Story by: Wilfred Lee, Photos by: Edgebrook Images
Michael Downey is a director, actor and playwright who is, among many other things, quite busy, and appears to have been for some time. First there was the training as a performer at the Unitec Institute’s Department of Performing and Screen Arts in New Zealand. Then there was the master’s degree in drama studies from the University of Auckland. More recently, Downey has been an influential member of the Seoul Shakespeare Company, playing the title role in “Macbeth,” Prospero in “The Tempest” and Peter Quince in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In addition to his current role as a board member of Seoul Shakespeare Company, he has also performed with a who’s who of English-language theater companies on the peninsula.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Downey’s recent direction of “New Year’s Eve” won first prize at Seoul Players’ 10 Minute Play Competition this past September. Artist’s Journey’s Wilfred Lee caught up with the multifaceted performer.
Groove Korea: How did you first get involved with the Seoul Players community?
Michael Downey: I have lived here for four years, and have acted in plays for Seoul Shakespeare Company, Probationary Theatre Company, Cut Glass Theatre and Eurasia Theatre Company, but it wasn’t until December 2013 when I appeared in my first Seoul Players production, “The Real Inspector Hound.”
What was the preparation process like for “New Year’s Eve,” which placed first in this year’s 10 Minute Play Competition?
I was selected to be a director, and then Seoul Players sent me a list of all 16 plays in the competition. I then selected my top four choices. “New Year’s Eve” was my first choice, and fortunately that was the one I was given. The other directors and I attended two days of auditions, and once again we were asked to select our top four choices for each role in our play — again, I was fortunate to get my two top choices, William Roszell and Lindsey Nave.
“New Year’s Eve” is a lovely, naturalistic, understated script, and in rehearsals I focused on the emotional shifts in the play and the relationship between the characters, and I tried to bring out the subtext as subtly as I could.
I was very proud of the final product — the costumes, lighting and music augmented the text brilliantly, creating a very focused, unified piece of theater. And, of course, the two actors are very talented and were a joy to work with.
How has your own experience as an actor helped in directing for this year’s 10 Minute Play Competition?
It has undoubtedly helped a lot. My experience as an actor has helped develop my instinct when it comes to analyzing a text, and I think I am able to hone in on the important moments in a play and suggest ways of playing them that the actor can relate to. Being trained by some great directors who started out as actors — like Lexie Matheson, Murray Edmond and Raymond Hawthorne — has certainly rubbed off on me; there was always an emphasis on pace, clarity, telling the story and connecting to the audience when they were directing.
What are crucial traits of a great actor?
Ha! Some of us aim to merely be a very good one! Well, I would say sensitivity, intelligence, versatility and the ability to be emotionally connected. Listening all the time, especially to your fellow actors, and also to everything that is said in a rehearsal. Being punctual, responsible and respectful. Reading widely and deeply. Being generous. Being prepared to make mistakes and take risks. Having some natural ability to begin with, probably! And possessing a thick skin.
What is the expat theater community in Korea like?
It is very active. There are two major expat companies — Seoul Players and Seoul Shakespeare Company — and between them they stage four or five major productions or events every year.
Even though people are leaving all the time, there are always new people arriving to work as teachers who have maybe just graduated from a theater course, and they really want to be involved here so they can keep working on their craft.
It is also a very supportive community — we help each other out by sharing rehearsal spaces, costumes, set pieces and sometimes even actors. We also regularly attend each other’s performances and fundraising events.
It is also great to be able to work with people from so many different nationalities and cultures, with different modes of working. But of course, there are also many difficulties: language problems, crappy venues, things not turning out the way they should … but that just makes the successes even sweeter — you become inspired to climb those mountains. The sense of achievement that you gain from that is amazing. I think that being in Korea and working in this community have inspired me to work harder, take more risks and take on more challenges.
What are your aspirations for the future?
I would really like to direct a full-length play in the future, and would also like to write more plays. My wife (Lauren Ash-Morgan, who is also an actor) and I are also keen to develop some projects together. I would also really like to take my solo play, “The Orderly,” to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We are happy to stay in Seoul for a couple more years at least, and are very excited by the opportunities that are available here.