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A Thousand Faces

9

Chapter 9

2

Darkness enveloped the stage. Slowly, the lights came on.

Junwoo closed his eyes. It was his first time acting in front of an audience with the intention of being seen.

Less than twenty people were in the auditorium, scattered somewhat haphazardly across the seats. Some were texting while others were already nodding off, possibly having lost hope after seeing the arrival of an actor they neither knew nor recognized. The majority had come to make the most of their time, unwilling to waste the ticket they’d bought or the money spent on nearby accommodations.

Junwoo stood at the center of the stage. He lifted his head, the spotlight revealing his face.

“I’m still trapped in the past. Now that I’ve lost you, the world is nothing but darkness and silence.”

It was a sorrowful farewell to his beloved.

An audience member, absentmindedly resting his chin on his hand, jerked his head up. The young actor’s innocent face contrasted sharply with the emotions in his voice.

This scene involved a long, introspective monologue. The original lead had struggled with it during rehearsals. From the first encounter with a lover to the moment of first love, initial separation, reunion, crisis, and ultimately bidding farewell with her death—every moment of the long time spent with the lover had to be portrayed solo.

The only prop was a chair placed at the center. The crucial point of this scene was to dynamically convey emotions, each shift marked by the passage of time.

“The moment I first laid eyes on you, it felt like time froze. I’d never felt that way before. It was like I was born again.”

His gaze lingered. The sad expression from a moment ago was completely gone.

Quivering eyes, frozen limbs, hitched breath—his entire body expressed how smitten he was at first sight. To the audience, it felt as though a real couple stood before them.

Blink.

The spotlight changed color.

“The moment you held my hand and smiled…”

Junwoo’s hand rested on his chest, feeling his own heartbeat. Walking to the left side of the stage, he seamlessly transitioned into a new emotional state.

With just a few lines, Junwoo’s changed expression and voice conveyed the moment he first fell in love. The audience began to sit up, gradually becoming more engaged. Each shift in the lighting transported them to a new location and time.

“The first goodbye. I couldn’t do anything. Nothing at all…”

Junwoo’s voice trembled with unbearable pain as he knelt, fingers clutching the floor. As he rose, the chair toppled, symbolizing the character’s shattered emotions.

Blink.

“You and I were living in completely different worlds. My past, struggles, decisions I had no choice but to make. You never understood any of it. How could you say those things? You were everything to me!”

This time, his words conveyed a soul that felt utterly misunderstood.

Every line was underscored by his expressions—resentment, anger, pathos, loneliness—in rapid succession. Though the scene lasted mere minutes, every emotion resonated powerfully.

Breathless, the audience couldn’t take their eyes off Junwoo. The theater seemed frozen in time, silent, save for his performance.

Backstage, Mansik watched with awe. He was confident Junwoo would do well, but he hadn’t expected it to be this impactful. Initially an observer, the theater owner had now become an enraptured audience member.

The employee next to him was in disbelief, his mouth hanging open. He blurted out, “Where on earth did you find this freak?”

But Mansik, absorbed in the play, heard nothing.

Though Junwoo’s acting wasn’t technically perfect, with poor enunciation, breathing, and other techniques, Mansik didn’t care. Like everyone else in the theater, he was mesmerized by the performance.

A realization dawned on him. He had been focused on wondering how long it would take the kid to memorize and learn the script, but now he saw how meaningless that was.

This goes beyond memorization.

This kid was making the character his own, embodying all aspects of their life. Even the lines changed subtly with each surge of emotion. Mansik was so engrossed he hadn’t even noticed.

In fact, it felt as if the character himself spoke through him. The portrayal was so convincing it was hard to believe he was acting. Was this really the work of a seventeen-year-old novice?

Unlike the rehearsal room, there was only one prop—a chair. Yet Junwoo’s delicate movements made it seem like he was opening doors, holding bouquets, as if the space were filled with invisible set pieces.

“As your death slowly approaches…”

They were halfway through the first act. A supporting character entered the stage.

By the end of the final scene, just before intermission, the supporting actor succumbed to illness and collapsed onto the stage floor.

“Don’t go, Ellie. Please,” Junwoo begged, embracing the actor’s limp form.

“I have to be honest,” croaked the rookie actor playing Ellie. “There’s… something I couldn’t bring myself to say back then…”

A look of surprise crossed the actor’s face.

“A-And the… the reason is…” she stammered.

Even Mansik was taken aback. It was a mistake—a forgotten line. Such blunders were common for novice actors, but in live theater, there was no room for error.

“…is…”

If an actor flubbed their line, they had to continue as if nothing happened. But despite her initial stumble, she kept faltering through the same line.

It could have been a flawless performance.

Then, just as Mansik was sliding his hand down his face…

“No, don’t say it.”

It wasn’t Junwoo’s cue yet.

When Mansik looked up again, the supporting actor’s face was buried in Junwoo’s embrace. Junwoo’s shoulders trembled as he held her close.

“You don’t have to say any more. I know. So now…”

Mansik couldn’t tear his eyes away.

He’s deliberately stirring up emotions, distracting the audience.

The supporting actor’s dying words now seemed like a final gasp of breath, purposely stuttered for dramatic effect. Her body, slumped in Junwoo’s arms, showed the complete stillness of death.

The scene would have felt incomplete if the rookie actor’s face, once contorted in panic, hadn’t settled into stillness after her character’s passing. Tears rolled down Junwoo’s cheeks as if he couldn’t come to terms with the loss.

It was an unbelievably quick judgment call for his age. Mansik was practically bursting with admiration.

Sniffling could be heard from the audience. The altered scene had created a more dramatic ending than the original script ever intended.

As soon as the lights dimmed, the audience rose to their feet, breaking into applause. Such a reaction was unusual for the end of the first act. The play wasn’t even over yet.

In contrast, Mansik and the staff stood there in a daze. The curtain had fallen, but they remained frozen in place, unable to shake off the impact of the mysterious boy who had suddenly appeared.

“This was prepared in just twelve hours?”

Typically, actors needed over two weeks just to analyze and understand their characters. Memorizing lines, practicing, and coordinating movements with props came next.

Twelve hours. Usually, that was barely enough time to mull over the lines one had just memorized. But to cover for a supporting actor’s mistake on the fly?

“I can’t believe it.”

“You’re telling me.”

“He said he’s seventeen, right?”

“Yeah, that’s hard to believe, too.”

“What’s a seventeen-year-old know about love? How’d he prepare for that kind of performance in such a short time?”

“He didn’t just prepare his acting,” Mansik pointed out to his dazed staff members.

“What?”

“Didn’t you notice? He changed everything—the stage concept, chair sizes, movements, lighting colors. It’s all his doing.”

“Oh, I just realized… Wait a minute. Are you serious? And you let him?”

The staff gaped at Mansik.

“Yeah, well, he was banging on about how the emotions are supposed to be like this here, the lines should be delivered like that there,” Mansik replied. “And that some things are downright incomprehensible? Ah, I don’t know. Anyway, one thing’s for sure—he’s better than anyone here.”

Backstage, before the start of the second act, Junwoo was catching his breath in the dressing room. His eyes widened. What was this feeling?

His heart raced, accompanied by an unfamiliar sensation he couldn’t quite place.

This wasn’t his first time acting. Even in his past life, when he had roamed with his “fathers,” he had played numerous roles. He wasn’t oblivious to his innate talent.

But this time was different. It was more than just a fun pastime.

The moment he had stepped onto the stage and looked down at the audience, their focused gazes were all on him. Then, moved to tears, they wept without restraint. As emotions peaked, it felt as though everyone in the theater, including himself, had briefly journeyed to another world. It was strange, but it certainly wasn’t a bad feeling.

A second life.

He had vowed to abandon everything and give up his name. He had believed that was the only way he could live.

Is this really possible?

Now, he realized how foolishly he had spent the past few years, hiding away.

I wonder what Ilnam would say if he saw me?

The dressing room door burst open. The rookie supporting actor, still trembling from her mistake, looked startled as Mansik entered. She quickly hid her deer-in-the-headlights expression as she lowered her head.

“I’m sorry. I was just so thrown off…”

Mansik whirled away from her toward Junwoo, who looked back at him in confusion.

“You bastard!” Mansik yelled, beaming. “You were just playing hard to get, weren’t you?! You knew you were this good all along!”

The theater owner’s grin was a stark contrast to the stern warning the rookie supporting actor had been expecting. Mansik quickly soothed the tearful rookie, who looked utterly confused, before turning back to Junwoo and grabbing his shoulders.

“I’m gonna be sick!” Junwoo said, brushing Mansik away as he began shaking him excitedly.

It was then that Mansik realized Junwoo stood empty-handed. Meanwhile, the supporting actor was carefully reviewing the script in case she made another mistake.

“Why aren’t you reviewing your lines? You’re going on soon,” Mansik said.

“I didn’t bring them.”

“Huh. I guess you don’t need to anymore. But that’s no attitude for a rookie. Acting all high and mighty now that you’ve gotten the role, eh? Unbelievable.”

But Mansik’s tone wasn’t angry. In fact, his smile was so wide it practically split his face.

Junwoo glanced briefly at the rookie, who was murmuring as she read. “I just don’t want to be trapped by the lines.”

“What?! What’re you going on about now?”

Hang on. Mansik felt like he had heard those words before.

It was back when he used to attend industry events before establishing the theater. Mansik recalled something a big-name actor, Minsu Jeong, had said during an interview at a premier.

“Preparation means carrying the character in your heart. If you keep your nose buried in the script on set, you unknowingly get trapped by the lines. Just by understanding the character’s emotions, the lines come out naturally. That’s why I purposely try not to look at the script on set. Haha. It’s an unfortunate thing. But with over twenty years in the acting business, I’ve come to realize…”

Minsu Jeong, a distinguished actor with over twenty major features, was well-regarded. Now, the words of an old hat with decades of experience were coming from the mouth of a kid who had just finished the first act of his debut play. While it could sound boastful, strangely, it didn’t at all.

Why do I sense expertise in that one statement?

“And I couldn’t get my head around all the terms in there,” Junwoo added.

Right. The kid still didn’t really know stage jargon properly.

Mansik blamed himself for blindly tossing the script at him without explaining anything. Where should he start, and how? He wasn’t yet skilled enough to start making heavy edits himself.

Mansik racked his brains for a way to help.

“Sir.”

As Junwoo called out to him, Mansik, who had been lost in thought, raised his head.

“I’ll be back.”

Junwoo, smiling at Mansik, turned toward the door. There was a subtle gleam in his eyes that hadn’t been there before he stepped on stage.

Act two.

After the first act, the audience had prepared themselves to focus on the performance. When Junwoo appeared, their eyes filled with anticipation, eager for what he would unveil next. Even those who had been settling in to nap at the back found their way to the vacant front row.

What followed transcended words. Junwoo depicted the character’s tumultuous life—pain and hope, despair and ecstasy—with unmatched depth. It was a performance that surpassed perfection, blurring the lines between acting and directing.

Completely engrossed, the audience laughed, sobbed, and held their breath throughout the scenes.

As the curtain rose for the final time, applause and cheers thundered through the theater. A single spotlight illuminated Junwoo, standing at the center of the stage.

“Wow. Who is that? Never seen him before.”

“Dunno. But hey, he’s good-looking, too. Where’d he come from?”

“What’s someone like him doing here? Did you catch his name?”

“No, I didn’t. You think he’s an industry plant?”

It was only after the play ended that questions about Junwoo’s sudden appearance began to ripple through the audience.

And…

Among them, a figure wearing a hat thought, I’ve finally found you.

This observer hadn’t taken their eyes off Junwoo from the moment the lights turned on.

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