ON WITH THE SHOW
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
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