Saint Muse Theater Festival Ulan Bator, Mongolia An Adventure In Outer And Inner Expansiveness

by Elizabeth Hess

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

I arrived – after a day and a half of travel – at the airport in Ulan Bator (known as UB), Mongolia and was met by my translator, Boloroo. Somehow throughout all our e-mail correspondence over the previous months I had assumed Boloroo was a man – since the name ended in the masculine ‘o’, not the feminine ‘a’ like Sarantuya, as in the name of the woman who was the president of Saint Muse Academy. It was Sarantuya who had invited me to be a judge in the monodrama division of the international theater festival and Boloroo was her ‘right hand man’ who now stood at the arrival gate with my name on a sign – a strikingly handsome woman standing next to our driver, indeed a man, with a silky long braid down his back.

I soon discovered that Mongolia would upend many of my embedded assumptions.

The culture is primarily matriarchal. AND YET, I was whisked off to a beauty salon, along with other key women in the festival, to get ‘all dolled up’ for the festival’s award ceremony.

The country’s roots are nomadic. AND YET, traffic in UB is so jammed that drivers inch forward in quick bursts of confrontation like Genghis Khan warriors advancing on the enemy.

The landscape is vast and expansive beyond the hills that circle the city. AND YET, concrete apartment blocks, wooden shacks and cloth gers (know in the West as yurts) bump up against each other in such a mish-mash, that landmarks, not street names, are used to give directions.

The prevailing religion is Buddhism. AND YET, the monasteries are riddled with tourists and practitioners, some of whom offer prayers and small donations, but most of whom snap pictures of deities and/or selfies with monks on their smart phones.

The Saint Muse Theater Festival – which also includes musicals, dramas and children’s plays as well as solo works – is a major cultural event in UB, now in its 11th year. The week-long presentation of performances culminates in a red-carpet Awards Ceremony covered by all the major press and TV networks. It feels somehow surreal – like stepping into a Hollywood scene transposed to Mongolia!  I am woefully underdressed for the occasion – as people parade in elaborate gowns and black tie – and I’m just glad I at least packed a little black dress at the last minute.

This glamorous and glittering event is, in some ways, not accidental since the Mongolian theater community is eager to enter into, and expand its role on the international stage. So it is not surprising that they mirror existing and outsized international role models. They are thus curious to learn a little something about the unadvertised realities of the American theater scene – that, for example, we do not have a National Theater where artists are life-long members – and they wonder how actors secure work. I tell them that we create a lot of our own opportunities and that this is in part why I myself started to do solo work, as it was a relatively inexpensive way to share my voice and vision.

Solo work is relatively new to Mongolia and some of the pieces I saw by UB performers were translations of existing material such as ‘4:48 Psychosis’ by Sarah Kane and ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ by Samuel Beckett. There was also a Russian adaptation of ‘The Human Voice’ by Jean Cocteau. There were however also original pieces from Mongolia, Serbia and Russia that ranged from naturalism to heightened realism. Much of the acting was deeply engaged emotionally and physically alive and embodied. Thus even with the language barrier I was able to enter into the spirit of the work (with the help of my brilliant translator, Boloroo).

I was particularly entranced by a piece called ‘Melody from Heaven’ based on a Mongolian folktale. The performer used extended voice and stylized gesture (accompanied by a throat-singer who also played a horse-head fiddle) to advance her narrative about the dynamic struggle between human and divine energies. The piece invoked a genuine theatricality that led to transformative and moving story-telling. This folktale, like many Mongolian folktales, inhabited animal essences and elements of nature as autonomous and animated spirit figures. This orientation felt resonant with Native American Indian tales and I soon discovered, during several casual conversations, that Mongolians believe their ancestors crossed over the Bering Strait into Alaska and beyond, and thus share similar mythologies.

This brings me back to the notion of Mongolia as also being a matriarchal society.

Sarantuya’s inner circle of festival staff was comprised entirely of women. It is not that the men were not present – they were, and often in a gregarious, yet supportive and relaxed way – but there was no question that the fierce grace of the women held sway. I began to realize that a chthonic, non-linear frame of mind informed the culture at large – that the seeming dichotomy between effectiveness and affectation; roaming and restriction; expansiveness and invasiveness; spirituality and irreverence was embraced as a reflection of non-duality. My own understanding of one side of things, AND YET their opposite began to dissolve into an indivisible whole – a whole I experienced as being very complex and layered in UB, and remarkably clear and simple on my last day, when I ventured beyond the surrounding hills where the steppes unfolded in all their naked grandeur.

Elizabeth Hess’ acclaimed solo work has been performed around the globe: DUST TO DUST in Bucharest, Kiel, Stockholm, Prishtina and New York at the LPTW New Play Festival, New World Stages; Stage Left Studio and the UN Conference on Gender Violence; LIVING OPENLY & NOTORIOUSLY, a solo trilogy – BIRTH RITE, DESCENT, AT/ONE in Berlin, Bath, Barcelona, Edinburgh, Toronto, Yerevan and New York, Off-Broadway. Other New York acting credits include work with The New Group, Women’s Project, Irish Rep, MTC and NYTW. She has also worked extensively in regional theaters.

TV credits include: 5 seasons starring on Clarissa Explains It All; Law & Order; Guiding Light; All My Children and Another World. Film credits include: Handsome Harry; A Bedtime Story; Italian Lessons; Buddy & Grace and Soldier’s Heart.

Elizabeth is currently developing several plays and projects: SPOILED?, a solo work based on VAW in India/US; NO EVIL, a triptych of fabulist tales – PERFECT CURIOSITY, MELTDOWN, SALVAGED – developed at The O’Neill Center; NOMADS, a heightened realist work – developed at The New Group and The Lark; SCARBERIA, ten performative prose/poems. She is also writing a book, THE ACT OF BEING, based on her methodology culled from teaching acting/playwriting at New York University, National Theater Institute (The O’Neill), Fordham University, New York Theater Intensives, New YorkSumerSchool of the Arts and Master Classes internationally.

Elizabeth is the recipient of a Madolin Cervantes Grant; ITI Armmono Festival Director’s Award; ITI Thespis Mono Festival Organizers and Audience Awards. Internationally, she was also an ACULSPEC (American Cultural Specialist) in Yerevan, Armenia where she taught master classes in playwriting and performance; participated in the ITI / UNESCO Conference in Manila, The Philippines; sat on the jury of the ITI Thespis Mono Festival in Kiel, Germany and Saint Muse Festival in Ulan Bator, Mongolia and conducted a playwriting / acting workshop in Prishtina, Kosovo, resulting in the devised work, INTERNALLY DISPLACED.