Last fall, an evaluator for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival attended a performance of Woyzeck at the BMCC Theatre Program. He came away sufficiently impressed to nominate four cast members and sound designer Donghyuk Chang for northeast regional awards. But there was a minor glitch.
“There wasn’t an actual prize category for Chang,” says Alkis Papoutsis, the play’s director and a lecturer in the Department of Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts. “He didn’t fit into the standard descriptions of musical director, conductor, or sound designer, because what he did went so much further.”
In point of fact, Chang, a BMCC theater major, not only produced the music for Woyzeck, he invented and built the instruments on which it was played.
Even more remarkably, he scavenged most of his materials from junk heaps and the Theater Department’s scenery shop. Every one of Donghyuk’s instruments was meticulously designed and calibrated to evoke specific moods and feelings in the play.
“Although Woyzeck was written in Germany in the 19th century, this adaptation by Elizabeth Chaney was set in the American South during the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Hyukchang says.
“Money was scarce and people had very little, so they made banjos, guitars and other instruments out of found materials like cans and cigar boxes. I found that very inspiring.”
At the week-long Kennedy Center festival, which took place in January at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, Donghyuk regaled judges with jazzy, percussive and haunting riffs on an unlikely array of ingenious instruments—a xylophone made from scraps of drywall and plywood, horns fashioned from cardboard shipping tubes, a maraca-like device that turned out to be a repurposed Pringles canister filled with japonica rice, and assorted flutes, clarinets, marimbas and dulcimers.
At the award ceremony on the last day of the Festival, Donghyuk received first prize for achievement in innovation and technology, beating out entrants from Yale, NYU, the University of Massachusetts and Emerson College.
Before coming to the U.S. in 2008, the Korean-born Donghyuk made a name for himself melding music, technology and creative wizardry in a range of settings.
“Previously, I taught music to both kindergartners and seniors and also made musical instruments with them,” he says. “Before that, I produced major music festivals in Korea for four years. Basically, I’ve been involved in making noise.”
Elizabeth Chaney, an assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts was scenic director of Woyzeck and re-set the 1837 play in 1930s Appalachia.
“Four of us—Alkis, Christopher Peifer, who was our sound director, and Chang—collaborated on the music,” she says. “Chang was the only student, but he brought an absolutely professional, artistic sensibility to the table. Working with him was an incredible experience.”
Despite his singular achievements, Donghyuk quietly insists he was only a player in a highly coordinated team. “I felt the award wasn’t given to me but to the whole production team of Woyzeck,” he says. “It really belongs to everyone—on stage and backstage.”
Over the course of several months, he adds, he spent more than 2,000 hours researching, designing and building instruments for Woyzeck. “If I’d considered it work, I never would have been able to do it,” he says. “For me, this was play. This was my joy.”