Thomas M Wright believes some art is worth putting everything on the line for. When the actor, director and producer was in the midst of creating Doku Rai, (You, dead man, I don’t believe you), the very first theatre production staged in the embattled Timor-Leste, a sudden outbreak of violence only strengthened his resolve.
“The Timorese government said they were banning congregations of over a hundred people,” he says. “The crew were split in half and we were in lockdown in separate houses. I had my three-month-old son and partner with me and I had to put them on a plane and get them out of the country as fast as possible.”
But Doku Rai – a tale that explores a violent tryst between two Timorese brothers and explores themes of morality, pain and redemption – is a lesson in Wright’s talent for spinning magic out of chaos.
“It was challenging to make the work in a country where there was never any form of theatre, with a group of people who hadn’t acted before, that didn’t understand the language, where every sentence of our rehearsal process had to be translated,” he recalls.
Wright, who just finished a stint on the Jane Campion miniseries Top of the Lake, has never been one to shy away from emotionally gruelling work. In his early twenties, he co-founded Black Lung, an inventive theatre troupe credited with shaking up the Melbourne establishment. But it was in playing Australian journalist Brian Peters in the critically acclaimed 2009 drama, Balibo, that sowed the seeds of his fascination with East Timor.
“We began to drum up this idea of working with guys that I knew who were basically living in slum conditions in the centre of the city, but who were the foremost artists of their generation,” he offers. “And by virtue of their country only being formed in 2001, these men are living on two dollars a day while their sculptures adorn the president’s house and their songs are played on national television. Despite the obvious situational and physical disparities, they were like the same group of people who began Black Lung all those years ago.”
Despite the work’s obvious engagement with the reality of Timor-Leste, Wright insists he’s steered clear of neo-colonialist legacy in East Timor, telling a story that’s universal rather than political.
“You can’t avoid the political implications of working in Timor, but because of that, you also have a great weight behind the content of the production,” Wright explains. “We didn’t just want to be seen as just turning up and imparting all these skills. But we walked out with a production that we’re so proud of – although it might have been painful in its genesis.”
Doku Rai will show at Carriageworks from September 25 to 28.