Fifty years since Mel­bourne’s La Mama theatre opened its doors, the venue that launched a host of stel­lar ca­reers is still go­ing strong, writes Ash­leigh Wil­sonon

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

No one knew whathat to ex­pect, apart from the fact ev­ery­thing ything was new. It was a win­ter’s night in n 1970 and the crowd was packed into a small room in Carl­ton, a short walk from the cen­tre of Mel­bourne. The theatre was called ed La Mama, and the show was called You’ve Gotta Get On, Jack, a one­act play based on men in min­ing towns.

Be­fore the show be­gan, onene of the ac­tors, Al Finney, steppeded in front of the au­di­ence. “We haveve this script by a guy called Wil­liamson,” mson,” he said. “It’s pretty shit­house, e, but we’ll show you how good act­ing ng can bring a script to life.”

It had taken courage for the play­wright, David Wil­liamson, to come to La Mama. Betty Burstall l had formed the com­pany three years ear­lier and one of her first de­ci­sions sions was to put out a call for new writ­ing. She liked ked You’ve Gotta Get On, Jack, and agreed to stage an­other one­act play by Wil­liamson, Sex­ual Fol­lies, the same month.

So this should have been a mo­ment of tri­umph, yet there he was, in front of friends, watch­ing some­one trash-talk his writ­ing. Even now, as La Mama pre­pares to cel­e­brate its 50year an­niver­sary, Wil­liamson can still re­call his urge to slink away. “It was a tough arena,” he says. “The ac­tors and di­rec­tors were re­ally out­spo­ken and re­ally hon­est. Re­ally, bru­tally frank.”

To un­der­stand the grat­i­tude he feels to­wards to La Mama, it helps to know what came next. Soon af­ter that pre­miere, Finney asked Wil­liamson for an­other script. He wanted a frag­ment for a play that oth­er­wise would be en­tirely im­pro­vised. Wil­liamson sent an in­trigu­ing scene, so Finney asked him to ex­tend it into a full-length play.

Wil­liamson called it The Com­ing of Stork, then adapted it into a film, Stork. Around the same time he was putting the fin­ishes touches on an­other work. This new play came with a dis­tinct Aus­tralian ac­cent: Wil­liamson felt good about it, but the big the­atres weren’t in­ter­ested. So he took it to La Mama, which is where The Re­moval­ists opened in Au­gust 1971.

Wil­liamson acted in it, too, along with a cast that in­cluded Kristin Green, the wo­man who would later be­come his wife. “I owe La Mama ev­ery­thing,” Wil­liamson says. These days, as it has been for as long as ev­ery­one can re­mem­ber, Liz Jones is close to the ac­tion. La Mama’s artis­tic di­rec­tor works out of an open-plan of­fice full of books and posters and props. An in­ter­nal stair­case leads down to the main stage, a cosy caul­dron of cre­ativ­ity that feels full when au­di­ence num­bers edge past 50. (There’s a sec­ond venue around the cor­ner, a de­com­mis­sioned court­house that seats up to 100 peo­ple.)

With the an­niver­sary ap­proach­ing, Jones is in a nos­tal­gic mood as she walks from her of­fice down to the stage. There’s a sense of history with ev­ery step. Ear­lier this year, Stephen Nico- lazzo had trans­formed this space for Os­car Wilde’s The Happy Prince as part of the Mid­summa Fes­ti­val. Those who have been around for a while can re­mem­ber a pair of plays in 1989 fea­tur­ing a stu­dent called Cate Blanchett. When Jones saw An­drew Bovell’s 2001 film Lan­tana, a feel­ing of deja vu set in: she had seen early ver­sions of some of the scenes years ear­lier, back when Bovell was an un­known writer at La Mama. So many mem­o­rable mo­ments — and some for­get­table ones too, “when some­thing just re­fuses to come off the page,” as Jones puts it.

Pas­sions run high: it was here, in 1973, that Max Richards clashed with the cast over their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his play Night Flow­ers. And it was here that the vice squad charged nine peo­ple with us­ing ob­scene lan­guage dur­ing a 1969 pro­duc­tion of John Romeril’s What­ever Hap­pened to Re­al­ism?

Au­di­ence mem­bers have even been tied up and caged by Lloyd Jones, Liz’s hus­band. (It seems fit­ting that He­len Gar­ner de­scribes La Mama as an in­ti­mate spot where au­di­ences are ac­tive par­tic­i­pants.)

Jones says the­atremak­ers are wel­come to use the space how­ever they like. The only rule is they can’t paint over the air­con­di­tion­ing and exit signs. “The build­ing of La Mama has al­ways been more im­por­tant to me than my per­sonal home,” she says. Play­wright Jack Hib­berd at La Mama in 1977, top left; Caro­line Lee and Cate Blanchett in The Wood­box (1989), WWa

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Jones has been artis­tic di­rec­tor since 1976, hav­ing joined in 1973. Eigh­teen months ago, she de­cided to go part time, al­though that just means tak­ing Wed­nes­days off. Her anointed suc­ces­sor is Caitlin Dullard, the com­pany man­ager. “Of course there will come a point when I step back,” Jones says, “but maybe I’ll never step back fully.”

De­spite its mod­est size, La Mama plays an over­sized role in the Aus­tralian cul­tural nar­ra­tive. Its alumni alone is im­pres­sive: as well as Blanchett, Bovell, Romeril and Wil­liamson, the La Mama fam­ily in­cludes the likes of Jack Hib­berd, Graeme Blun­dell, Ju­lia Zemiro, Ju­dith Lucy, Barry Dick­ins and Louis Nowra. Then there are the en­sem­bles that flour­ished af­ter re­ceiv­ing early sup­port, among them Il­bi­jerri and the Rab­ble.

“This is where change starts, at this level,” Jones says. “We’re the launch­ing pad. We’re the grass­roots. We’re the place where peo­ple get go­ing and the place where some very ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple come back to when they want do some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

A se­ries of La Mama sto­ries has been com­piled for a new book, pub­lished by Miegun­yah Press to co­in­cide with the com­pany’s golden ju­bilee. Jones ap­pears first, re­flect­ing on the early days, back when she worked front of house, her ap­pren­tice­ship un­der Burstall, and her de­ci­sion to take over the com­pany just three weeks af­ter WhenWh Burstall founded La Mama in 1967, she tookto the con­cept (and the name) from the small cof­fee­houseco the­atres in New York. Off-of­fBroad­wayB was “im­me­di­ate and ex­cit­ing”, but noth­ing like it ex­isted in Mel­bourne. A venue pre­sented it­self in an old Ital­ian neigh­bour­hood: a for­mer un­der­wear and shirt fac­tory at 205 Fara­day Street, Carl­ton. It was avail­able to rent for $28 a week. Burstall signed on, and La Mama was born.

Burstall cre­ated La Mama as a writer’s theatre, a broad church for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and risk. A new gen­er­a­tion of tal­ent quickly flour­ished.

By 1976, Burstall had moved on, and Jones was in creative con­trol. A group of ac­tors called the Aus­tralian Per­form­ing Group, led by Blun­dell, later split from the com­pany to set up the Pram Fac­tory, but La Mama con­tin­ued.

At Fara­day Street, dozens of un­likely pro­duc­tions found a home. This is the place, af­ter all, where artis­tic fail­ures tend to be for­given. “One of the lib­er­at­ing things for peo­ple here is that by and large we never have a vested in­ter­est in full houses,” Jones says.

Jones re­fined the model as the years went on while mov­ing to boost the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women. La Mama has al­ways been run by women, but Jones re­alised they were not rep­re­sented enough as di­rec­tors and writ­ers. So in the early 1980s she brought in eight fe­male grad­u­ates. Be­fore long, names such as Val Kir­wan and Tes Lys­si­o­tis were no longer the ex­cep­tions. “By the end of the 80s,” she says, “it was about 50-50 — women writ­ers, women di­rec­tors — and it has stayed that way.”

Jones then turned her at­ten­tion to the lack of in­dige­nous voices. She com­mis­sioned Richard Fran­k­land to make Con­ver­sa­tions With the Dead, a play about deaths in cus­tody that had its pre­miere in 2002 and was most re­cently be­ing per­formed in May in Perth. An­other show, Co­ran­derrk: We Will Show the Coun­try, a ver­ba­tim show cre­ated with Il­bi­jerri Theatre Com­pany, is on a na­tional tour, seven years af­ter its pre­miere at the La Mama Court­house.

Jones says La Mama col­lab­o­rates reg­u­larly with marginalised groups: “It’s still a strug­gle for the gritty work that ad­dresses what I think are

Pla ay­wright Hib b d Ma to Le B above;a (1977)( with Ray Triggs, Vic­to­ria Triggs, Liz Jones and Martin Brown, left

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