La Mama: How not just to survive, but thrive after a theatre fire

“La Mama theatre is a Melbourne masterpiece, a critically important part of our theatre history and living performance ecology,” writes Carrillo Gantner of the tiny Carlton theatre founded 51 years ago by Betty Burstall. 

La Mama, arguably the birthplace of contemporary Australian theatre, was destroyed by fire as a result of an electrical fault early on Saturday morning.

Gantner, who co-founded and ran Playbox Theatre Company (now Malthouse), recalls below how his theatre was destroyed by fire in 1984 at its first home in Exhibition Street, Melbourne. His advice is that La Mama can, and must rise again.

“The message to our dear friend Liz Jones and the La Mama team is that when you have finished grieving deeply as you must – and we all grieve with you – it will be time to gird the loins, harness the support that wants to be told how to give, and begin the journey to some better future,” he writes.


Liz Jones and her team at La Mama will be feeling desperately sick after the devastating fire at La Mama early Saturday morning, yet fire can cleanse, re-energise and bring forth strong new growth.

When the Playbox Theatre in Exhibition Street, Melbourne, was gutted by fire in February 1984, I was playing Albert Einstein in the Company’s production of Insignificance by Terry Johnson at the Sydney Opera House. It was our first really big hit. I had borrowed a friend’s studio flat in the Rocks and every night after the show I unwound as I walked back around Circular Quay to the small flat just in front of the Harbour Bridge. Every night was different with changing vistas of ships and ferries, people dining outside in the balmy air and music drifting into the street from open pub doors.

I was woken at about 6am by an insistent phone. I struggled to get out of bed and cross the room to answer. It was Jill Smith, our wonderful General Manager at Playbox, who told me that our home theatre had been burnt out overnight. At first I thought it was a prank but her crying and distress made the truth quickly obvious. After hanging up, I sat naked and empty in a chair, now crying myself, for at least 40 minutes, my mind blank and feeling utterly lost. Then suddenly I leapt up, dressed as in a panic, and ran out to find a taxi to the airport. I took the first flight I could get on to Melbourne, then another taxi straight to the theatre.

With Jill and other staff, we toured the smouldering theatre and inspected the offices upstairs that were badly damaged by smoke and water. We talked to the firemen finishing their job and those who came to look for clues as to how the fire had started (we were later advised they thought it was arson). The rows of skeletal twisted metal seat frames in the auditorium reminded us that this could have been even worse. The fire had happened in the middle of the night long after the audience and staff had gone home, so no one had been hurt.

Late morning, Jill and I held a press conference in the ruins. The tag line we had agreed to, me with my wild Einstein hair, was “Burnt but Buoyant”. I could have added another “B” word – “Bullshit”. We were desperate to project resilience and determination to overcome all odds but inside we were utterly gutted, weepy and undone. How could this have happened just when we were riding our first wave of success and beginning to build audiences confident that our work had both edge and quality? How could we present the new season currently being marketed if we had no theatre? Who might support us now? Suddenly and cruelly we were in the deepest pit at the bottom of the longest snake and there were no ladders in sight.

You have lost so much, but kicking through the stinking black ashes you will discover new green growth.

We spent the rest of the day doing interviews, consoling staff, supporters and each other, hunting through the ashes for anything that might have survived. At about 5pm someone, I think it was our production manager Sandra Matlock, said to me, “Don’t you have a show in Sydney tonight?” Oh shit. I had utterly forgotten. I raced for a taxi, caught the first flight I could get to Sydney, another taxi straight to stage door at the Opera House. My make-up was rushed, no time tonight to do my legs with the usual varicose veins, and certainly no time for the usual pre-show warm up and vocal exercises, and then I was in the wings waiting for my cue from Kate Fitzpatrick as Marilyn Monroe. The delightftul premise of the play is that Marilyn is trying to bed Einstein. She flirts deliciously while delivering a brilliant explanation of the Theory of Relativity. The audience must have been utterly confused that night – why was silly old Albert crying all night when any other man would have been popping French champagne?

For the next four weeks until the Opera House season was finished, I flew to Melbourne for the day two or three times a week, but now I watched the clock more closely. The show only once started late when our plane was forced to circle over Wagga while a storm passed through Sydney. During these days in Melbourne and, for the whole crew, for every other waking hour of the week, the Playbox team worked as one to relocate our forthcoming season to St Martin’s Theatre in South Yarra, to open a city box office in Collins Place across the street from the shell of the Playbox Theatre, to contract out scenery construction and lease temporary wardrobe space.

Offers of support, large and small, came from everywhere. George Fairfax, CEO at the Victorian Centre, invited Playbox to open its second season later in the year as the resident company in the new Studio Theatre. Indeed we had the honour of being the very first theatre production in the new Arts Centre Theatres Building when we opened A Stretch of the Imagination by Jack Hibberd in the Studio a night before the Melbourne Theatre Company christened the Playhouse with its production of Medea. After the MTC had promoted itself for years as the only drama company to perform at the sumptuous and soon-to-open Arts Centre, we couldn’t help crowing on the cover of our brochure for the season with: “First into the Arts Centre”.

Upstairs foyer of Playbox Theatre after the 1984 fire. Courtesy: Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Over the next few years Playbox continued to produce two seasons of plays each year, to utilise the Studio at the Arts Centre and sometimes other venues, all the while coping with the difficulties of operating from multiple offices, rehearsal and production rooms scattered around the city and suburbs. The team was magnificent in their united motivation to overcome all obstacles but it was very tough.

At the same time we began our search for new a new home. We knew that if we wanted to keep the audience we were building, this had to be in, or very near to the CBD. At the end of 1984 when I committed to take up the role of Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, it seemed certain that the problem had been solved, we would take over the Chelsea Cinema in Flinders St, but ultimately this fell through. Among other sites we visited, I suggested to our resident designer John Beckett that he look at the old Malthouse down Sturt St, behind the Arts Centre in South Melbourne. In 1976, the very first year of Playbox, then known as Hoopla, when the Malthouse was owned by Barrett Bros & Burston, I had looked at the site which was coming onto the market but they had wanted $1million to sell at a time when our company didn’t have $10,000. Instead the old Playbox Theatre had become our home in 1977 after Kenn Brodziack and Harry Miller found it too small in make money with commercial shows and abandoned the lease.

Now in the mid 1980s, the Malthouse was owned by Carlton & United Breweries. They had bought it in order to achieve vertical integration of the malting business but the Sturt St building was past its use-by date for the large corporation –  It had 19thCentury technology and only about 12 years left on its Crown Lease. Our Chairman Graeme Samuel met with CUB Chairman John Elliot who agreed to make the magnificent gift of the building to Playbox. I didn’t much care for the Carlton Football Club but John Elliot became our hero.

We raised $6 million for the conversion (that’s another tale of slog and sweat) and in 1990 The Malthouse reopened with two theatres, The Merlyn (named after Dame Merlyn Myer to mark the support of the Sidney Myer Fund) and the Beckett (named not after Samuel Beckett as many believed, but rather after our scintillatingly brilliant designer and wunderkind John Beckett who created magical spaces out of very thin air, who brought architects and engineers to common understandings when they said things couldn’t be done, and who shared our intensely passionate belief that disaster can be turned to triumph. John taught me that if you change something at one end of a building by three inches, you will be out by a foot at the other end of the building! He once told me that although the popular book at that time, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, had proved that the secret of the universe was 42, he had studied the matter and the book was simply wrong. The secret of the universe, he told me seriously, was really 52. Who was I to argue? After what he had achieved, I believed him. All of us at Playbox believed him.

La Mama is a Melbourne masterpiece, a critically important part of our theatre history and living performance ecology. It can and must rise again though its new form is yet unknown. The message to our dear friend Liz Jones and the La Mama team is that when you have finished grieving deeply as you must – and we all grieve with you – it will be time to gird the loins, harness the support that wants to be told how to give, and begin the journey to some better future. It is a very hard road – there are false starts, dead ends, muddy crevasses and seemingly impossible peaks to be scaled in the midst of appalling storms – but many will want to help you along the way. Find the trail or make the trail and ask for help. You have lost so much, but kicking through the stinking black ashes you will discover new green growth.

La Mama is much loved by artists and audiences; the idea of La Mama as a fertile breeding ground for young writers, actors, directors, designers and production crews is loved by many more, even by those who may have never entered this tiny creative and invaluable theatrical treasure house.

Let the next chapter of your amazing story begin.

Carrillo Gantner AO was artistic director of Playbox Theatre Company, 1976-1984 and 1988-1996


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