Carlton’s La Mama Theatre is ready for what might be its biggest opening night ever.

Since the iconic, longstanding independent playhouse was destroyed in a massive fire in 2018, it’s been fundraising and rebuilding – while withstanding Covid and all its effects. But on December 9, it’s all systems go for the grand reopening.

More than 400 artists will perform almost 100 acts – in response to the theme of rebirth – as part of a four-day festival, which has been called War-rak/Banksia. Like the theatre, the native flower “comes back stronger and more beautiful than ever” after fire.

“Like most things we do, it’s bigger than it should be, and all over the place,” co-CEO and company manager Caitlin Dullard tells Broadsheet. “It’s in the spirit of adventure, openness, risk-taking, all sorts of art – we just jumped in! It’s our re-birthing festival, our moment of coming back into the space, welcoming artists and audiences back, and starting our next chapter in our new home.”

The festival will include performances by La Mama veterans such as Lloyd Jones, Sue Broadway and Kevin Summers, as well as opening-night entertainment by South Sudanese musician Ajak Kwai. “All the pieces on opening night are very directly [and] personally speaking to our story, involving our staff and community,” says Dullard. “There’s an interactive piece with the Federation Bells that fills my heart with joy.”

Performances inside the theatre require bookings, though the rest (and majority) of the program is free. “You just need to turn up with your double-vax certificate,” Dullard says. “We hope it will bring unexpected delight and give people a long weekend to connect with others and with art, and remember what it was to be in that space.”

Of developing the concept for the festival, Dullard says “it really needed to come from the artists”.

“As we were nearing the end [of the rebuild], it became clear we needed to mark the moment with our community. So, in the last few months of building, we started to ask what that would look like. We put a call out and said, ‘this is our space, the theme is re-birth, what do you want to do?’ We got inundated with people’s thoughts, dreams and concepts,” she says.

The entire theatre – including its two buildings, the mezzanine, forecourt, laneway and steps – will play host to performances, installations and everything in between. There will be a children’s program; interactive performances by Melbourne Playback Theatre that will bring audience members’ memories to life; and a First Nations music and dance program curated by Aboriginal music corporation Songlines, including the Merindas, Izy and Djirri Djirri Dancers. Plus, Indonesian-Australian performance collective Mainteater will debut a piece fusing robotics, live performance and streaming.

The arts industry was brought to its knees by lockdowns. But now, hopefully on the other side, Dullard is reflective: “Covid hasn’t fundamentally changed what we’re doing or what we want to achieve – we’re very confident that the future of live theatre is needed more than ever, despite the changes of the post-Covid world. We’re excited for that ephemeral, live experience. That fundamental philosophical stuff hasn’t changed,” she says.

“[Industry] morale has been quite low, but for us, the one thing we’ve had in our favour is the very tangible building being made, and representing the future and hope whilst everything was at a standstill. And it’s probably increased people’s engagement and interest … We launch our summer season in December, and we’ll do 100 shows across both venues,” she says.

“We’re big and we’re back.”

War-rak/Banksia Festival runs from December 9 to 12 at La Mama Theatre. Find the full program and more information here.

lamama.com.au