Historically, theatres burn down, if not frequently, then at least with striking regularity. One of the most famous was Britain’s Drury Lane, which went up in smoke in 1809, leaving its owner, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, financially ruined. Watching the flames from a nearby coffee shop he was asked by a friend what he was doing. “Can’t a man have a glass of wine at his own fireside?” he replied.
In 1984, Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre was gutted by fire, leaving the company bereft of its precious Exhibition Street home. Some modern theatres, one can’t help feeling, might improve the art form they claim to serve if they did burn down. Those venues never seem to be in danger, alas.
The message, not to be too flip, is that that you can incinerate a theatre building, but not a theatrical imagination. Drury Lane reopened in 1812. Playbox moved into its present venue, the beautifully restored CUB Malthouse in 1990. Theatre folk have survival in their blood, so while the recent photographs of La Mama blackened and hollowed out are heart wrenching and confronting, this is not the moment to admit any kind of defeat. It is, though, a moment for historical reflection.
Didn’t see European Features at La Mama in 1989? Then you missed Cate Blanchett’s first listed professional engagement.
History is a fraught topic in Australia. For some people, it is simply time’s waste product, the thing that gets left behind by the thing that really matters – “the now”. For others, the past is profoundly uncomfortable and best avoided under all but the most controlled, state-sponsored circumstances.
Finally there are the wall-eyed idiot-acolytes of the church of innovation, always looking to sweep things away and replace them with a “disrupted” vision of an ever-beckoning future full of good, usually on-line, things.
The Now, the Narrow and the New, come together to defeat a meaningful sense of history, and what genuine lessons might be taken from it.
But cop this. There are over 1,200 shows under the La Mama entry in the AusStage database. That’s a lot. They range from the first, Three Old Friends, in July 1967, to the latest, Echo, punched-in September last year. That’s around 24 shows a year, for 50 years.
A quick trot through the AusStage index gives a sense of the importance of these productions to the silver river of Australian drama: the Brainrot season and “microplays” in the 1960s; The Removalists, Albert Names Edward, Dimboola, and The Violin Bird in the 1970s; the Theatre of Cruelty season, The Old Woman at the Window, Lily and May, and A White Sports Coat in the 1980s; Advice from a Caterpillar, Woman in the Wall, The Eye of Martha Needle, It’s My Party (and I’ll Die if I Want To), The Fertility of Objects, No Man’s Island, and the Keene-Taylor seasons in the 1990s; The Governor’s Family, The Aliens, The Lightkeeper, The Pitch, Hold the Pickle, and Wretch in the 2000s.
These and countless other plays are important for what they said, how they said it, who did them, who saw them, or their place in the development of bodies of work whose peaks we celebrate without being aware of the effort that went into achieving them.
Didn’t see European Features (La Mama, 1989)? “A scavenging, poetic autobiography by long-term La Mama associate, Kris Hemensley, tracing the author through the European influences that have shaped his writing.” Then you missed Cate Blanchett’s first listed professional engagement.
Theatre, like everything else in the world, comes from somewhere. La Mama is one of the somewheres it comes from, a focal point of stupendous creative energy that has been fed by thousands of artists and hundreds of shows.
My first thought on hearing about the fire – and apologies, it’s again lamentably flip – was ‘well, that’s one way to get the paint off the walls.’ For sure, nothing else was going to. It was thicker than the bricks.
My second was pondering how the damaged building would be a fantastic setting for some play or other – a post-apocalyptic drama, probably, with a feel of all-round physical destruction that didn’t have to be recreated by Styrofoam and matt black paint.
Then I thought, ‘how much I can afford to give?’, and imagined how many other people were having the exact same thought, and thus how, hopefully, the cost of rebuilding the venue will not be crazily prohibitive.
But even if it is prohibitive, La Mama will be rebuilt. It will be hard and weary work, especially for the company and its staff. But it will be done, and done well. And when it’s complete, La Mama will stand more proudly on its foundations than ever before, having survived another blow to its body, but not its soul.
The seven plagues of Egypt in the full power of their biblical destruction can’t burn that away.
Image: Firefighters at La Mama on Saturday morning. Photo by Rick Evertsz, courtesy of La Mama Facebook