Electrical fault identified as cause of La Mama blaze

Arson has been ruled out as the cause of the fire which gutted the heritage-listed Carlton theatre on Saturday morning.

Image via @MFB_NEWS

An electrical fault has been identified as the cause of a fire which gutted Carlton’s historic La Mama Theatre on Saturday.

Speaking with ABC broadcaster Jon Faine on Monday morning, La Mama’s Artistic Director, Liz Jones, said ‘it was an enormous relief’ to learn that the fire was not started deliberately.

‘It was started by an electrical fire under the stairs; there are no suspicious circumstances and that is just such a relief to me, because I couldn’t have borne the negatives that come with someone actually doing this on purpose or even by negligence,’ Jones said.

By the time the fire was brought under control the theatre was completely gutted. Only the brick walls remain standing.

Read: La Mama Theatre gutted by fire: sector shocked

The process now will be one of restoration rather than demolition, Jones continued. ‘Basically the gables have got to come down because they’re very unsupported, but once they come to the box structure, and you’ll know that La Mama is very square … and that of course braces itself and hopefully they can brace that. They’re dismantling it brick by brick, very carefully, and storing all the bricks downstairs so they can be reused.’  

Luckily, La Mama is insured, and the majority of the theatre’s archives – which were previously stored on site – have been held by Melbourne University since 2017, when a book celebrating La Mama’s 50th anniversary was published.

The weekend’s performances of the current La Mama production, Bully Virus, were staged at the nearby Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre, located a few blocks from the theatre.

A new venue for the remaining performances is still being sought and is expected to be announced shortly, according to director Kate Herbert.

Other solutions are being sought for the many other productions scheduled to be staged at La Mama in the coming months; temporary accommodation for the theatre’s staff is also being investigated.

Victoria’s Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley, told ArtsHub: ‘Melbourne’s arts community is extremely close-knit, this fire has brought out the best in people – offering support to make sure La Mama not only has a past but a strong future.

‘La Mama is the heart and soul of our independent theatre scene – and one of the great incubators and champions of local creative talent.

‘We’re working closely with Liz and La Mama to make sure the theatre not only has a past but a strong future too,’ he concluded.

ArtsHub understands that Creative Victoria is working hand in hand with La Mama to ensure the company can continue operating as close to normal as possible – including finding new venues for their diverse 2018 program.

The government had previously committed $225,000 in funding per year until 2020 for La Mama; that funding is secure regardless of any shows that may need to be cancelled or postponed in the wake of the fire.

Creative Victoria is also looking at providing counselling and support services to staff who need it, ArtsHub was advised.

Disclaimer: The author was recently appointed Deputy Chair of La Mama’s volunteer Committee of Management.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts