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Rising from the ashes: La Mama rebuild nearly complete

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Katie Johnson

For the past three years, the team at La Mama headquarters has been working day-in day-out to rebuild the iconic theatre that was ravaged by fire in 2018.

Now, the theatre is almost ready to re-open with only a few final touches left to be installed.

La Mama communications co-ordinator Sophia Constantine said that after the lift was installed and some carpet was laid, they would be “picking up the keys at the end of the week”.

“It’s really exciting because I think the community sees La Mama as the heart of independent theatre and of Carlton,” Ms Constantine said.

“It’s the mother – it’s nurturing, kind, and is a place where new and established artists come to take risks, gain experience and develop their practice.”

La Mama has documented every stage of its rebuild through time lapses and updates, as it restores the existing theatre building and constructs a new building next to the original.

The old building has been restored to its original, intimate self but is now fitted out with 21st century facilities and technology.

Ms Constantine said a big focus of the rebuild had been about accessibility and creating more open spaces for artists to relax, practice and perform in.

“We really thought about the accessibility of the space, so there’s a lift right next to the stairs which will get everyone to the same level and a bridge link which connects the old building to the new building,” Ms Constantine said.

 

Before the fire we had the dressing room and office upstairs and we were all in the same tiny room, but now we have a full office wing in the new building and a rehearsal hub which gives artists more space.

 

“The theatre will also have rigging so artists can do aerial performances, and we’ve reinstated the fireplace which was originally used to heat the space as well as being incorporated into the production design.”

Ms Constantine said that La Mama was hoping to open up with a bang, and had big plans for when lockdown ended.

“We’re confident that we will re-open the doors by the end of the year and create a beautiful opportunity for the community and artists to connect in person,” Ms Constantine said.   

In the meantime, La Mama Courthouse on Drummond St is still in operation and will soon boast a new play centred around climate change and environmental collapse.

#NoExemptions, a production by the Shift Theatre, is expected to premiere on October 8 after two years of preparation.

Writer Angela Buckingham said the play wasn’t about “melting ice caps or one degree rises in temperature”, but about intergenerational justice and the consequences for our personal lives and relationships.

“The play investigates the relationship between parents and children and how they are going to look back and see how we dealt with this,” Ms Buckingham said.

“It looks at the experience of the mother and her responsibility to her child to provide safety, security and the conditions for life, and how as a generation we have failed as parents.”

Ms Buckingham said that although she began writing the play when she lived in Berlin some years ago, the advent of COVID had made the ideas within it more relevant and tangible.

“When it comes to controlling movements of people, classifying people according to age and locking them up in apartment blocks, these ideas felt very foreign to our lives but COVID has made them feel present and possible,” Ms Buckingham said.

“COVID has been a wakeup call about the fragility of our systems, and even though our community is proving to be very resilient, we rely on systems that rely on a functioning environment.”

“When air quality, clean water and food provision are under threat, the ramifications will be deep and at the core elements of our lives with the relationship with our families.”

Currently Ms Buckingham and her team are doing readthroughs, designing the set and planning via Zoom.

One of the challenges has been to find larger rehearsal spaces to allow artists to have the space to socially distance.

But Ms Buckingham said that her team had the backing of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre who had offered rehearsal space, as well as the City of Melbourne, who were looking into how the theatre could repurpose empty commercial space.

“It’s been really hard for theatre practitioners for the past 18 months, and the community has recognised that and is helping us to find our work,” Ms Buckingham said.

“Our community values how theatre contributes to other aspects of social life like going out for a drink or out to a restaurant after the theatre and how it’s part of the Carlton identity.”

In terms of the La Mama rebuild, Ms Buckingham said the reopening was “so important” for local artists and the Carlton community.

“I feel like La Mama is the creative heart of Carlton and I can’t imagine Carlton without La Mama,” Ms Buckingham said.

“I think the new building looks fabulous, but more than the building there’s a core of people who are committed to new, Australian community theatre, pushing boundaries and doing things that are exciting and different.”

“There’s great work that’s been bubbling away in isolation and we can promise audiences that there will be incredible, exhilarating, face-to-face artwork ready to go.”

For more information: lamama.com.au

Caption: #NoExemptions author Angela Buckingham and actress Eva Seymour (front) on the steps of La Mama HQ.

Caption: La Mama HQ after the fire in 2018  and the almost complete building in August 2021. Photo supplied by La Mama.

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