Have you ever had a moment where you were looking for something and you never noticed that it was right under your nose? The La Mama theatre has been a national treasure for five decades and has been one of the most influential locations for creative expression. However despite its age and impact on the creative culture, La Mama Theatre remains to be a hidden gem in Carlton that is often overlooked.
La Mama Theatre is a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to produce the work of creators who are passionate about theatre production. The theatre was the brainchild of Betty Margret Burstall, who founded the establishment in 1967. The inception of the theatre occurred after she and her husband, filmmaker, Tim Burstall, returned from living temporarily in New York City.
During that time they would go to small off-Broadway plays in places where they would pay fifty cents for a coffee. Her goal was to capture the vibrant atmosphere of small theatres she had experienced on her visit.
Upon returning to Melbourne her spark of inspiration led her to get in touch with local actors, writers and directors. These meetings resulted in her locating and securing a lease for a venue. 205 Faraday Street in Melbourne is a dollhouse-looking, two-storey brick building that was previously home to a shirt factory. When Betty got her hands on it, she transformed it to the creative haven it is known to be, and to this day it has not changed in location or aesthetics.
Burstall seemed to have no other option as a location other than Carlton, which at the time she described as “a lively tatty area with an Italian atmosphere and plenty of students.” An additional fun fact: she based the name La Mama after an experimental off-Broadway theatre in New York named La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, which was founded in 1961.
Set in a time when Australian stage productions were insubstantial and financially risky, for fifty-one years La Mama has been a pivotal creative space. Providing an environment for artist to create works that are not shackled to the needs of mainstream entertainment.
The initial productions were short plays done in an attempt to break the traditional three-act structure and encourage artists to pursue new work. The shows were run by allowing participants to write for one play, direct another and act in another, while working front and back of house. Having this structure to its operation showed that there is no restriction to a hierarchical ranking. This foundation would set La Mama apart from other theatres.
Furthermore, working with low budgets resulted in a lack of resources such as sets and lights. One would think that the quality of work would have harmed the prospects of anything becoming a success. However it is the lack that also built momentum for the theatre and shaping its image to be that of a unique house.
Moving forward, the theatre gained traction locally and globally, with visitors flocking in from Japan, the United States, Europe, Canada and New Zealand. La Mama could present each production as if it was a world premier. Playwright, Jack Hibberd wrote and showcased several plays in the first two years of La Mama’s existence.
Currently, La Mama is under the care of Liz Jones, who has served as the artistic director since 1976. She continues the La Mama mandate; committed to developing artists by nurturing them at all stages of their practice. This allows them to continue to explore works that are experimental, that deconstruct conventions and maintain the authenticity of the artist’s voice. Her direction has also laid out a pathway to be inclusive of a diverse range of works, as well as artists that reflect the multi-cultural presence of Carlton.
La Mama is an iconic theatre with a rich history and impressive list of alumni including Kate Blanchett, Judith Lucy, Graeme Blundell, just to name a few. Over the course of its run, the theatre has received over thirty OBIE Awards, dozens of Drama Desk, Bessie Awards and Villager Awards.
Bookings for shows can be made online (check out this season’s Summer Program), over the phone, or at the box office an hour before the show starts.
La Mama Theatre
205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Feature Image Credit: Jyl Gocher on La Mama Theatre Facebook Page