La Mama offers the freedom to explore or fail
Betty Burstall founded La Mama Theatre after visiting New York, where she discovered the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, founded by Ellen Stewart, an American theatre director.
Ms Burstall said, “I got the idea for La Mama when we went to New York in the ‘60s. We were poor. It was impossible to go to the theatre. Even to see a film was expensive, but there were these places where you paid fifty cents for a cup of coffee and saw a performance … or you put some money in a hat for the actors.”
In July 1967, Ms Burstall saw her idea come to fruition in a pocket-sized building in Faraday St Carlton, previously used as a furniture and then a garment factory.
La Mama’s outreach and engagement producer Myf Powell said it is an incubator for theatre.
“It can be a bit of potluck with the shows; however, you may be able to say one day, I saw that performance five years ago at La Mama and wow, look at them now,” she said.
“Remember, Cate Blanchett started here straight from University.”
The business was adversely affected during the past five years. There was the recent closure of the theatre due to COVID.
More importantly, there was the loss of funding from the Australia Council, which had provided 75 per cent of its funding needs for 50 years.
And in 2018 the building was gutted by fire.
“We had a lot of setbacks, but we are now back bigger and stronger,” said Amber Hart, front of house and volunteer manager.
“Since we have rebuilt [and relaunched], people are keen to be here,” Ms Hart said.
“We are selling out shows, and the audiences completely embrace La Mama.”
La Mama is a not-for-profit organisation providing each artist with a small budget to assist their production.
They see the script and the program before deciding on accepting the production.
The theatre relies on some strong philanthropic supporters, and sponsorship from the City of Melbourne and Creative Victoria is now its largest source of funding.
“Performers are not coming to make big bucks; La Mama is a place that gives performers the freedom to explore or fail and a team willing to support you,” Ms Hart said.
“It’s about hearing those unique Australian stories and supporting them to grow in whatever way they need.”
The theatre holds an exploration season each year when artists are given three nights free at reduced ticket prices to test out new show ideas.
“It feeds the Australian arts community with emerging and experimental drama,” Ms Powell said.
“Even a first iteration show that doesn’t work might be four iterations later a sell-out touring the world,” she said.
One such production, This is Eden by Emily Goddard, after opening at exploration season, was nominated for Best Performer at the 2017 Green Room Awards and premiered at the Butter Factory Theatre in Albury-Wodonga.
It has since had two critically acclaimed, sold-out Melbourne seasons at Forty-five Downstairs and a highly successful Victorian tour in late 2019.
Around 40 per cent of the audience are locals.
Everyone is welcome, and complimentary tea and coffee at each performance, and no concession checking for ticket purchases.
“We offer subsidised tickets for those who can’t afford them,” Ms Powell said.
Locals are encouraged to take a punt on a new show and afterwards take a walk around the corner to Lygon St for a drink, dinner, or coffee.
In 2008, the Del Monaco family, who owned the building, put it up for sale.
Supporters of the theatre raised the required amount to purchase the building in the name of the La Mama Theatre Trust by the 11th hour.
Having survived lockdowns, funding withdrawals, a devasting fire, a last-minute effort to purchase the building, and its 55th birthday this year, La Mama is still a vital, much-loved Carlton institution. •
For more information: lamama.com.au
Caption: Myf Powell and Amber Hart.
Photographer Darren Gill.