Choi.