On May 19, 2018, Caitlin Dullard – the co-CEO and company manager of La Mama Theatre – “woke up to a million phone calls” notifying her that the historic Carlton theatre had been destroyed in a massive fire overnight.

“It just came as such a shock and from absolutely nowhere,” she tells Broadsheet. “It was immediately clear we wouldn’t be able to operate out of the dilapidated four walls, so the site’s been sitting there looking very depressing since that day.”

The iconic and longstanding independent playhouse, which opened in 1967 and counts Cate Blanchett, Julia Zemiro and Judith Lucy among its alumni, had to halve its programming. And it all shifted to La Mama’s other theatre, the Courthouse on Drummond Street, which then had to close temporarily in March due to the pandemic.

But, excitingly, last week focus shifted towards the rebuild. “With the future of the performing arts in Melbourne so uncertain, it feels particularly exciting to be able to say, ‘We have a future, we’re building, this is going to happen’,” says Dullard.

On August 12, scaffolding went up and a demolition crew arrived to remove a shed, making way for a new building that will house offices and a much-needed rehearsal space.

Former La Mama venue manager, set designer and actor Meg White (who, importantly, is also an architect) is leading the redesign. “The last thing we wanted was [an] architect coming in with an ambitious design that didn’t honour our past,” says Dullard.

There’s been community consultation on how to strike a balance between incorporating state-of-the-art technology and staying faithful to the building’s history. Dullard says beloved features from the original building will be reinstated, including the internal staircase, trapdoor and fireplace. Bricks from the original gables have been removed and stored for use at a later date.

“As devastating as it was, the fire allowed us to dream up things we already wanted and had been talking about, but couldn’t achieve beforehand,” Dullard says.

To date, the theatre has raised $3.2 million through state government funding, and donations from the public and philanthropic groups. But the fundraising effort continues, particularly after an Australia Council for the Arts application was rejected in April, a decision the theatre is petitioning.

Funding and Covid-19 restrictions aside, Dullard says the theatre is on track to reopen in mid-2021. In the meantime – and after Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent decision to pull its entire 2020 program – La Mama is “living in hope” it can return to the Courthouse before the end of the year. “We have a program ready to go,” Dullard says. “We’re hopeful, but also not counting on it.”

“Because we don’t know how long it’s going to be until big venues can open, there’s a moment for small, intimate spaces to engage people, and I think it will change the way people go to the theatre. You know, not every day is rosy, there are bits of depression and trouble, but I feel there’s a real sense of hope.”

La Mama is slated to reopen in mid-2021. See live photos of the rebuild (updated every 20 minutes) here and donate to the cause here.