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La Mama, Victoria's Most Famous Independent Theatre, Turns 50

Picture of Monique La Terra
Updated: 18 July 2017
It was a trip to New York in the 1960s that inspired school teacher Betty Burstall to establish a not-for-profit theatre that would go on to blaze a trail for the development of emerging Australian drama. Fifty years on, La Mama continues to inspire fledgling artists.

Modelled after La MaMa on New York’s lower east side, the intimate theatre which has a maximum capacity of 45 was founded in 1967 on Faraday Street, Carlton in a former shirt and underwear factory.

“We were poor. It was impossible to go to the theatre – even to see a film was expensive – but there were these places where you paid fifty cents for a cup of coffee and a performance, and if you felt like it you put some money in a hat for the actors… It was very immediate and exciting, and when I came back to Melbourne I wanted to keep it going, but there didn’t exist such a place,” Burstall said in a 1988 interview.

On July 29th 1967, Jack Hibberd’s Three Old Friends became the first play to be staged at the theatre and with feverish momentum, La Mama’s popularity flourished. Today, the theatre presents over 100 productions each year with more than 50 new Australian works premiering annually, and is recognised nationally as an experimental platform for novice actors, directors, and playwrights.

“What it does is offer a whole lot of people a very accessible and supportive environment in which to experiment with work – to put on the dream that you’ve had for a long time, the very first work, the work that was hardest and that people reject all over the place, the work that needs that wonderful period of experimentation – and La Mama has always been open to it”, award-winning playwright Patricia Cornelius says.

Photo by Darren Gill Courtesy La Mama Theatre
Photo by Darren Gill Courtesy La Mama Theatre

Other notable alumni who cut their teeth at La Mama include Cate Blanchett, Barry Dickens, Julia Zemiro, Daniel Schlusser, Judith Lucy, Nicola Gunn and the late Margaret Cameron.

In 1976, Liz Jones was handed the reins becoming the theatre’s Artistic Director and Administrator, a role she continues to hold today. Championing the voices of women and the Indigenous community, Jones and La Mama sought to collaborate with marginalized groups and push the boundaries of Australian theatre.

Photo by Darren Gill Courtesy La Mama Theatre
Photo by Darren Gill Courtesy La Mama Theatre

As a part of La Mama’s Golden Jubilee anniversary, the theatre is holding a mini-fest of works by alumni, featuring new plays and old favourites across July and August at La Mama Theatre and La Mama Courthouse, Carlton. In addition, playwright and author Adam Cass has released a new history of La Mama through Miegunyah Press. La Mama’s 50th anniversary party and Adam Cass’s book launch will take place on Saturday 12 August. See lamama.com.au for details.