Being a poor uni student (who hasn’t actually started studying yet, but that’s beside the point), I like free things. So in typical Alanah style I was probably marginally too excited when I won a double pass (actually through my uni – they must have already worked out how much I like free things!) to see a play called The Process at La Mama Theatre, Carlton.
The beauty of free things is not simply that they are free. It’s also the way in which they expose you to ideas and avenues you might never experience otherwise. Of course, I’d heard of La Mama. For those who have not, it’s the most famous independent theatre in Melbourne so most Australians with a vested interested in the medium will know it at least by name. However, it not being a commercial venue and being located inconveniently far from my hometown (though only a ten minute walk from my uni, which I’m super happy about), I’d never seen anything there in my life.
Until last Wednesday.
Last Wednesday, I dragged a fellow theatre-loving friend onto the University-bound tram (I’m totally embellishing this story. She got us there… I had quite literally no idea where I was going) and right up to the entrance of La Mama Theatre. And when I saw the building for the first time, I simply fell in love. The venue is an old factory of two stories, made from brick, and I promise you I wouldn’t have given it a second glance had I not known it was a theatre. But since I did, the second I laid eyes upon it I found myself envisaging all the theatrical possibilities that could be brought to this endearing, heritage listed space… and I hadn’t even seen inside.
Walking through the gate, I fell even further in love and decided, before even collecting our tickets (let alone waiting to see if the show was any good), that I would be spending a good portion of the rest of my life seeing plays here. It’s no secret that I adore unorthodox performance spaces. Last year, I performed in a production of The Crucible staged in a barn at an historical homestead, and it was by far my favourite theatrical experience to date. As Mary Warren, screaming and convulsing on the floor of a venue renowned for ghost sightings and being shoved to the muddy ground by John Proctor in the heart of a Melbourne winter was exhilarating. There were moments when I felt genuine fear, and it was euphoric. Further, one of the most memorable shows I’ve seen, Theatre Works‘ Cut Snake was staged in an outdoor tent in St Kilda.
The vibe at La Mama reminded me in a way of my experience at the barn. The outdoor bar and box office were surrounded by people who appeared to be La Mama regulars. They all appeared to know each other, and it seemed as though they had all been there a while. They were sitting and chatting over drinks and there was an enchanting, friendly community vibe about the whole setup. I felt a little like an outsider walking in, though that’s not to say I felt unwelcome – just that I was a little unprepared, being so used to the hustle and bustle that comes with most theatre.
Our tickets were raffle tickets, torn from the pack by a lovely lady at the box office after I triumphantly bragged about my lucky win. At first I thought this was just a cheap method of issuing tickets (I wasn’t judging – to me, cheap things are second in excitingness only to free things), but I realised once we entered the theatre that there was actually a much cooler story behind it.
Before that, though, I went to the bathroom. Before we stop reading because that’s a gross thing to talk about, I promise I don’t usually make mention of these things in blog posts because I am, in fact, a civilised human. However, this was the most delightful bathroom I’ve ever seen. It was an outdoor unisex toilet, and it was very cramped and a little smelly. But covering the walls were quotes and messages penned by performers and patrons alike. Quotes about life, about theatre, cheeky comments about being on the toilet, messages of thanks to La Mama, people boasting ‘I performed at La Mama!’ Sure, I usually find graffiti gross and unnecessary in public bathrooms, but this was different. There was just something so charming and inviting about the whole venue – and if the friendly messages in the toilet did anything, they gave it more character.
After I’d finished exploring the bathroom, the lovely box office lady gathered us together, had a brief chat to us and led us into the theatre: a tiny, cosy performance space on the first floor of the factory. This is the main stage, but I know for a fact that performances are held in every little nook and cranny of La Mama Theatre. Sitting us down, you could tell this woman loved her job. She made a little speech about how much she looks forward to each opening night (it was opening night), and how she’d been to hundreds of opening nights, and how she couldn’t wait to find out what they’d done with this play and what we thought of it. Then she explained that every night at La Mama there was a raffle, and that’s what our tickets were for. She showed us the prizes, two lovely books, and then drew the raffle. I didn’t win, but the prospect of winning free things simply by attending the theatre is not something I’m going to contest.
The play was wonderful: both hysterical and heartbreaking. It was intimate, it was socially relevant (a commentary on Australia’s poor treatment of asylum seekers), it was satirical and it was memorable. I laughed, I cried and I marvelled at each of the three cast members’ talents: Ezekiel Day’s strong, moving presence as an asylum seeker in limbo, Sean Scully’s subtle hilarity in mocking through imitation both right and left-wing politicians and Jessica Muschamp’s melodramatic portrayal of a clueless lawyer and an equally clueless psychologist.
Afterwards, the box office lady stood back up, shared with us how much she’d loved the show and invited us all to have a drink with her and the cast, to let them know what we thought. I have never experienced professional theatre with so inclusive an atmosphere (the actors are established Australian television presences – this isn’t just a local show). My friend was hesitant to stay, so we didn’t – we were considerably younger than the rest of the audience and are both quite introverted, so we would have looked very out of place. But I really wish we had. Next time, I will.
On that note, the lack of youth in the audience saddened me. I really want to encourage young people to go and see shows like this. Theatre isn’t just Wicked and Legally Blonde (though I love both of these shows). It’s political, it’s powerful and it’s community-spirited. It’s happening everywhere, for everyone – in gardens, in barns, in old factories, but it’s a dying art form in Australia unfortunately, and I urge you to join me in bringing it back.
“I went out to the world, to see if I could not learn what life had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – ANON