“We adapt to the changes unfolding in today’s world”: Interview with Sarantuya Sambuu

by Savas Patsalidis*

Saint Muse international theatre festival was organized with the goal of contributing to the development of theatre art, promoting artists and increasing creative artistic competition and introducing Mongolian theatre art to the world.

Since its first appearance in 2004 as part of the national theatre festival, Saint Muse has gradually expanded to an international theatre festival, with key organizers that include Saint Muse Academy and the International Theatre Institute Mongolia, the Ministry of Culture, the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar and the Municipal Department of Culture and Arts, along with other nongovernmental and civil society organizations. Since its 11th meeting, the festival has been organized under the patronage of the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar.

Sarantuya Sambuu, Festival Director and People’s Artist of Mongolia. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

The Saint Muse festival started as a national theatre festival from 2004 through 2013, during which time it provided numerous opportunities to local theatres and productions to compete in the categories of Drama, Musical Drama and Children’s Play. The category of Monodrama was added to the festival in 2013 as it expanded to become an international theatre festival and, later, added the category of 2-person play to the 15th session of the festival.

Saint Muse 12th theatre festival awards ceremony trailer

Today, the festival has two sections, a category of full-length plays which includes drama, musical drama and children’s play and a category of short plays which includes 2-person plays and monodrama; each section has hosted plays that have won Grand Prix awards. The festival also follows a long tradition of offering masterclasses and workshops to the participants and artists. The jury consists of 7–9 people in total and reflects a wide spectrum of interests; for example, theatre criticism, art research, directing, acting, composition, musicology, literature, scenography and fine art. The festival organizers also invite jury members from abroad to participate in the guest jury.

Over the years, the festival has invited artists from Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Kosovo, Japan, Moldova, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S.A. Since 2013, several international artists have participated in the festival as performers in their respective productions and represent a wide array of countries such as Russia, Buryatia, Yakutia, Inner Mongolia, Kosovo, Canada, Serbia, Korea, Estonia, Switzerland, Greece, Poland, Germany, Argentina, Ukraine, Italy, Austria, India, Spain, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, North Macedonia, Romania and Georgia.

Saint Muse 16th awards ceremony opening. Left, Ms Sarantuya Sambuu, President of Saint Muse Academy and the festival director, and on the right, Boloroo Nayanbaatar, President of ITI-Mongolia. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

Ms Sarantuya Sambuu, you are an esteemed actress, so what tempted you to accept the position of the artistic director of Saint Muse International Theatre Festival?

The festival was not only my dream;  it was also the dream of all the members of the Saint Muse Academy. We had discussed at length what we could do to assist the Mongolian theatre artists to develop professionally, and we agreed that professional review and evaluation of their work would help the artists position themselves professionally and chart their progress as compared to artists abroad. The festival then became a means for us to achieve this goal.

Saint Muse 15th edition: award winner Hanna Yaremchuk monodrama performance in Lady Capulet. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

The pandemic has irrevocably changed theatre everywhere. It has changed the way we think about live performances; it has forced theatre makers to experiment with multimedia and transmedia forms. As an organization, what has your festival learned during these past two years?

I would sum it up as follows: we applaud technique and technological advances .  .  .  yet theatre is LIVE communication. Stage and audience are inseparable;  between the actor and audience, feelings and emotions flow that strongly connect them. A theatre artist is one who labors hard to master the feeling, that is the live connection with the audience, and racks his/her brain constantly to achieve it. No technology can replace such a wonderful live connection created from heart of those on stage and directed to the heart of those watching.

Saint Muse 14th edition: participants in the Children’s play category from Korea and the facilitator of “Physical Theater” masterclass So Jeon Kim. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

How has your festival grown since the time when you became the artistic director?

In 2001, for the first time in Mongolia, we organized an international theatre festival which we called New Theatre Trends in Mongolia. We did this in cooperation with the International Theatre Institute. Then, in 2005, we organized the second session of the same festival. Following these early festivals, in 2010 we organized another international theatre festival, Theatre – Child – Future. The unique feature of these festivals is that they offered more than just performances; they also included activities like masterclasses, workshops and conferences focusing on modern trends, projects for children and discussion of their development.

The former President of ITI-Mongolia, Ms Suvd Namsrai, provided support and valuable advice that really helped us organize these festivals successfully. Through her support we were able to invite notable figures from the international theatre community. Based on the experience gained from the 2001 festival, the Saint Muse Academy was able to launch the first session of the Saint Muse theatre festival in 2003, and today we are celebrating the 16th session. During these 19 years, we have faced many challenges as well as experienced many successes. The most important achievement today is that we have both artists and audience who eagerly await each new festival session.

Saint Muse 13th edition: Ms. Suvd Namsrai arriving to the awards ceremony. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

Taking bold steps, in 2013 we expanded the festival to include international artists; since then, the festival has become very well known among artists internationally, and their willingness to participate in the festival has been increasing each year. I think the participation of local and international artists with their performances indicates that the festival is evolving in the right direction. Personally, I think some concrete support from the international theatre community would be a great encouragement and assistance to us, specifically by covering the festival with their articles, reviews and other publications.

Speaking of support, what kinds of financial assistance do you receive? Does your festival survive exclusively on State funding, or are you funded by other sources as well?

Every session of the festival has been challenged by financial difficulties. However, as organizers we understand the importance and benefits of the festival to the theatre community in Mongolia; therefore, we do all we can to raise funds. Various business owners and individuals who are passionate about theatre help us with their donations. Since 2013, when the festival first became an international theatre event, the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar has accepted our proposal to partner and has provided some financial support as the patron of the festival. More specifically, 30%–40% of the total cost of the festival is provided by the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, 10% from the Ministry of Culture and the rest from funds which we raise ourselves.

Creating theatre is collective work. Many tasks must be completed over a very short period of time. Your festival is growing and so is the number of people who are on your team. Could you describe this team and characterize the support they have given you?  

Our team at Saint Muse Academy has 11 volunteers who do all the work of the festival. We have managers in charge of the office, publications and marketing, fundraising, international relations, internal organizations and so on, and each member knows exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. This year, we had a little difficulty because three of our members were not able to work during the festival due to personal reasons. So, the responsibilities were divided among the others, and none of our members complained about extra workload. In fact, they completed each of the tasks they were asked to do. I feel very proud when I point out that we have already become a strong team, united around the same goal and eager to make sure that we do our jobs well.

Saint Muse 14th edition: international theatre festival Press Conference. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

How do you measure the success of your choices? What challenges have you encountered?

The biggest challenges we have encountered are related to fundraising, and we are constantly endeavoring to overcome this obstacle. One of the most important roles of the festival is to encourage artists by professionally evaluating their work. To this end, we recruit professionals already accepted by the public as authorities in their field. For example, we have renowned professors and researchers, theatre critics, directors, artists, composers, playwrights and actors working in the jury.

Saint Muse 2012 jury members. In the middle, guest jury Nina Mazur; on the right, jury member famous Mongolian actress Ms Suvd Namsrai; and behind them, jury member scenographer S. Ariunbold. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

What is the most valuable lesson that you learned from your experience  at the helm of the festival? Do you have any regrets? If you had the chance to go back and do things all over again, what would you do differently?

In my view, the very essence of the festival is to have both the audience and the theatre artists understand the underlying goals and objectives of the festival: to grasp the necessity of conducting a thorough review of the performances and delivering honest and professional judgement. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to keep my goal in mind always and make sure that the jury carries out its duties with dignity and professionalism.

For you, what is the most difficult aspect of being a festival director? What skills does one need to be able to work as an artistic director, especially in a festival venture like this which is trying to make its presence felt?

Because I am an actress myself, I respect the labor that goes into creating art; I also know the artists’ attitude towards their creation. If I could, I would give an award to everyone of the participants. However, this is impossible and also unfair; the one who is exceptionally good or better than the others should receive the award. It is sad to see that during the award ceremony there are some who are excited and happy while others seem upset or sad because they haven’t received awards. During the award ceremony, I get the feeling that all the eyes are staring at me, and it is quite difficult to handle.

Sun Seal with Eye, musical drama performance, Dornod Musical Drama Theatre, Saint Muse 16th edition. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

Personal feelings aside, the festival is organized in two phases. During the first phase, we receive applications from the theatres, productions and freelance artists and see each of the performances to select performances and suggest which artists to invite. We form a team, which I lead, from among the jury members, and we conduct the first review phase. I have worked in the theatre for more than 40 years as an actress, I have received the highest honors from the state and have been distinguished as “People’s Artist.” In addition, I have taught acting at the Finer Arts university for over 10 years and have worked as director of more than 10 plays. My knowledge and experience allow me to lead this team during the first phase, which is review and selection.

Crime and Punishment, Orphey theatre, Saint Muse 16th edition. D. Gantsetseg won the best actress award for her role of state prosecutor. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

Many artistic directors have a vision, something they would like to realize, to leave behind before moving on to something else. What is your vision, or dream if you wish?

The concept of artistic director is widely used by the independent theatre and also by production and established organizations. In my case, please understand, with all due respect, that I’m answering your questions not as an artistic director but as the head of the festival. Our dream is for our festival Saint Muse to gain fame among the international theatre community as a place where the best quality performances and artists come together under one roof called “Theatre,” enjoy increased opportunities to learn from each others’ cultural differences and create opportunities for collaborative projects. In sum, we believe that the festival offers numerous opportunities to create an artistic environment which enables mutual learning and understanding.

Saint Muse 12th edition: introducing Mongolian tradition of “ger theatre” and storytelling to the festival participants. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

As you have made numerous references to the international aspect of the festival,  I’m wondering how you incorporate current trends and technologies into your festival organization.

Since we have expanded as an international theatre festival, we have organized masterclasses and workshops for the benefit of participating local artists, in addition to allowing all participants to see the performances. In order words, we try to focus on developing skills and promoting an understanding of modern theatre trends and developments so that we all function at the same level.

B. Odonchimeg in the monodrama Looking Through a Window. Saint Muse 10th edition. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

One of our most notable achievements is the introduction of monodrama as an independent category of the festival; monodrama is now one of the most competitive categories of the festival. It also allows Mongolian artists to participate in the international monodrama festivals, some of which have received awards at international festivals.

Being a critic myself, I am tempted to ask whether or not the festival gets enough attention from critics.

Although some reviews have been published by theatre critics, in my opinion, these are not enough. There are many reasons as to why this is the case; perhaps the fact that reviewers are not paid might be an issue. I believe, however, that theatre criticism is essential in assisting theatre artists to develop and improve their work.

Theatre Criticism/Reviewing and Modern Trends: masterclass for theatre critics and researchers, Saint Muse 16th edition, facilitator Prof. Savas Patsalidis. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

How would you describe the role of the theatre in Mongolian life today?

I believe that theatre plays a very important role in the development of the country, especially in social terms. Since the establishment of a professional theatre in Mongolia in 1931, theatre has assumed an important role in helping the public understand the changes happening around them and being part of the change. There were many creations that encouraged people to build a new society and become literate; for example, plays that showed the transition from a local nomadic lifestyle and culture to a sedentary culture, or plays that dramatized alternative ways of thinking. Today, the theatre still helps the viewer see him/herself and also understand the changes happening in the community as well as cope with these changes.

Are you satisfied with the festival’s intercultural exchange?

The culture of a country is expressed in many different forms at different times and places. The complex and multifaceted nature of culture brings human beings closer. The foundation of intercultural exchange is the acceptance of different cultures that coexist and the respect for diverse expressions of differences. I believe that the Saint Muse festival is integral in promoting the acceptance of different cultures and their diverse expressions; it brings together people of different cultural backgrounds and promotes mutual respect. It also encourages intercultural exchange by allowing the artists to learn from each other and through mutual learning to strengthen and restore cultural heritage. I believe that the festival has contributed to the restoration of Mongolian culture as more and more artists from abroad are eager to learn and understand more; it both encourages and requires local artists to dig deeper into the past and learn our own culture, which we often take for granted.

Saint Muse 12th edition: workshop on writing monodrama, facilitator Nina Mazur. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

And now, a question that somehow summarizes what we have been discussing: given that this is the 16th session of the Saint Muse International Theatre Festival, do you observe any major change over the course of so many sessions? Do you think the festival has kept its early promise from 2003, the inauguration year, to promote theatre and encourage professional theatre artists to compete with their best performances in a shared space in order to learn from each other?

Although the worldwide pandemic closed down theatres, it didn’t restrict or imprison the artists’ creative nature. They continued looking for new ways to reach out to their audience. So, the virtual platforms have become a key innovation of this era and clearly demonstrate that nothing can stop artists from creating, as our own local artists have also come to understand. I cannot say that we have never had any challenges or obstacles since the first session of the festival. But we have always endeavored to reach out to more artists and inform them of the goals of the festival, to help them see why it is important for them. Nowadays, the festival is well known and valued by the theatre artists and the public alike. We are working hard to acknowledge and also adapt to the changes unfolding in today’s world.

What steps did you take to transform the festival from a local to an international event?

It was always our most heartfelt dream to expand the festival from a national to an international theatre festival; to realize our dream, we completed a wide range of tasks. For example, we researched several international theatre festivals and defined the specific features of our festival in order to clarify our identity, we joined the ITI International Festival Forum and thus moved the festival into the international theatre community, we introduced monodrama as independent category as a means to increase international participation, and we organized extensive masterclasses to introduce the genre of monodrama to the local artists. Before undertaking such an ambitious set of tasks, we needed to deepen our understanding of monodrama as a genre, so I decided to conduct my own research and create my own monodrama to participate in the monodrama festival in Poland 2009 for the first time. Since then, we have organized several masterclasses and translated monodrama scripts into Mongolian and, later, organized a competition among the artists, the winner of which was also sent to the monodrama festival abroad.

Lady Macbeth,  monodrama performed in Poland 2009 and in UAE 2016. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

After completing these preparatory tasks, in 2013 we were able to organize the festival as an international theatre festival. The most visible influence of the festival is the fact that monodrama has been accepted by the audience as well as the artists. Finally, the most valuable and influential activity set of the festival is the masterclass and workshop combination that we always include in our festival.

Human-deer with B. Odgerel, award winner as best actress in the category of two-character play. Saint Muse 16th edition. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

How difficult is it to get groups from Europe or the U.S. to come to the festival? It is quite an expensive trip and not many groups can afford it.

This is the most difficult aspect of our work. There have been many cases in which the artists invited to the festival were not able to participate due to the expense of international travel. This year a few theatre groups could not come because of high costs of airfare; as a result, the festival accepted videos of their performances. It was quite difficult for the jury to evaluate these videos as compared to live performances. It is something that we must consider for future festivals and find a reasonable and just solution.

As we begin to think about life after the pandemic, what do you think will come next for theatre in Mongolia and for your festival, in particular?

Despite many challenges, we have continued to organize our festival up through the present. We try different approaches as the current circumstances allow us. The festival is organized every two years, so the previous session was organized in 2020. Because of the pandemic lockdown and restrictions, we offered our program online. Nevertheless, it seemed incomplete because the theatre is a live art and thus requires live communication. I think we will always keep live performances and somehow find ways to keep the unique feature of theatre art in the festival.

What do you think is urgently needed in Mongolian theatre?

It’s only my opinion, and others may disagree, but I would say that good playwrights and good directors are needed urgently in Mongolian theatre today.

Do you get enough audience support during the festival?

It depends on the quality of the performances participating in the festival. Still, we have a large group of people who love theatre.

Festivals have always been part of city life or at least the effort is made to integrate festivals in the urban experience. Do you think of Saint Muse as part of the city? Does it merge with the city or does it stand apart as a separate artistic center?

Saint Muse Academy is a non-governmental and not-for-profit organization that serves society. All the activities are aimed towards professional theatre artists and are organized in cooperation with and through the support of individuals who love theatre and organizations with the same goals as the theatres. I think the fact that the festival has received funds from the municipal government since 2013 is an indication that the festival has already become an integral part of the city.

How difficult is for people who do not live in Ulaanbaatar to attend your festival?

Your question is related to the issue of travel costs. Given the fact that theatre groups outside Ulaanbaatar come to the capital with performances that require many artists, as these are mainly drama, musical plays and children’s play, in addition to the monodrama, travel to and accommodation in Ulaanbaatar is usually very expensive. At the beginning, finding funds to accommodate such costs was the most difficult task for us. Now, local governments are familiar with the festival and understand the importance of having their local theatres participate in the festival; thus, they have created budgets for their theatre groups which enables them to participate in the festival.

Saint Muse 14th edition: Grand Prix winners, Talking Tree, Dornod Musical Drama Theatre production. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

Almost every country uses art and sports to showcase their developments in the world; likewise, the development of local theatres reflects the development of the corresponding provinces. I strongly believe that the festival has become a platform eagerly awaited not only by Mongolian artists but by artists worldwide.

Saint Muse 12th edition:  Grand Prix winners with the musical play Galdan Boshigt, Khovd Musical Drama Theatre. Photo: Saint Muse Academy

Last but not least, I would like to inquire how your decisions and preferences might be shaped by political or governmental influences. Are you free to manage the festival however you think most appropriate and useful?

I emphasize that we do not allow political or governmental interventions to influence the decisions made by our jury. From the very outset, we all agreed that the festival would be independent in its choices and decisions, and we would not allow any interference from political or governmental entities; rather, we would adhere strictly to the professional judgement of those involved. Over the years, we have kept that promise, and we have not allowed our festival to be influenced by politicians and/or government officials in the decisions and choices we make as to who participates and what performances will be shown, nor are government officials involved in who will receive awards.

Those interested can find more plays from Saint Muse 15th edition on the festival’s Youtube channel here. They can also follow the festival Facebook page.

NOTE: Translated from Mongolian by Boloroo Nayanbaatar. 

*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of Theatre Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. His latest book-length study Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published in 2019 by University Studio Press. He has just finished a book on comedy (Comedy’s Encomium) which will be published in 2022 by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for various ejournals. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Forest Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece) and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

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