This year Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre celebrates its 50th year of operation. In an interview for the company’s 20th anniversary, the founding director Betty Burstall said:
The basic thing is the money. As it was originally posited, [La Mama] had no money. Now it has grants. But it is not dependent on its box office. It can’t be dictated to on economic grounds in any way. It’s administratively a one-man show. It’s not hampered by committees. It has an extreme flexibility: no one runs any line on theatre, or has any theoretical position on actors, writers, directors or anything.
La Mama is a unique institution. But the working conditions Burstall described are not. Once called “little theatres”, now called “independent”, these companies are the ones largely responsible for the development of Australian drama. Sometimes they go by the bland appellation “pro-am”, a mixture of high standards and basic budgets that has characterised Australian theatre from Federation onwards.
In Melbourne, they include the Melbourne Repertory Theatre started by Gregan McMahon in 1911; the Pioneer Players founded by Louis Esson, Hilda Bull and Vance Palmer in 1922; the Arrow Theatre launched by Frank Thring in 1951; and the Emerald Hill Theatre Company established by Wal Cherry and George Whaley in 1961.
Each of these theatres, though differing in philosophy from La Mama, and less long-lived, was similar in their combination of penury and professionalism. The list could be extended to other states. It includes La Boite in Queensland, the Hole in the Wall in Western Australia, and Zootango Theatre Company in Tasmania.
Subtract such companies from the history of Australian theatre and what’s left is a stunted narrative of Anglo-centric commercial production and self-pleasing amateur shows. We owe independent theatres a double debt of gratitude. On the one hand, they provide an outlet for “surplus excellence”; on the other they take the lead in shaping our collective theatrical imagination.
This is the value proposition La Mama represents. It is one that we should be able to pars in policy terms. Yet in 2006, the Australia Council put the company “on notice”, threatening its triennial funding. And in 2008, the company nearly lost its ex-shirt factory venue, which was saved only by an unprecedented groundswell of community support.
These events suggest that governments still struggle to relate to the reality of how theatre is created. Take any recent cultural policy and what you find is a dose of decontextualized metrics in a torrent of unclear prose. But what else can governments do? What is the alternative?
La Mama is a good place to understand creativity in more concrete ways. Perhaps the first thing to note is the number of people who have worked there. To get a sense of this, we can look at AusStage, the world’s leading database for the performing arts. It’s a mine of usefully linked information (upwards of 94,000 event entries), and via its open access web interface it is possible to demonstrate what La Mama has achieved.
The image below is a word cloud that shows the 200 most actively involved practitioners out of the 3000-plus who have staged shows at La Mama. The bigger the font the more productions they are associated with. It’s a dense brick of names and includes an astonishing range of directors, designers, actors, playwrights and devisers. When we hear about “the theatre ecology”, it’s this tissue of connection that is being referred to.
We can also look at the relationships between productions and people. Take a show from the middle of the company’s history, Distant Lights from Dark Places (1994), by writer Andrew Bovell. With AusStage’s networking tool (a button inlaid next to every event entry), it is possible to show the links between each contributor to Distant Lights and the theatre production they were involved with before and after it.
And the image below shows the same Distant Lights contributor network with links to two theatre productions before and after it.
With network maps like these, it is possible to see that not only has La Mama produced a huge variety of plays by a notable range of artists, but it substantively contributed to the non-La Mama work they did.
Distant Lights is an illuminating example because it marks a moment of creative transition for Bovell, as he explored the fragmented and elliptical narrative structures that have come to define his oeuvre.
The lineage begins with Like Whiskey On the Breath of a Drunk You Love, premiered by Five Dollar Theatre Company in 1992 and produced by the Griffin Theatre Company later the same year. This play eventually became the first two scenes of Bovell’s seminal drama, Speaking in Tongues (1997).
Distant Lights From Dark Places was produced at La Mama by Chameleon Theatre in a season titled Tidal Wave in 1994. Like Whiskey it was staged by the Griffin soon after. It provided the middle scenes of Speaking in Tongues.
The Griffin then commissioned Bovell to write a third piece for a program of three short plays. Instead he expanded the previous two to create a full-length drama, which later became the basis for the award-winning film Lantana (2001), via an evening of monologues produced at Playbox Theatre called Confidentially Yours (1998).
For Bovell, one of Australia’s most renown playwrights and screenwriters, it was a decade-long creative experiment from Whiskey to Lantana in which La Mama played a crucial role.
This is how value in theatre actually accrues. It is embodied and enacted through relationships, and these relationships are enabled by the institutional structures that support them. The relationships exist only as a potential until a company like La Mama gives them a concrete place in the world.
When considering La Mama’s value proposition, or the value proposition of any theatre company, we should resist the temptation to ignore history and context and focus on just numerical outputs. Numbers are only an indication that something is going on, an invitation to investigate further.
And when we do investigate, what emerges are stories of imagination-in-action, in La Mama’s case, literally thousands of stories. Bundled together they create a meta-narrative that is exciting, unstable, incalculable and rewarding – in short, creative.
I don’t know how many La Mama shows I have seen in my time, perhaps around 50. Some of them were so awful I’ve wanted to slide through the cracks on the floor. Some of them are among the best nights I have spent in the theatre. I have directed three productions there myself. I’ll leave others to judge those. The worst and the best are joined in close intimacy, and it is only when the former is tolerated that the latter appears.
Theatre is not a matter of product upgrades. It does not improve in the way our i-phones improve, as a bundle of technical functions. It changes as we change, and companies like La Mama reflect our collective journey in matchless creative synchronicity.