On the roof of the bar at the front of iconic Carlton theatre, La Mama, rests a rubber chicken on a stick. Visitors might recognise it as comedian Rod Quantock’s faithful companion Trevor, often employed as a device to rally audiences for the door prize raffle that takes place every night to signal that the show is about to start.
The raffle has been a nightly tradition at La Mama since 1990, when the theatre needed to get rid of 1000 surplus copies of their book La Mama: the story of a theatre. Once those were gone they started raffling a couple of La Mama poetry and play anthologies, and now cast members contribute to the prize pool, often giving away copies of their plays, but sometimes throwing in quirky little extras like pot plants and jars of pickled olives.
It’s a gesture of welcome from a theatre that has always been devoted to allowing performance makers to explore the edges of their creativity.
La Mama might be tiny – it seats only 50 people – but its impact on Australia’s theatre scene is enormous. The alumni list is littered with household names like David Williamson, Cate Blanchett and Barry Dickens. The theatre was instrumental in helping companies like the Rabble and Ilbijerri find their feet, and an early champion of female directors. But with a commitment to new writing and experimentation, La Mama has also staged its share of clangers – and that is just how they like it.
The theatre was launched by schoolteacher and potter Betty Burstall in 1967, who was inspired by New York’s coffee house theatre scene, in particular the similarly named La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. La Mama’s current artistic director, Liz Jones, has carried on the motto of ‘low financial risk, high artistic risk’ without falter since she took on the role in 1976.
“What is really important is the fact that we are open and accessible for people who want to try out new ideas and be creative. And a lot of that work will fail,” Liz says. “We’re in the business of picking exciting ideas and new projects, not picking winners.”
2017 marked La Mama’s golden jubilee – fifty years since the curtains went up on its first production, Three Old Friends by Jack Hibberd, on July 29, 1967. To celebrate, the theatre presented a Mini-Fest – 21 shows over five weeks in July and August – encompassing both new works and the returns of old favourites, and culminating in a world premiere of David Williamson’s new play, Credentials.
The celebrations are accompanied by the release of a book, simply titled La Mama. Crammed with photos from the theatre’s extensive archive, the book is a lively and slightly chaotic oral history compiled by playwright Adam Cass. A crowd of voices from La Mama’s vibrant and loyal community speak out from the pages of transcribed interviews and roundtable conversations.
That La Mama is a beloved hub for the theatre community was never so apparent as in 2008, when the death of the building’s landlord put the theatre at risk of closure. The theatre that runs on the smell of an oily rag was suddenly faced with the need to raise $1.7million in order to buy the two storey brick building at 205 Faraday Street. The community rallied around it and the funds were raised – in full – in three and a half months.
It’s not the first time the community has come out in such visible support of the theatre. Take, for example, the famous incident in which the nine people were arrested and charged for use of obscene language during a 1969 production of John Romeril’s anti-censorship play Whatever Happened to Realism?
“The whole audience followed the arresting officers to the cop shop around the corner, chanting four-letter words,” says Liz.
Audiences have been tied up and had eggs thrown at them (on separate occasions). And artists have carte blanche to do as they please with the space, as long as they don’t mess with the air conditioner or the exit signs. “I love to see it used as a sort of sculptural space,” says Liz.
For La Mama’s 40th birthday Liz’s husband, director and artist Lloyd Jones took out some of the flooring and conducted a kind of archaeological dig, going down “about nine feet I think,” says Liz. “They found lots of funny little bits, but it got less interesting as they went down further because it was just rock and soil.” Another, smaller dig went into the wall, uncovering the hundreds of layers of paint that have been added over the decades, growing inches thick.
Liz reads about 200 scripts and project proposals each year, of which 50 go into full production and a further 30 are offered creative development opportunities through the Explorations program, curated by company manager Caitlin Dullard (Caitlin is next in line for the artistic director role, although Liz is showing no signs of retiring any time soon.) Artists can choose whether they want to stage their work at the original venue or at La Mama Courthouse, the second venue they opened in Drummond Street in 1998.
“We never promise artists big money, or small money,” says Liz. “The size of their audience will determine their income. But it’s usually not the most important thing to them – producing the art is.”
La Mama Theatre is supported by Creative Victoria through the Organisations Investment Program.