La Mama at 50

Ali­son Crog­gon on La Mama at 50

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

You walk into La Mama’s fa­mil­iar, in­ti­mate space, with the creaky stair­case go­ing up to the tiny of­fice-comechang­ing 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 non­profit 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 open­door 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”.

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