Opening the Curtains to Theatre in EastTimor

In August 2005, I had the amazing opportunity to go and teach in East Timor, at the first national gathering of theatre groups in independent East Timor. The event was called Loke Kurtina, or Opening the Curtain.

Many thanks to the ACT Government for funding that enabled me to go.

This article below appeared in Equity, the Actors Equity Journal

of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.                                                                                          

My first glimpse of East Timor is through the window of a twenty six-seater plane, the horizon reddening towards sunset. A stark rocky landscape with dry riverbeds like veins. Clouds obliterate the view until two sharp mountains stab through into the sky.


On the airport tarmac, gulping soupy tropical air, the East Timorese flag flaps above me. The flag I’ve seen years before held by forlorn demonstrators in front of Parliament House, often outnumbered by burly cops. So East Timor really is free.


I’m here to teach at Loke Kurtina, (Opening the Curtain) the first national theatre gathering in independent East Timor. Loke Kurtina is a week long retreat held at a convent in Maubara, an hour and a half’s drive west of Dili, along a thin road clutching Timor’s north coast. The convent is perched on a hill-side overlooking clear blue seas, and Indonesian islands. We are fifty young Timorese theatre-makers, aged fourteen to thirty; five Australian theatre workers come over to teach at the event: Maggie Miles, Sandy McKendrick, Kit Lazaroo, Margot Edwards and me; two Australian theatre workers who have been resident in East Timor for some time: Annie Sloman and Robyn Waite; the East Timorese members of Loke Kurtina committee (who I only know by first names): Elia, Pinto, Atoi; our three translators Irim, Agus and Gil; and Zannah Walsh, the Australian organiser extraordinaire .


There are fifteen theatre groups represented. All but one of these groups were formed by aid agencies to make theatre to deliver specific messages about health, gender or environment. Most have almost no training, and many write, devise and rehearse an hour long show in a week before taking it on tour. The only theatre style most know is Indonesian soap opera. Performances are almost always after dark under lights with hand held microphones.


The exception is Bibi Bulak, formed in 2000 by a Johann, a US musician and activist who formed the group to create a TV sketch comedy show for UN television. Bibi Bulak, meaning Crazy Goat in Tetun, is now directed by Annie Sloman and use circus skills and physical approaches to theatre.


Loke Kurtina is largely the brainchild of Robyn and Annie, to network and discuss the future of theatre in East Timor, teach new styles of and train in acting and other theatre skills.


The program was packed. Every morning we had a discussion forum on theatre in Timor and where it should go. After morning snacks were continuous workshops in circus and physical theatre, acting, writing for theatre or puppetry and mask. Early afternoons were a smorgasbord of different topics including directing, acting for camera, technical aspects of theatre, forum theatre and project planning. Late afternoons were devoted to rehearsals for a performance held on the final evening. After dinner were sharings of videos from the Australian artists and sharings from different groups about their companies and the quite distinct cultures in different districts.


The discussions were extraordinary. A mere six years ago the only places open discussions about Timor’s future could happen, were guerilla strongholds in the mountains. I was moved to sit in a room of passionate young future leaders debate, for instance, whether or not to form a women-only circus company.


The final night performance was held in the marketplace in Maubara, a thatched roof over a raised patch of stony ground. Actors shinned up poles to hang back-drops and ran power cords off a portable generator. As it got dark and Galaxy Band did their sound-check, an audience flowed in. By the time the clowns I had been training, in red noses and absurd costumes, began their introduction, we had an audience of six hundred mostly local people and a few interested foreigners from Dili. The audience laughed and stared through clown sketches, a shadow puppet play, the giant horse-and-rider puppets running to fast percussion, a fable of death and evil spirits on a roadside, the ancient story of how Timor was formed by a crocodile, with human bodies becoming crocodile, ocean, monkeys, palm trees and frogs, and finishing with Ikan Bot, or Big Fish, a circus piece by Bibi Bulak. And then the hugs, tears, signed T-shirts and swapped addresses reminded that the beautiful combination of theatre and young people is not so different anywhere in the world.


Loke Kurtina was funded by AusAid and UNICEF, with inkind support in Timor from APHEDA, Australia’s trade union aid agency . Airfares for visiting artists were supported by ArtsWA and ArtsACT.


Visiting theatre workers are eagerly welcomed in East Timor.