Subject: ABC: Have mask will travel to East Timor

Have mask will travel to East Timor

Thursday, 15 September  2005

Reporter: Margot Edwards

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Margot Edwards travelled from south west Western Australia to East Timor to work with fellow theatre artists in developing theatre in the newly independent country. The trip was funded in part by ArtsWA. This is her account of the experience.

On a wet blustery day in August, we complete the hectic fifth round of playbuilding workshops with Year 9/10 students at Australind Senior High, as we prepare for the Big Play Out at the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre on the 2nd of September.

Before leaving, I race back into the office to find drama teacher, Janine Beecham. "Do you have any neutral masks I can take to a theatre retreat next week in East Timor?" I plead. "Sure, take the lot," she says. "We're due for some new ones."

I open her drawer to find 12 simple white masks staring blankly ahead. I scoop them up with gratitude and relief, the latest in a string of donations for this upcoming journey, to teach theatre and writing to 50 young performers (aged 15-30) in East Timor the following week.

Thus the journey in mask begins, heading for Loke Kurtina - Opening the Curtains on theatre for young people, held at a Catholic convent on a hillside perched above the Suwa Sea and the township of Maubara, a 90 minute drive west of Dili.

On arrival, I open my workshop suitcase. Slender brown fingers immediately slide several masks from their blank pile. These first masks to venture out continue to make random appearances during the week: at morning and evening seminars on the past, present and future of East Timorese theatre; as late night ghosts at sweaty dance sessions; as living mannequins at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My efforts to photograph the angelic masked face of a10 year old local boy who watches a busy cane puppet making workshop (by fellow WA artist Sandy McKendrick), come to nil. But the visual memory of this sweet image behind me, as I turn from my work, remains firm.

Our primary work, as five Australian volunteer theatre artists invited to the retreat, is to teach theatre skills, collaborating with long term Timor-based theatre artists, Robyn Waite and Dili's well established Bibi Bulak Theatre Company (aka the Crazy Goats), and their artistic coordinator, Annie Sloman.

We offer mask, playbuilding, improvisation, puppetry, acting, clowning, physical theatre and writing workshops. Sandy and I run a joyful mask workshop together one afternoon, on isolation and status, with my simple neutral masks and her sophisticated and beautiful Commedia del Arte masks.

But the hardest, most rewarding work is in creating a play with our groups. Sure to form, both styles of masks feature in these short colourful theatre pieces at the final collaborative production for some 600 people in coastal Maubara.

Exhausted but elated, after seven days of intense work, this beautiful group of talented participants party all night after the show, somehow tolerated by the gracious Madre (Mother Superior) whose staff have fed and nurtured our rowdy mob all week in their idyllic home.

At 1am, I collapse on my mattress on the verandah of our neighbouring Portuguese-style rented house, the moon shining through my mosquito net, the gentle ocean below, lapping in my dreams. A cliche? Yes...and I pinch myself to be sure it is true.

Sandy's masks return with her to WA to inspire new communities worldwide; mine are easily replaceable, so continue their journey with our new young friends in East Timor, returning to their communities to pass on the skills they have learnt.

I return to Bunbury by the 2nd of September, only 48 hours after a sad but joyous farewell at Dili airport. It's still cold and blustery in the south west but I'm in time to complete the final day of dress rehearsals and production night for the five student plays of the Big Play Out at Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre.

And there I find the masks awaiting me - of the very same simple neutral form - in a powerful visual and physical production for the Big Play Out, by Year 11s at Bunbury Catholic College.

People Whom I Think Are Different To Me is the theme of this piece. But for me, I find the same masks and the same beautiful young people I have worked with all year, in this and all the other brilliant short plays of that crazy week. My journey leads me back to where I started - the world of young people's theatre.

In south west WA and in East Timor I find different stories, but the talents and dreams, and the desire to interpret this crazy world with fresh perspectives, are the same in both places. I'm left with the desire to continue my journey in theatre, both here and there, forever.

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