A crucible of memory
La Mama, one of Australia’s most influential theatre companies, turns 50
You walk into La Mama’s familiar, intimate space, with the creaky staircase going up to the tiny office-come-changing room and the walls famously covered with an inch-thick layer of paint from the thousands of productions that have passed through it, and you feel it. Every time. All the passions rehearsed over the years have soaked into its very substance. Whether you’ve been an audience member or one of the many artists who have performed there, La Mama Theatre is a crucible of memory.
In 2017 La Mama celebrates its 50th anniversary. It has been a constant in Melbourne’s artistic scene since actors first trooped onstage in the former underwear and shirt factory in Carlton in 1967 to perform Jack Hibberd’s Three Old Friends. Australian culture as we know it is unthinkable without it.
La Mama was founded by the late Betty Burstall, who was inspired by New York’s La MaMa, an open-access non-profit theatre she first encountered in the ’60s.
“We were poor,” she said in an interview in 1988. “It was impossible to go to the theatre – even to see a film was expensive – but there were these places where you paid 50 cents for a cup of coffee and you saw a performance, and if you felt like it you put some money in a hat for the actors.
“I saw some awful stuff and some good stuff. It was very immediate and exciting and when I came back to Melbourne I wanted to keep going, but there didn’t exist such a place. So I talked around a bit, to a few actors and writers and directors, sounding them out about doing their own stuff, Australian stuff, for nothing …”
Fifty years on, Melbourne is a very different city, but La Mama, its core principles intact, remains. In that half-century, this tiny theatre has nurtured generations of talent: not only theatre artists but also musicians, filmmakers and poets. Its alumni include John Romeril, Louis Nowra, Andrew Bovell, Julia Zemiro, Graeme Blundell, Barry Dickins, Daniel Keene, Judith Lucy and many more.
David Williamson’s first plays, including The Removalists, premiered at La Mama. Cate Blanchett acted there as a young student in 1989. More recently, it’s hosted the work of important experimental artists such as Nicola Gunn, The Rabble and Daniel Schlusser. Especially in Melbourne, it’s difficult to find theatre artists who haven’t worked at La Mama.
Liz Jones has been the artistic director since 1976, although she has recently moved to part-time and is gradually handing over to her anointed successor, company manager Caitlin Dullard. She’s fought hard to keep La Mama’s core philosophy intact through vast changes in the cultural landscape. And there have been major challenges: the theatre has survived obscenity charges, major funding purges and, most seriously, the threat of losing the space.
“Especially in recent years, as the arts have become increasingly corporatised, we’ve fought to keep our open-door policy, especially to young people,” says Jones. “Those are precious things. We fight to maintain the principles of poor theatre, to remember that theatre’s not just about KPIs, economic sustainability and so on. La Mama’s always been about the art and the artists. We’ve survived because we run on the smell of an oily rag. We’re bottom feeders, really.”
In late 2006 La Mama was put on notice by the Australia Council and asked to demonstrate its relevance. That blindsided Jones. “We really didn’t see that coming. It came from Sydney-based people, who really didn’t understand what La Mama does.”
They successfully fought off that threat, only to face the potential loss of the space. “That was a tumultuous time,” says Jones. “In 2007, I lost my mother and father in July and August, and then our beloved landlady, Rose Del Monaco, died, and the theatre went up for sale. We had first offer, and we began 2008 having to raise $2 million so we could buy the theatre.”
A public campaign successfully raised the money, demonstrating the strength of communal support. Now that it owns the space, La Mama is in a stronger place than it’s ever been, and the future looks bright. Last year, its audience increased by 30%, a staggering increase for any company.
To celebrate its 50th birthday, La Mama has been hosting a mini-festival, bringing back some classics, such as Tes Lyssiotis’ 1983 play Hotel Bonegilla and Patricia Cornelius and Susie Dee’s 1986 hit Lilly and May, and new work by alumni, including Nicola Gunn, The Rabble and David Williamson. And Melbourne University Publishing has published La Mama, a “rich, chaotic oral and visual history” curated by Adam Cass.
Of all the productions over five decades, Jones says it’s hard to pick her favourite moments. “I’ve seen so much beautiful theatre over the years. And I think of the artists who didn’t go on, those who stopped working to pursue other things, as much as those who did.”
The history of La Mama is inextricably linked with the renaissance in Australian theatre that occurred in the late 1960s and ’70s. The groundbreaking Australian Performing Group (APG) emerged in 1970 from La Mama’s in-house troupe, the La Mama Group, formed by actor and director Graeme Blundell.
The APG saw the emergence of a new generation of playwrights – Hibberd, Williamson, Romeril – who wrote and spoke in unapologetically Australian voices. But there are other histories that are equally important: the emergence of feminist theatre such as the Melbourne Women’s Theatre Group, formed in 1974; new circus, notably Circus Oz; and avant-garde “internationalists” such as Nightshift, directed by Lindzee Smith, which performed radical new plays from Germany, Britain and the US.
La Mama was doing gender equity long before it was hip, pioneering the work of Val Kirwan and Tes Lyssiotis in the 1970s and ’80s, and has long had a policy of Indigenous representation, most recently a prominent association with Ilbijerri Theatre Company.
It still welcomes young artists who would find it impossible to get a gig anywhere else. All you need is an idea. And everybody – whether it’s David Williamson or a neophyte with no previous runs on the board – gets the same budget: $500 and an 80% cut of the door.
With La Mama, it’s always personal. Thinking about this anniversary, I realised that La Mama has wound through my entire artistic life. Quite aside from the hundreds of performances I’ve witnessed there, ranging from the unforgettably brilliant to the memorably awful, my history with La Mama is probably not untypical of the other artists who have worked there.
As a young poet I read there often, in the regular poetry readings that began with the theatre in 1967 and are still going, now curated by Amanda Anastasi. Some of my early poems are in the La Mama Poetica anthology, which Mal Morgan edited in 1989. In a very La Mama moment, I once won that book in the raffle that is run every night before the show.
I remember reading a poem with a baby on my hip at La Mama’s 21st birthday party, a riotous shindig at the former comedy venue the Last Laugh in Smith Street. My fantasy novel The Gift, the first book of the Pellinor series that went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, was launched at La Mama in 2002.
And of course La Mama hosted my first ventures into theatre. Notes, a dramatisation of a sequence from my first book of poems, was performed as a late show in 1988. It was passionately terrible, in the way so many first works are. We painted the theatre pale blue for reasons that escape me, and earned a puzzled little paragraph in the Age. We were amazed that we were given money to put on the show.
In 1993 The Breach, a monologue for improvised performance performed by Faruk Avdi and directed by Russell Walsh, was another late show. Maybe about a dozen people saw it, but it’s one of those works that I remain proud of two decades later. La Mama regular James Clayden directed another text of mine, Monologues for an Apocalypse, in 1998, and three years later the late David Branson, with his company CIA, produced Blue.
These were all tiny events, but crucial in my development as an artist. And all these productions were experimental poetic texts that wouldn’t have been given the time of day by any other theatre. La Mama was, and against all the odds still remains, the place that says “yes”.