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“Stand-up comedy is the ultimate form of freedom of expression” - Mark Thomas heads to East Anglia

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas. Picture: STEVE ULLATHORNE

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas. Picture: STEVE ULLATHORNE

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Dodging cultural and literal bullets, Israeli incursions and religion, Mark Thomas set up a comedy club for two nights in the Palestinian city of Jenin only to find it’s not so simple to celebrate freedom of speech in a place with so little freedom.

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas. Picture: JANE HOBSONComedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas. Picture: JANE HOBSON

Jenin refugee camp, in the northern part of the West Bank, is home to the Palestinian community-based Jenin Freedom Theatre and its people have a wealth of tales to tell. Mark’s latest tour, Showtime from the Frontline, is a story about being yourself in a place that wants to put you in a box.

Q: What inspired the show...

The new show was inspired when I did Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall, when I walked the length of the Israeli wall. One of the first places we went to was the Jenin Freedom Theatre. It wasn’t on our route and people were going ‘oh you should go and see it’. It was run by a remarkable, really charismatic bloke called Juliano Mer Khamis (general director of the theatre until his assasination in 2011) and we loved it and the fact they were teaching people.

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas. Picture: STEVE ULLATHORNEComedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas. Picture: STEVE ULLATHORNE

It’s just a small group of kids, some of them from the refugee camp, some of them a bit further afield, some of them gang leaders; it’s a mixed bag. There were women doing the theatre course, which some of the camp found a bit upsetting; it was really interesting. He said “we’re training the leaders of the next white intifada and it’s going to be non-violent, involve internationals, Israelis...” He said “don’t stay in the hotel, come and stay with us” so we stayed in this flat, above this theatre, in a refugee camp. We’d drive out to where we finished our walk the night before, carry on, finish and then drive back to this theatre and it was the place I felt so at home. I was surrounded by people who wanted to do drama and perform and we’d have conversations...

I’ve always kept in touch, always gone back. On one of the trips I did a book reading and the atmosphere was really grim. All the readings were in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah... I got in contact with an old friend and we drove up to Jenin and saw them rehearsing a play. It had the most creative, wonderful energy.

I spent the day there, helped out with the cooking, all that kind of stuff. By the end of it I said “we’ve got to come back and do a comedy workshop”. Then we began a three-year negotiation with the theatre. We went over and talked to them. We met students and they came over here and we slowly moved towards an understanding of what we expected from each other.

About 10 people enter the theatre course each time. They’re there for three years, no one else joins the school; it’s quite small, quite intense. We had people who’d been through that course and people who’d never performed before in their life, doing the comedy workshop. Some were performers who were like “ha, ha, ha, I can perform I’m brilliant, I’m funny” who were suddenly like “oh f*** this is really hard” and it was fascinating.

I worked with an old friend of minecalled Sam Beale, she teaches stand-up at Middlesex University. She and I go way back when we used to do benefit gigs driving up and down motorways in white vans to appear on picket lines and all sorts of stuff (laughs). She’s ideal because she doesn’t take any s***. When we went there the first thing she said is “right, there are women on this course or we ain’t doing it”.

We did this trial workshop and developed this idea of how we should run it. Each morning we’d have a very set pattern to the day of what we wanted to do, what themes we were teaching, what exercises we would do, how we would do them and it was really exciting.

Q: Was it hard to attract interest...

They (the theatre) wanted to do it, but they wanted to make sure everyone does it on the right terms - why are you doing it, what do you want to get out of it, how’s it going to work, is it going to be long-term. We made sure all the teachers of the (theatre) course did the comedy course so when we leave that stuff remains. Sam’s going back there to run some stuff in the next couple of years. We’re looking at going to Bethlehem to try to run a course.

One of the people we were working with was a young lad who I love, he was just the best and if I could have brought him over I would have. Osama travelled from Bethlehem to do the comedy workshop on a bus. It’s an eight-hour journey, he slept in the cold rehearsal room each night so you have to make sure you’re on your game in the morning. He really loved the idea of stand-up and wanted to perform. Huge amount of respect.

Q: You’re being joined by Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehada...

The two guys we’re working with are absolutely remarkable. You’ve got to remember the enormous palaver of (getting) a visa. You have to arrange an appointment with a consulate, then apply to the Israelis for permission to cross the wall so you can make the appointment; if it shuts down for any reason, bang that’s you, you’re out.

A mate of mine, years ago, had to go to the embassy in Tel Aviv and had to get permission (to cross the wall) but she didn’t have time. What she did is, you hire Israelis who have a yellow number plate on their car because all the number plates are colour-coded. So there’s an Israeli car, driven by an Israeli and put on jeans, a T-shirt, shades and baseball cap, smoked a cigarette, put her feet up on the dashboard and had a copy of a right-wing Israeli newspaper on the dashboard. They drove up to the checkpoint playing loud music and the soldiers just waved them through.

Q: What, ultimately, is the show about...

It’ll be their story of actually what it’s like to be in a refugee camp and what you want to do with your life - whether you want to escape or whether you want to stay. It’s a bit like a radical version of Fame. But it’s also about censorship and stand-up comedy is the ultimate form of freedom of expression. The thought barely touches the side of your head before it’s out.

That’s frightening to all sorts of people - to a community, to individuals and how do you cope with that? For us, it’s about people being themselves. You can’t do stand-up if you’re saying stuff you think you ought to be saying. You can only do it if you’re saying the stuff you really want to say.

Q: Humour’s a great way to deal with hard situations...

Everyone does it... one of the guys we met in Palestine told us about there was a kid during the Intifada who climbed up a lamppost and was putting a flag on it. The army patrol came along and called him down. He’s got the flag and is going to get arrested, beaten up. The soldier goes “what are you doing” and he said “I was just climbing up there to get the flag down because the other soldier told me to take it down”. They just went “okay, good lad and drove off.”

• See Mark Thomas’ Showtime from the Frontline at Colchester Arts Centre, January 31; Norwich Playhouse February 8 and Cambridge Junction April 7.

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