On July 29, La Mama Theatre will blow out 50 candles and toast to half a century of success since it first opened its doors.
The iconic theatre began celebrations last week with a mini-festival spanning several weeks and featuring performances from various La Mama alumni.
And what would a birthday be without a party?
On August 12, La Mama will celebrate its Golden Jubilee with a birthday party, complete with performances and music from members of the arts community, and the launch of its new book La Mama.
Internationally revered as a melting pot for cutting edge, contemporary theatre, and the home of alternative and experimental local work, La Mama Theatre opened its doors in the winter of 1967.
Sitting on 205 Faraday Street, in the vibrant suburb of Carlton, the theatre is housed in a two storey brick building which formerly served as a lingerie and shirt factory.
The building, which was originally rented for $28 a week, was later joined by a second venue around the corner, a decommissioned courthouse known as La Mama Courthouse.
The theatre was established by Betty Burstall, who was inspired by the "off-off-Broadway" theatre scene in New York City after a trip to the US with her husband, filmmaker Tim Burstall, in the 1960s.
La Mama was modelled after the similarly named New York venue La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, a place which embodied the vibrancy and immediacy of the small theatres there during that era.
“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 you saw a performance, and if you felt like it you put some money in a hat for the actors,” Ms Burstall said in an interview.
“It was very immediate and exciting and when I came back to Melbourne I wanted to keep going, but there didn't exist such a place... I decided on Carlton because in 1967 it was a lively, tatty area with an Italian atmosphere and plenty of students."
Famous for its tradition of free coffee and a blazing fire at the end of the room, La Mama Theatre was described by its founder as “essentially a playwright’s theatre, a place where new ideas, new ways of expression can be tried out, a place where you can hear what people are thinking and feeling”.
At a time when the production of Australian plays was almost non-existent and not necessarily financially viable, La Mama's not-for-profit nature fostered the creation and performance of new experimental Australian theatre works in an unprecedented way.
The first play performed at La Mama was a work by a new Australian writer Jack Hibberd, entitled Three Old Friends, and within the first two years of its life, 25 new Australian plays had premiered there, marking the emergence of a distinctly Australian style of theatre.
Over the years, La Mama has become an entry point to the industry for emerging artists, a place of unparalleled freedom for established actors and a must-see icon for artists and audiences across the globe.
It has also become a place where diversity is celebrated, and Indigenous culture is recognised and promoted, through plays such as Corranderk and other works by the Ilbijerri Theatre Company.
The theatre now boasts an impressive list of alumni, including David Williamson, Cate Blanchett, Jack Hibberd, Graeme Blundell, Judith Lucy and Julia Zemiro.
Many Italo-Australian greats have also passed through the doors of La Mama, including Sicilian actor and director Mimmo Mangione, Milan-born actor Laura Lattuada, director Rosa Campagnaro with her Commedia dell’arte masterpieces, and crowd favourites Maria Portesi and Carmelina Di Guglielmo.
Proud of her 38-year history with La Mama, Ms Di Guglielmo first performed there in April 1981, taking centre stage in a one-woman play called The Jack and Jill Story, written by Paul Adkin.
The production went on to have a second season and Ms Di Guglielmo performed it for the Fringe Festival in 1982, embarking on a career path which she continues on today.
The talented actor has performed in around a dozen productions at La Mama, including La Befana, Café Misto, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and an exploration called The Restoration of Adelaide Ristori, based on the famous Italian tragedienne who toured Australia with her whole theatre company in 1875.
At the moment, she is also performing Tes Lyssiotis’ Hotel Bonegilla as part of La Mama’s mini-festival, 34 years after it was staged there for the first time ever.
When she’s not on the stage, Ms Di Guglielmo is on the other side of the theatre, working front of house.
“For me, it’s a powerful touchstone to be connected to the arts and theatre even when I’m not performing,” she said.
Ms Di Guglielmo recalls the golden era of the late 1960s and 1970s, when La Mama was new, evolving and exciting.
“It was a thriving mecca of arts and it really attracted artists and creativity; it was a very rich epicentre of Carlton,” she explained.
Ms Di Guglielmo adds that while the theatre was there as Carlton flourished into a thriving community, it has also survived the test of time as its surroundings continue to change.
“It’s still there with its artistic integrity intact, whereas the whole face of Carlton has shifted tremendously,” she said.
“Things evolve and change. It’s the end of an era, but La Mama is holding firm as a vital and viable organism to facilitate the work of a lot of new young people.”
The building still stands, but more importantly, the artists still flock to fill it and give it life and meaning.
“People are there for the sincerity of their art form and the ugly side of egos is rarely seen,” Ms Di Guglielmo said.
The theatre space is left black as a blank canvas for artists to paint over with each new show, and La Mama regulars have a running joke that the space gets smaller with every coat of paint.
“There’s about an inch of paint on the walls,” Ms Di Guglielmo laughed.
That inch of paint is a symbol of how La Mama has served as an icon of Melbourne theatre, a safe environment for artists young and old, and a place for humanity which recognises and respects diversity, for 50 years.
We can only hope another 50 years of La Mama is on the horizon.