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A Thousand Faces

13

Chapter 13

78

Mansik’s theater, early morning.

“This could use a little loosening.”

A creak echoed across the stage as Mansik, gloves on, adjusted something.

“How about that?”

Stepping back, Mansik checked the piece of equipment he had fixed. A satisfied look crossed his face.

Thinking about the performance that would be held on this stage soon, he started humming without realizing it.

“Wow… The kid and Junho Gil together on my stage? I can’t believe it.”

The more he thought about it, the more incredulous he felt. Junho Gil—a name that could pack a small theater like this in seconds. Already, the thought of managing the expected crowd made Mansik anxious.

In all his years of working in the industry, Mansik had only ever seen a superstar like Junho Gil on the silver screen. Now, to think he would host such a star on this very stage, especially when his theater was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy from constant actor departures, felt surreal. Shaking his head, he could hardly grasp the reality of it.

But then—

“What are you doing here so early?”

The kid had just entered the auditorium.

Mansik’s face lit up. “Oh, there you are.”

The theater owner had been on the stage since morning, cleaning and sorting equipment, all the while thinking of Junwoo.

“Why don’t you leave that to the staff?” Junwoo asked.

“Shouldn’t you be practicing? Or, you know what—take a break, have some fun,” Mansik said, waving off Junwoo’s question.

Junwoo looked surprised by Mansik’s sudden change of attitude. Mansik turned away, hiding a grin of pride.

The boy’s first performance on this stage a few days ago was etched in his mind. Mansik hadn’t just been supportive in his response—he had been in pure awe. It was the thrill of discovering a hidden gem.

And from that moment, the kid’s journey was nothing short of astonishing. Mansik found immense joy in watching Junwoo’s hidden passion for acting slowly blossom day by day.

Soon, he would captivate a vast audience.

Money was the last thing on Mansik’s mind. Never before in his years of loving theater had he wished for someone else’s success this badly, even more than his own. The least he could do was fix the stage.

His deep affection for the theater shone through in his meticulous preparation of the stage for every show.

He had studied the theory until he was sick of it. While he might not have Junwoo’s innate talent, he was determined to leverage his budget to elevate the stage’s quality to its peak. As he touched the stage, it was as if he could feel the echoes of Junwoo’s past performance.

“How does it look? Not bad, right?” Mansik asked as he scanned the stage, hands on hips.

“Um…”

“I wasn’t just watching from the sidelines, you know. I picked up a thing or two.”

“Did you do this for this show?”

“I sure did.”

Junwoo was surprised. He had gotten so used to Mansik being a silent spectator, admiring his acting from afar, that he had forgotten the man had once studied theater.

Did he want to change it?

Seeing Mansik’s dedication, Junwoo realized the high hopes the theater owner had for this upcoming performance. And seeing him so excited also helped Junwoo feel more at ease about all the help he had been receiving.

“It’s much better,” Junwoo said.

Well…

As Junwoo surveyed the neatly arranged stage, he thought to himself, I’ll fix it up later.

As if satisfied with his work, Mansik turned away. He seemed to ponder something for a moment before whirling around.

“I have a question, though.”

“What?”

“I just can’t get my head around it. Why do you want to act with Junho Gil but not sign with NK?”

Junwoo didn’t respond.

Mansik went on, “If you’re with them, you could read scripts written by acclaimed writers and have all the acting opportunities you could want. Much more than here.”

There was genuine curiosity in Mansik’s tone. Alongside that, there was the implication that he thought his theater was less than others.

“I never claimed to understand you before, but I really want to hear it from you this time,” Mansik said.

After a few seconds of silence, Junwoo muttered, “I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on. It’s not because of me, is it?”

“Aren’t you hungry? Let’s go eat breakfast,” Junwoo suggested, diverting the topic as he began to walk out of the auditorium.

“Whoa, hang on there. So it must be true!”

“I feel like kimchi stew. How about you, sir?”

Junwoo’s voice was further away now, his steps echoing behind him.

“Hey!” Mansik called out. He swiped under his nose. What’s up with him?

Perplexed, Mansik hurried to catch up.

***

Voices leaked out from the rehearsal room. Mansik, once again, stuck to the door like a cicada, peering through a small opening.

For the past few days, Mansik had been puzzled about Junho Gil.

This guy must be really interested in theater work.

The kid held the script as he said something to Junho. As Junwoo gestured to the rehearsal room floor, the older actor blinked as if realizing something.

Or is he interested in something else?

It was a rare sight. If anyone were to see it—a top-tier actor being taught by some unknown teen—they would think it a scene from a performance.

Honestly, Mansik had assumed Junho Gil would only come down on the day of the performance. After all, he wasn’t your average actor.

But to go to such lengths…

Junho had recently arranged accommodation nearby so that he and Junwoo could rehearse for the performance.

I thought he’d be in and out.

He had arrived at the theater before Mansik, even before the sun had risen. There hadn’t been an ounce of fatigue on his face. In fact, he had looked ecstatic.

He seemed to enjoy working with the boy and talking about acting, and not just for the sake of practice.

For example, a few days ago…

“Why isn’t he leaving?”

Junwoo, dressed in uniform, whispered to Mansik as he adjusted the curtains.

“Beats me,” Mansik muttered back.

Even though it was past midnight, Junho Gil, seated in the audience seats, showed no intention of leaving. He seemed agitated; he had his nose buried in his script, his leg bouncing up and down, and he was chewing his nails.

Then, as if struck by realization, he flipped frantically through the pages.

“Is he always like that?” Mansik asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, does he always have that constipated expression when he’s rehearsing with you?”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

“Huh. I thought he would be stuck up, but he’s actually quite nice.”

That was how Junho Gil usually spent his evenings. Then, as soon as Junwoo finished work, he would run over to him.

That continued for several days.

Mansik was well aware of Junho Gil’s fame and the rumors that followed him.

He was known for his ability to captivate viewers with just a few scenes. Anyone who crossed paths with the actor, regardless of their experience, would bow their heads and beg him to watch their own acting.

And now, that very Junho Gil was following the kid around like a puppy every day the theater was open.

Quite the change from what I saw at the agency…

Junho had probably realized that the kid had been holding back his true potential during his audition. When pressed, the kid had waved him off like he couldn’t be bothered explaining himself.

“No matter what I say, there’s no way it’ll come out the way I interpret it. You have to dig yourself.”

Despite that, Junho hadn’t been offended.

“Oh,” he had said with a nod, his expression serious.

All of this was a spectacle to Mansik.

***

It was a week before the performance. Preparations were in their final stages.

Mansik rubbed his chin as he reviewed the website on the computer.

“Hmm…”

There was one issue.

The play’s information had been updated by the theater’s publicity team. It had the stage background, character introductions, a carefully crafted poster, and the director’s notes.

Naturally, the response was sensational.

The reason for the heated discussion among fans was Junho Gil’s profile photo. The actor only starred in films by big-shot directors, and now, here he was, appearing on a live stage.

-I finally get to see Junho Gil after months and months, but why’s it in the middle of nowhere?

-There’s no reviews or info about his involvement. Am I really gonna see THE Junho Gil in person??

-I actually think that’s good. With that voice of his, he’ll chew up a small theater.

All the attention was focused solely on Junho Gil.

Was it a good thing? Thanks to that, the real issue was being buried.

-Have they cast the lead yet?

-Did the other guy chicken out as soon as Junho Gil’s name came up?

-Haha. Junho can just do the whole thing alone. No one will notice another actor with him around.

One of the leads hadn’t been cast yet. Or at least, that’s what it looked like on the website.

With the performance just a week away, Mansik started feeling the pressure. He couldn’t go on stage without any prior information about the actor.

Mansik walked with a heavy heart. He realized he had been so focused on his excitement that he hadn’t even bothered to ask the kid what he was thinking.

He thought he was doing what was best for the boy, but now he felt ashamed of himself.

It was dawn now, and he could see the auditorium lights blaring. Someone was inside.

Worried, Mansik rushed inside, only to stop dead in his tracks.

“Wow…”

A wave of admiration overcame him.

“Is this… is this really my theater?”

Junwoo, absorbed in working on something at the edge of the stage, looked up at Mansik’s question. “What’re you doing here so early?”

“What’s all this?” Mansik asked.

“Why? Don’t you like it?”

Like it?

He was stunned speechless.

The small theater’s oval stage was completely optimized for the performance. It was like a miniature version of the Seoul Arts Center.

That’s right, Mansik thought, thinking back to all the books on stage direction Junwoo had been devouring. The kid must have reassembled and rearranged all the equipment and props.

It was astonishing how he had changed the atmosphere this much without needing any expensive set pieces.

Talent is talent, indeed.

Mansik felt ashamed. He had harped on and on about how a play was all about the actors’ performances, not the setting in which they acted. The boy had proved him wrong.

“I just added a little to what you had already done.”

Mansik felt embarrassed to think about how confidently he had been acting just a few days ago. He wished he had kept his mouth shut.

This kind of stage will…

Junwoo, who was adjusting the floor lights, smiled and swiped his sweaty bangs aside.

Mansik looked back at him with a bewildered expression. “You look different. Were you always this good-looking?”

When all Junwoo did was give him a confused look, Mansik added, “Why do you always cover that handsome face?”

Junwoo scratched his head. He had always worn a hairstyle that covered his eyes in his previous life, except when he was in character for a scam. The notion of openly showcasing his face hadn’t aligned with his previous profession.

Then, Junwoo noticed something. He saw that Mansik’s face still showed some worry.

I guess he’s been worrying a lot. I feel a little sorry.

Seeing the theater owner floundering, unable to say the obvious, he couldn’t help but laugh, even though it was inappropriate for the situation. It was a sign that he genuinely cared for Junwoo.

Junwoo himself had already sorted out how he felt about everything.

This show would be on a whole new level from the days of performing to crowds of twenty people. He anticipated that word of mouth about himself would spread from there on.

I’m not totally against it.

He had already come too far. Reflecting on it, he berated himself for having dimmed his light for too long. Mansik’s words about spending a lifetime in hiding stuck in his mind.

This was his second chance at life; how should he live it?

Mansik, who knew nothing about the thoughts swirling in Junwoo’s head, cautiously spoke up. “Hey, you know… I forgot to ask, but… are you really okay with—?”

“I’m fine. And don’t worry, I won’t make things awkward for you.”

How did he know? Sometimes, he seemed more mysterious than a ghost.

“If that’s the case, there are ways not to disclose your profile. You could go for a mysterious brand or something like that,” Mansik said jokingly.

Why did I just say that?

What the hell kind of branding was that?

The boy said calmly, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter anymore? You could go viral or end up on the news. The clips will be all over the place.”

“Oh well. It can’t be worse than dying.”

“…Are you serious?”

Junwoo turned to Mansik. It was obvious just from looking at the boy’s eyes that he wasn’t making this decision for Mansik’s sake. He really had made up his mind.

“Come on. It’d be a shame if everyone buried it.”

At that moment, it wasn’t just Junwoo who had made up his mind.

His determination and aura were palpable. Mansik felt a sudden urge to bet everything he had on this boy.

Mansik, who had become quite serious, said, “Just focus on your job and don’t worry about anything else. I’ll take care of the rest. You won’t have any problems because of a play at my theater.”

***

Back at home, Junwoo gazed at his reflection in the mirror.

I guess it is kind of long.

He ran his fingers through his hair, which cascaded down, even curling around his eyes.

Hmm…

In the days leading up to the performance, Mansik found himself extremely busy.

Frankly, he wasn’t worried about the performance itself. In fact, worry was the last thing on his mind. He was excited to see what would happen. He couldn’t wait to see the kid on stage and what kind of chemistry he’d create with Junho Gil.

He just needed to leave the kid to it, and he would take care of his end.

This production demanded a lot more effort than he had thought. It was the biggest crowd the theater had ever seen. In addition, if he wanted to be ready for the media attention, there were many things he needed to prepare in advance. Mansik was already certain; the boy wouldn’t go unnoticed.

Mansik spent several days tidying up any elements that could interfere with the performance. He prepared posters, tickets, and banners of the highest quality, and he also dealt with anything that screamed “rural theater.”

He ensured everyone was on the same page, from the other actors and extras to the lighting, directing, costume, and equipment teams, as well as the staff that Junho Gil had brought from his agency. He wanted to make sure there were no behind-the-scenes gossip or problems that could dampen the team’s morale.

This was all possible because of Mansik’s passion for the art form. He brought the same attitude and drive to every project he worked on.

Although it’s a lot this time.

Meanwhile, the online community of Junho Gil’s fans was abuzz with speculation about the upcoming play.

-Hey, did you see the lead actor’s profile?

-Yeah, a rookie, I think. Never seen him before.

-It must be a publicity stunt for an NK trainee.

Junwoo’s profile picture was plastered on the official website, his hair neatly cut and his face clean-shaven. The information section had no prior works or awards listed. The only thing on it was the name “Junwoo Han.”

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