Momma At the Gate – Leon Wiebers

Project Description/Narrative

Momma at the Gate is a devised theatre/dance/movement piece that was created between artists in the United States and South Korea. The inspirational texts, Brecht’s Mother Courage and Park’s Momma’s Stake were culled for images, text and ideas. To be clear, this piece is not an adaptation of either of these works, but the piece is a culmination of exploring the ideas and themes in both works.

Momma at the Gate combines and reinterprets various traditional, Korean art forms and various Western forms including modern dance, traditional Korean dance (salpuri), theatrical conventions, Western dress and traditional, Korean dress (hanbok). The piece, itself, is comprised of 5 performers assuming the roles of Mother, Daughter, Brother, a Musician and Pastor. The text is bi-lingual and is spoken in English and Korean. The soundscape is comprised of a traditional, Korean drum (janggu), a traditional singing form (pansori), composed music and sounds of protest.

Momma at the Gate is a flexible piece that can be performed site-specifically or in a small venue. The design of the piece is a unified concept that fuses together notions of nationality, religion, war, simplicity and restriction. Drawing inspiration from a traditional Korean textile art (pojagi), various pieces of fabrics are used in the set, the costumes and the props.

Through all of the design areas, scenery, costumes, lights and sound we have created a powerfully immersive experience for the audience. The language and live music are inter-connected elements of the sound-scape.

In total, the piece is 50 minutes without intermission.

Thematically, we wanted to explore the ideas of war and its impact on everyday humans. We found similarities between these texts in the struggle for survival, the notions of corruption, the notions around mothering and motherhood, exploration of class and ultimately the disfigurement of the body and soul. The idea of the piece originated in the United States between Paul Besaw and Leon Wiebers. We discovered that we would be in South Korea at the same time. Leon Wiebers had been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship (2012-13) to study traditional dress and Paul Besaw was going on sabbatical to research traditional dance. The piece developed further when we decided upon texts. Once Wiebers was in South Korea, we had skype conferences to share ideas with Chong Ho Kim and Sarah Wiggin. When Besaw and Kim arrived we met and worked with Kim Min Jung and Jeong Hansol. Sarah Wiggin joined us in Korea for two trips to further develop and later perform the short, staged-reading version, which was 20 minutes long. Throughout the developmental stage we used the texts, images, traditions and several sites in Park’s writing or effigies of war. The piece further developed in Burlington, VT during the fall of 2013. Here we added the minstrel and developed the final piece for Agnes Table, a devised performance art group of which several of us are members. The final piece premiered at the Flynn Center in Burlington, VT and is 50 minutes long.

How the Piece Addresses the Themes and Vision

Weather is an apt comparative metaphor for Momma at the Gate and the National Exhibition. As stated, weather, “…doesn’t discriminate, and crosses all economic, ethnic, and social lines. Weather has the power to affect and/or alter lives, both for the good and otherwise. It has the ability to connect distant lands and varied regions.” Furthermore, The “winds of war” are ever-changing and uncontrollable and unknowable. These ideas are the foundations of the piece, Momma at the Gate, as outlined above. The piece and the design explore these ideas and crosses boundaries to connect distant lands. Additionally, the concepts of mothering and motherhood are a weathering process…slowly molding the child. We made this piece as a response to the on-going wars of our countries: the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and the constant struggle between North and South Korea. War, like weather, does not discriminate. The people (i.e. politicians and war-mongers) who make the war do. The humans affected by war or corruption must weather the changes of place, time, family, income, boarders, etc.

Exploratory – forecasting – seeks new worlds/weather maps of performance

Momma at the Gate challenges the conventions of performance through the mixing of dance, spoken language, theatrical text, prose, and movement. It is neither of the usual categories, but all of them. The piece uses text and movement and design harmoniously to explore the disruptive themes outlined above. War transcends any particular moment in time. The comparison of Brecht’s play from 1939 against the rise of Fascism and Nazism set during the 30 Years’ War with Park’s writings of the Korean War (1950-53); published in 1999 and the current conflicts globally, Momma at the Gate is an experience that transcends time and space. It is simultaneously specific, yet universal.

 Transformative – front disturbances – immersive

Momma at the Gate is non-linear. It is a collage of images, language, sound and movement; an environment in which the audience is confronted, engaged, and immersed. We have performed this piece three times: the 20-minute, stage-reading/performance in Seoul, Korea (May 2013); the final, 50-minute premiere at the Flynn Center in Burlington, Vermont and then at Franklin Pierce University part of the Pierce Arts Residency (November 2013). The audiences in these performances discussed afterwards how “fully-engaged” they were throughout the piece and that the language added to the sense of chaos and suspense, yet the story was completely understood.

When we devised this piece, we did so with flexibility in mind. We have since performed it in three different ways: proscenium style (with wings), proscenium style (without wings) and alley configuration. The piece is very adaptable and pushes the relationship between viewer and performer. We prefer smaller, intimate spaces because it connects to the audience more directly.

Furthermore, the piece was developed at specific sites in Korea referenced in Park’s novel and other sites relating to war. We specifically rehearsed at the National Cemetery, the War Memorial of Korea, and the South Gate of Seoul (which was a walled city at one time but now retains the gates as national landmarks). The nature of the material and design draw the audience into the performance. They listen closely to what is being said and the other sounds in the sound design. Several Korean-American viewers were surprised at how universal their story is. We had intense conversations about war and humanity after each performance.

Urgent – The Storm Front

We are tired of war. We are tired of Gitmo. As American artists we are tired of the empire. Momma at the Gate is our humble, low-budget act of social change that stuns the audience and asks them to reconcile the acts of war with the aftermath. To what end? Momma seeks to focus our audience on creating an American spirit that is one of peace and humility; not one that boasts of “American Exceptionalism”. Everyday we see images of from the useless wars we’ve started and the countries we’ve invaded and we hear from the 1% war profiteers vilifying others/foreigners/immigrants while holding the Bible and a gun in front of the American flag. Momma at the Gate compels the viewer to imagine a different future.

The Design

Thus far, this narrative has explained the thematic connections between our piece, Momma at the Gate, and the theme for the National Exhibit. Herein, the design will be discussed as to how it connects these themes in the visual and audio story-telling. A traditional textile craft called pojagi was one of the first inspirational elements. Pojagi uses small scraps of fabric to create larger pieces of cloth for carrying things, everyday things, like laundry. Over time and through modernization, this essential craft has moved into the realm of art and now these pieces are works of art to be displayed or given as gifts. The closest Western tradition is that of quilting, but it is only in the piecing of the leftover scraps. Pojagi is not quilted. It is usually one layer of fabric, not several quilted together.

This notion of piecing together everyday items became the thrust of the design. The set is comprised of long strips of fabric that snake into the audience and around the stage but come to two points, which are tied with cord in a hang-mans’ knot.   When there is space, a row of irregular pieces of the same cloth is hung in a line and overlap.

The costumes are a collage of Western and Korean clothing; combining the usual to create a multi-level visual experience.

  • The Pastor of Souls: wears a black cassock, with a long, traditional Korean vest over it, dyed khaki. The vest is made of ramie (a traditional fabric) but has military pockets and is tied closed with an army belt. He wears combat boots and aviator sunglasses. General MacArthur and the Priest/Pastor from Mother Courage were his inspirations.
  • Mother and Daughter: Both wear essentially the same costume in different colors. The tops are Korean War era military shirts recut into cheogori. The skirts (chima) are made in the traditional, wrap-around style, but are made of Korean hardware bags that are used for hauling sand, garbage, rocks, anything. Additionally, they wear traditional linen trousers cut in the manner of funereal pants. They are barefoot.
  • Brother: Brother wears military trousers (all Korean men serve a mandatory 2 years in the service. Therefore, all Korean men have these trousers). One military boot and his torso and arms are wrapped with cord (rope), which is distressed.
  • Minstrel: The minstrel wears a military shirt and traditional Korean pants. She is barefoot.

The props are very important in this piece. Mother and Daughter carry bags that are made of pojagi into which they put all the props dropped by The Pastor of Souls. These include, knives, spoons, passports, money, spam, and walnuts. The Pastor of Souls carries a black, plastic bag with which he performs a deconstructed salpuri dance instead of the traditional silk scarf.

The lighting design is simple, yet evocative. It creates mood and place through side lighting and specials.

The sound design and composition round out the experience. The composed music is integrated with other sounds to create the overall soundscape. These include sounds of riot scenes in Korea’s history, original small pieces for specific moments, and underscoring for longer sections.

In conclusion, Momma at the Gate, exemplifies the themes and vision expressed by the National Exhibition. Furthermore, it represents the creativity of diverse people from different nations who are making art without the financial support found in large institutions. Design and theatre are about stories. We teach our students that art does not need money to be effective or powerful. The National Exhibition will hopefully represent the vast array of artists working in our country today.