Subject: AGE: East Timor, You're Standing In It

The Age (Melbourne)

July 25, 2003 Friday

East Timor, You're Standing In It

Carolyn Webb

Laughter is not something that comes readily to mind when you think of East Timor. Since 1992, at least five "serious" plays have looked at issues such as Indonesian occupation, mass murder and emigration in relation to the tiny south Asian nation.

Until now, no one has attempted a comedy. But Melbourne playwright Graham Pitts has written a series of sketches based on personal stories of East Timorese people called The East Timorese Comedy Project.

The director, Robin Laurie, says it is also a vehicle to develop the performance skills of the four expatriate East Timorese actors - Ines Araujo, Jose Mesquita, Cidalia Pires and her brother Jose Pires - all of whom have appeared in several "straight" plays about East Timor.

Cidalia was praised for her lead role as Marianna, a traumatised former freedom fighter in Mavis Goes to Timor at the CUB Malthouse courtyard last year.

Laurie was an original member of the Pram Factory performance troupe, a co-founder of Circus Oz and has created theatre with the Italian, Arab, Aboriginal and Filipino communities. Last year, she directed Kan Yama Kan, based on the stories of Central Asian and Middle Eastern refugees.

It was in 1997 that she first worked with the actors in the East Timorese Comedy Project. They were among more than 20 East Timorese people that took part in dance, writing, music and performance workshops, culminating in the play Sweet Flowers (Ai Funan Midar), about expatriates dreaming about returning to a free East Timor. In 2000, some of the actors went with Laurie to East Timor to record a CD of traditional music.

Laurie came up with the comedy idea because "whenever I work with the East Timorese, we always laugh a lot. And sometimes I think that people who've suffered the most also know how to laugh the most".

She felt comedy was a way of saying things that were otherwise unmentionable. "You can tackle difficult and dangerous things with comedy. I thought that maybe comic skills might be a way to begin to look at reconciliation processes of various kinds, between different groups, within East Timor, or here."

Pires says Timorese people "have always used humour . . . to deal with, I suppose, the situations that they were involved in. It gets to the point where it makes the other person cry, but they don't care, as long as it's funny. It can get to the point where it's not funny. The Westerners might not find it funny, but to them it is hilarious".

Laurie adds: "It can be quite black at times . . . which isn't to say there isn't a place for acknowledging suffering and grief, and all those sorts of things, but here is another part of it." The cast believe the audience will let them know if they cross the line.

One sketch examines what might be going through the mind of a militia leader who is burning East Timorese houses. "We laugh at what they're thinking, the way they think and how they deal with situations," Cidalia says.

Another source of humour is the experience for the first time and the disparity between the expatriates' dreams and reality.

Cidalia and Jose Pires both returned to East Timor in 2000. They had been one and eight years old, respectively, when in 1975 they fled with family to Australia. Cidalia says she grew up thinking of East Timor as "a paradise" full of palm trees and traditional houses, and was stunned when she found gutted buildings, no electricity and no running water in the capital, Dili.

Jose says that in Australia, he had "always felt I was East Timorese, 100 per cent", and at school was teased for his darker skin. But in Dili, locals called him "foreigner" for his light skin (his grandfather was Portuguese) and smart clothes.

The Pireses had imagined loved ones rejoicing at their return; instead, they fought with their relatives over ownership of property.

Laurie says The East Timorese Comedy Project is very much a work in progress. After each performance, the audience is encouraged to contribute their own stories, to give feedback and make suggestions.

The East Timorese Comedy Project, Gasworks Theatre, 21 Graham Street, Albert Park, July 25 at 7.30pm and July 26 at 2pm and 7.30pm. Inquiries: 9699 3253

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