La Mama Theatre: One year after its devastating fire, and raring to go

On the morning of 19 May, a year ago today, Australians awoke to the news that Carlton’s beloved La Mama Theatre had been gutted by fire, the blaze sparked by an electrical fault in the two-storey brick building constructed in 1883.

Coming so soon after La Mama had celebrated its 50th anniversary the year prior, the fire was devastating – not just because of the physical damage inflicted on the intimate, inner-city Melbourne theatre opened by Betty Burstall in 1967, but because of what La Mama represents to the Australian artistic community.

When the doors to its intimate performance space were first opened, La Mama was a transplanted example of ‘off-off-Broadway’ theatre; cheap, expressive and experimental.

It soon evolved to become the home of a new Australian dramatic vernacular thanks to playwrights like Hibberd, Hemensley, Romeril, Williamson, Lyssiotis, Cornelius and Buzo. Over almost 52 years to date it has supported generations of exciting actors and artists: Graeme Blundell, Cate Blanchett, Julia Zemiro, Angus Cerini, Nicola Gunn to name but a few.

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Firefighters at La Mama. Photo by Rick Evertsz, courtesy of La Mama Facebook

But La Mama is more than just a theatre – it’s a place for poetry, song, fierce arguments, passionate conversations in the courtyard after a show, and its reputation and significance have spread far beyond the confines of its humble Carlton home.

Within days of the fire I was fielding calls from young actors in Perth and literary organisations in Melbourne, from publicans and state theatre companies, offering their assistance and reminding me that La Mama isn’t just a home for new drama, but a symbol of what it means to have an Australian voice and to champion a bold idea.

La Mama will bounce back from this latest setback, just as we have faced down other threats over La Mama’s 52 years.

Looking at the smouldering ruins of our theatre a year ago today was like watching a loved one die. But La Mama will bounce back from this latest setback, just as we have faced down other threats over La Mama’s almost 52 years to date.

In 2006, La Mama was put on notice by one of its funding bodies, the Australia Council for the Arts, and asked to prove its relevance once more. It did so, and continues to do so, by championing the work of independent artists and celebrating underrepresented voices – with a particular focus on the stories of our First Peoples.

Already blindsided by the Australia Council’s challenge, the following year long-standing Artistic Director Liz Jones suffered another shock when the theatre’s owner, landlady Rose Del Monaco, died in October 2007.

In 2008 the Del Monaco family offered La Mama the opportunity to purchase the site on which the theatre stands, at a cost of $1,700,000. Thanks to the generosity of the Pratt Foundation, the City of Melbourne, the Ian Potter Foundation, the Victorian state government, a public campaign and – at the 11thhour – an offer of assistance from the federal government via then-Arts Minister Peter Garrett – the requisite funds were raised and La Mama’s legacy was ensured.

The fire on 19 May 2018 was truly shocking, make no mistake. But it was also galvanising. It showed those of us who, like myself, are temporary custodians of La Mama’s legacy and its future, that La Mama is more than a theatre, more than a building.

It’s a place for dreaming.

It’s a commitment to storytelling made manifest.

It’s a promise to independent artists that if they have an idea, we can help them stage it.

Today, one year on from the fire, we launch a fundraising campaign to ensure that La Mama will not just be rebuilt – it will be reimagined. It will be future-proofed.

But we can’t rebuild La Mama without you.

Visit lamama.com.au/supportlamama to contribute to La Mama’s rebuilding campaign. And thank you for your support – because your commitment guarantees that La Mama’s commitment to future generations of theatre-makers and storytellers will never wane.

We look forward to sharing our future with you, and with the generations that follow. Thank you for joining us on the journey.

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