La Mama

The Biggest Little Theatre in Australia

Imagine a crisp spring evening in late September 1977. La Mama Theatre in Carlton is celebrating its 10th birthday with a mini festival of notable productions. Tonight is a revival with the original cast of David Williamson's brutal suburban comedy The Removalists.

Photo: James Claydon.
Theatre and Dance Platform, La Mama Collection

The queue for tickets spills out onto Faraday Street. It's only five years since its premiere, also at La Mama, but already the play is regarded as an Australian classic. Nearly a hundred punters are waiting in line, although the theatre only seats fifty. Those at the back of the queue are looking concerned.

Photo: Jyl Gocher.
Theatre and Dance Platform, La Mama Collection

The lights go down and there they are. Peter Cummins as the brutal old policeman and William Gluth as the young deputy just out of training college.

La Mama Theatre, located on Faraday Street in Carlton, has been a generative hub for the production of new plays, ensemble performances and diverse cultural activities for more than fifty years.

La Mama Theatre was founded in 1967 by Betty Burstall (1926-2013) on the site of a former printer’s workshop in a building owned by the Del Monaco family.

Inspired by the downtown scene in New York, and their venue called La Mama, Burstall envisioned Melbourne’s La Mama as a place for all kinds of dramatic performance, from controversial happenings to music concerts and poetry readings.

In 1976, Liz Jones took over as artistic director and she gave renewed emphasis to La Mama's role in nurturing emerging theatre makers.

Relations with the Del Monaco family remained cordial over the decades and in 2007, after the death of Rose Del Monaco, the company was able to purchase the property.

Photo: Tony Figallo Theatre and Dance Platform

Jack Charles discusses seeing and making new work at La Mama in the early days and the venue's unique open-door policy.

La Mama is famous for its unique posters which continue to be stuck up on walls and coffee shops and pubs across Carlton and the inner city. Many of these original art works are held in the University of Melbourne Archives.

Many performers have spoken about the distinctiveness of making work at La Mama with all its constraints of size and technology, but what makes La Mama an important and unique space?

Many of Australia’s significant playwrights as well as hundreds of well-known actors, directors and designers have worked at La Mama, attracted by the flexible open door policy of the company. A random sample of the many individuals who have worked there in various capacities since the 1970s include Steve Bisley.

Who? by Jack Hibberd. Jon Hawkes, Martin Phelan, Lindsay Smith
Photo: Lloyd Carrick.
Theatre and Dance Platform

There can’t be any other theatre in Australia where that particular vibration of nervous humour could be nurtured. It must have something to do with the shape of the building.

Helen Garner, 1982

No props, no make-up, small casts, none of the traditional trappings. A direct, rough, hard-hitting theatre with the actors right there next to you, close enough to touch.

Barry Oakley, 1975

The little kitchen in the corner, like a fairy-tale kitchen, with the fire burning in the hearth. It’s like going home to Mum, archetypally, to go there.

Helen Garner, 1982

Hand-drawn floor plan by James Clayden
University of Melbourne Archives

William 37 by Adam Cass. Noni Bousfield, Hayley Butcher, Ian DeLacy, Vicki Fifis, Chris Molyneux, Lucas Wilson
University of Melbourne Archives

The Fire

In the early hours of Saturday morning, 19 May 2018, an electrical fault in the upstairs office started a fire that ripped through this beloved theatre. The blaze, which took fire-fighters forty minutes to bring under control, completely gutted the 135-year-old building.

Photo: Rick Evertsz

Viva La Mama

After the fire, La Mama committed to rebuilding the Faraday Street theatre and embarked on an ambitious fundraising campaign. The campaign was successful and on Thursday 21 November 2019 the first sod was turned at a celebration to mark the beginning of reconstruction and the next chapter in the La Mama story. The renovated building, with additional rehearsal space and improved front of house amenities, is expected to be complete in early 2021. Viva La Mama!

La Mama's archive of production and administration files have been held by the University of Melbourne Archives since 1977. This collection includes photographs, posters, postcards, flyers, scripts, letters, emails, financial accounts and much more. Fortunately, although some files relating to the years between 2016 and 2018 were lost in the fire, the bulk of the archive remains intact and can be accessed by researchers through the University’s Reading Room in the Baillieu Library.

The University of Melbourne, in partnership with La Mama, is committed to digitising this significant archival resource, creating new opportunities to explore the rich history of the performing arts in Melbourne and making it accessible to a wider audience. To view digitised items in the La Mama collection visit the Theatre and Dance Platform. To view a list of the full La Mama archive visit the University of Melbourne Archives.

This interactive multimedia project was created by Rachel Fensham and Andrew Fuhrmann for the Digital Studio at University of Melbourne and Digital Heritage Australia. Our thanks to co-CEO and company manager Caitlin Dullard, archivist Fiona Wiseman and the rest of the La Mama team for their support.