Early Sunday morning, an old friend from high school who’s now in news PM’d me to say “have you seen the news?”
Seemed spammy. Not a lot of specific detail. I ignored it. I remember the last time any one texted me something like that out of the blue, the World Trade Centre in New York had been destroyed. I make coffee. I come back to find a missed call from another old friend from uni. As I’m opening the text that comes with it I’m opening Facebook on my laptop and both devices tell me at the same time that La Mama has burned down during the night. I look up and my wife is looking at me horror-struck with her phone in her hand.
News travels fast.
Throughout the day I watch as the events unfold online. It’s interesting how shock ripples through a community in the era of social media. Pictures are shared of the damage. Weirdly comforting that so much of the building is still recognisable. Anxiety that there was still a ruling to come on the structural integrity of the remains and that we might yet loose even this much. More texts come in. People like posts. People share them. More pictures. A picture of Liz on the phone surveying the damage and the fireys. Bright flash of worry for the company archives, fifty years! Allayed. Most things were moved off site years ago to various locations, to Melbourne Uni and the State Library of Victoria (you should arrange a time to go look through them, to see with your own eyes these fragile remains of our shared history – you really should.) The photo of the La Mama crew, banded together outside on Faraday Street, the blackened and collapsed shell of the old shirt factory behind them.
I’m reminded all day of Jo Litson’s three word mantra in the days after the Playbox theatre on Exhibition street burned down in 1984 – Burnt but Buoyant. And the situation is much less dire for La Mama than it was for Playbox. Unlike La Mama, Playbox didn’t own The Playbox, and so when developers showed zero interest in rebuilding a theatre on the Exhibition street site, the company was left without a physical home. La Mama owns that building and the insurance will go some way towards rebuilding and repairing. They still have the Carlton Courthouse around the corner, where their programming can continue undeterred. Most important, as was demonstrated immediately in the wake of the fire and was indeed at the heart of La Mama’s security, is the La Mama community itself. Someone said online in the hours that followed that La Mama is not a building; it is the community of people who gather there. With the support of that community La Mama purchased the site in 2008 after the death of owner Rose Del Monaco.
I wrote in my most recent video that theatres burn down a lot in Australian theatre history. To take issue with me from the past a little, I simplified things there for the sake of dramatic effect. Theatres don’t necessarily seem to burn down more often in Australia than anywhere else in the world. In comparison to other art forms or cultural edifices however, say fine arts galleries or libraries, theatres have a reputation of going up in flames. The causes for this are perhaps pedestrian: poor funding results in less than ideal conditions; repairs and maintenance have to be kept at subsistence levels in the name of (enforced) economic efficiency; high levels of usage results in inevitable wear and tear.
Jenny Fewster wrote an article about theatre fires only a few months ago for Stage Whispers. In it she lists:
“In the latter half of the 19th century alone more than fifteen theatres in Australia were completely destroyed by fire. … Those destroyed (1850 -1900) include The Prince of Wales, Sydney (1860 and again in 1872), Olympic, Melbourne (1866), Haymarket Theatre and Apollo Hall, Melbourne (1872), Theatre Royal, Melbourne (1872), Prince of Wales, Melbourne (1872), Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney (1880), Bijou Theatre, Melbourne (1889), Theatre Royal, Sydney (1892), Theatre Royal, Broken Hill (1894), Tivoli Theatre, Sydney (1899), and Theatre Royal, Ballarat (1899).”
Fewster makes the point that the theatre fire looms large in our collective imagination because we still take into account this rash of Victorian era theatre fires, which were attributable to the use of open flame as lighting before electricity, or poorly wired lamps in the early days of electricity, all in close proximity to oil painted back drops, piles of flammable curtain material and thatched roofs. Still, as several articles that appeared in the week that followed were quick to note (as am I, if I’m honest) the Playbox theatre only burned down in 1984.
The La Mama fire, unlike many other these other theatre fires, resulted in no loss of life, no loss of archival material and no loss of company. The loss of the Playbox caused the company to work out of other venues for years as a new permanent home was found for them, and this had a considerable impact on the local theatre landscape throughout the 1980s.
This is of course not to say that there is no cost to the damage to La Mama. The workload now placed on the company to manage the ongoing business of producing independent theatre will be considerable. The management of La Mama is conducted by some of the toughest, noblest and finest women in this city and I have nothing but faith in them but they will need the support of the rest of us, the La Mama community.
When the time comes, and it must be approaching, that a crowd funding campaign is launched, I’m sure everyone will give according to their ability. In the meantime, and into the future, a really excellent way to support La Mama and help them get back to running on both engines again is go see the work that they are still producing. The La Mama building is, and always has been, a hub for many communities in Melbourne. The life of that building is in these communities, not in the thousands of layers of paint that covered the walls. Though rescuing some of that paint might be wise, the number of times it has figured in people’s recollections of the building is approaching the mythic.
Far less than the occurrence of the fire itself, I’m struck most by the resilience of the La Mama community, how quickly they came together to grieve and then get back to work. I feel the ironclad certainty that La Mama will go on. After a moment of sickening vertigo as the internal landscape of my world changed around the idea of the loss of La Mama, the indestructible nature of what La Mama is reasserted itself, and each memory and picture of shows seen or done there shared online that week cemented that feeling more.
Julian Meyrick listed a handful of the important or influential works that have been staged there over its fifty years:
“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.”
Similar lists were offered in the slew of articles written in support of the company, noting the now famous actors and artists who got their start or worked there early on. Much has been and will be made of the crucial role La Mama plays in the network of Australian theatre, as a space for experiment and emergence, and deservedly so. The strength of La Mama though is as much the people who are not on the stage, as it is those who are.
The deeper question is, what does La Mama’s resilience represent? In a cultural environment where companies the size of La Mama are lucky to last a decade, where audiences are broadly disconnected and subsidy steadily reduced, La Mama has managed not only to remain, but to survive and grow. Much of the credit for this must be given, of course, to artistic director Liz Jones, but I’m sure she’d be the first to say that the community that surrounds La Mama is what makes the difference. La Mama survives and persists because we keep it alive. We see its value, we believe in its leaders and we do what is necessary to preserve it.
Because it is ours and we need it.