Firstly, content warning, this post includes racial language and mentions social issues that might make you uncomfortable. La Mama Theatre has never shied away from the problem points in society, so they are also laid out here for you to question.
Melbourne’s fringe theatre movement boomed in the 1960s. The University of Melbourne’s Union Theatre reopened with a new performance space, the Guild Theatre. The Union Repertory Company was also renamed as the Melbourne Theatre Company. In 1967 Betty Burstall, who was married to film director Tim Burstall, leased an old factory on Faraday St. in Carlton and opened La Mama Theatre.
La Mama was inspired by, and named after, the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York. It was set up as a not-for-profit that would support high risk art by offering a space with low financial risk. There is something warm and welcoming about the place. Its higgledy-piggledy office is part dressing room and part stage set, with costumes hanging from the roof, old sets used instead of office partitions and spare spotlights filling floor to ceiling shelves. Betty Burstall pointed out in a 1987 interview that the name La Mama “hinted of nurturing”. It still rings true.
La Mama’s archives are held in the University of Melbourne’s collections, but are still owned by the Theatre. There are boxes of old scripts, correspondence, light rigging manuals, actor profiles, news clippings and all sorts of things in-between.
A few of La Mama’s old posters are still kept at the main theatre. I went along to have a look. Their images swirl around or stare you blank in the face. Doug Ander’s play ‘Our Dick’ was performed by a theatre troupe called Tribe, with the poster by Bob Daley. The troupe was an experimental commune that lived in a share house of 11 people throughout the 70s.
Barry Dickens painted his own posters for the plays ‘The Bridal Suite’, ‘The Death of Mine’ and ‘The Banana Bender’. He even took his brushes to La Mama’s fence and painted an image across it to promote one of his plays.
‘The Removalist’, written by David Williamson and directed by Bruce Spence, had a poster produced by the student of George Baldessin. Baldessin’s own work can be seen in the poster for ‘Uncle Ben’. You might be starting to get a sense of all the people linked to the La Mama community. All the artists and producers putting their skills together to make the weird and the wonderful.
That community has always been important in supporting La Mama’s high risk art. One poster pulled out from the collection was for the 1977 showing of two plays, ‘No Worries’ by Cliff Ellen and ‘Norm and Ahmed’ by Alexander Buzo. ‘Norm and Ahmed’ had premiered in Sydney in 1968 with the word ‘fuck’ in its last line. When it first came to be shown at La Mama in 1969, police, a defence council and a magistrate turned up in the audience along with, according to The Australian, “a hopeful crew of ABC television camera men” (24 July 1969). They got their story. At the end of the play Lindsay Smith and Graeme Blundell, an actor and the producer, were charged by the police with aiding and abetting obscenity. The next day, newspapers blurted their outrage.
The play itself is mostly filled with the jabbering of Norm, highlighting his prejudice in contrast to the patience of a Pakistani student, Ahmed. The dialogue brings into question the value of free speech, how it is used and what’s worth saying. Intriguingly, most reports following the arrest censored out the offending four letter word, but comfortably kept in another that today is rightfully far less forgivable. The last line was printed by multiple newspapers as “f– boongs”. It’s fair to say the reporters didn’t get the point of the play. It’s also a good chance to recognise the right, which today we may take for granted, to publish the word fuck and to choose not to publish the word b–.
By the 90s, local cafés that usually displayed La Mama’s posters wanted a sleeker look. They opted for small postcards and took down a clutter of old signs from their walls. Tiamo on Lygon Street still has a few down the back of the café.
The posters may have been replaced, but La Mama still supports work on the fringe that challenges its audiences and confronts social issues. It’s the Theatre’s 50th birthday coming up and if you want to join in with the celebrations, check out their events and program for the year: http://lamama.com.au/whats-on
Many thanks to Fiona Wiseman for showing me La Mama’s posters and giving me insights into the collection. She is doing incredible work in preserving the archive and making sure that people know the history of La Mama’s social purpose. Thanks also to Liz Jones, who has led the La Mama through thick and thin over the last forty years.
The La Mama’s collection can be accessed here: http://gallery.its.unimelb.edu.au/imu/imu.php?request=display&port=45208&id=d1f7&flag=start&offset=0&count=1&view=details&irn=113202&ecatalogue=on
And if you’d like to know more about its history, have a look here or check out these books:
Helen Garner, La Mama: the story of a theatre (Melbourne: McPhee Gribble Publishers, 1988)
La Mama by Adam Cass with the La Mama Community (Miegunyah Press, MUP 2017)