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What happened to the show running at La Mama, Bully Virus

22 May 2018

When La Mama Theatre burned down this weekend, the arts community banded together with Melbourne Polytechnic to lend a helping hand to rescue a local production.

After three successful performances, writer and director of Bully Virus, Kate Herbert thought she could kick off her shoes, sit back and watch the actors strut their stuff on stage.

“We’d had very good reviews… The audiences were really excited, and spent half an hour or an hour after the show talking outside the venue,” says Kate.

But then, in the early hours of Saturday morning, her world and the world surrounding the iconic La Mama Theatre in Carlton stopped spinning.

Around 50 firefighters descended on the theatre, where Bully Virus had been performing, as an electrical fire swept through the much loved and respected venue.

As Liz Jones, Arts Director of La Mama vowed to rebuild ‘somehow’, Kate Herbert woke up to the news.

“I was still sleeping because I was exhausted, and the phone rang and one of my actors, Geoff Wallis said: ‘La mama burnt down last night.’”

“I don’t recall anything apart from shock and disbelief… I just kept crying, ” she says. “I was trying to add up all the shows I’ve done at La Mama, and it must be 13, 14, 15.”

It was a couple of hours before her mind started turning towards the current show, Bully Virus.

“Initially, our response was, we’ve got no theatre, we are cancelling. But a couple of hours later it started to be real and I started thinking, the show must go on!”

“This group of people could do this show in a wet paper bag and it would be successful!”

But with the set, props, costumes, and make-up all reduced to ash, it wouldn’t be easy.

The Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre, where the troupe had rehearsed the show, offered a multipurpose room and for two nights they improvised.

“It was not a theatre space… [but] we scavenged some costumes, Geoff did it in his street clothes because he’d been at work when he’d found out and he couldn’t go home,” says Kate.

“My lovely lighting operator, Emmie Turner, who is a graduate from the live production course at Melb Poly improvised with dimmers — so, they were domestic lights but they had dimmers on them, so she was creating atmosphere and lighting with these dimmers.”

The performances still had audiences chatting interestedly outside the venue, but it was apparent Bully Virus needed a proper venue for the rest of the run.

“Rob Hails and Melbourne Polytechnic saved our bacon,” says Kate.

Remarkably, as the head of dramatic arts at Melbourne Polytechnic, Rob Hails was at La Mama the night before it burned down, watching Bully Virus.

“I think it's a fantastic piece of work, very, very well written, crafted and directed. Kate’s a very good director and she’s got some wonderful talented actors in the show, too.”

By chance, one of those actors, Jenny Lovell, is also a part-time teacher at Melbourne Polytechnic and when Rob heard what happened, he sought Jenny out in the staff room.

“I was going to suggest to her that, if they wanted to, they could move the show over here, to the David Williamson Theatre, and Jenny had already thought that was a question she might ask anyhow!”

So, Rob went and spoke to Andrew Gannon, Performing Arts Manager at Melbourne Polytechnic about offering Bully Virus the space for free.

“Of course, the answer was ‘yes’, to support La Mama and the theatre industry and the actors as well.”

For Kate Herbert, there’s great relief and appreciation at finding a new venue, but after working on and off at La Mama for around three decades, she is still reeling from its destruction.

“I still feel emotionally shaken from all this, but what I’ve realised is we are the last show to have performed at La Mama and I understand there are plans for it to be restored, but it will be different, and I know the spirit of La Mama will go on, but it’s a very strange feeling to be the last show at that venue.”

Bully Virus, a hard-edged and moving satire on workplace bullying, will play at the David Williamson Theatre from Wednesday, May 23 to Sunday, May 27. The show is written and directed by Kate Herbert, stars veteran actors Jenny Lovell, Carole Patullo and Geoff Wallis. Now’s the time to support local theatre.