Begun in 1982, La Bamba was run exclusively by volunteers and provided the most exciting space in Brisbane for young artists to experiment with new material, often with outrageous outcomes but always hugely entertaining. It played host to groups such as Grin & Tonic, Sugar and Spite, Fluba Troupe,Street Arts Community Theatre, Geoff the Band and Theatresports.
Bryan Nason recalled the very first La Bamba performance:
The actual first performance was given by Robert Arthur, Ros Vidgen, Kenneth McLeod, Victoria Arthur and myself, Bryan Nason, in 1982. Robert Arthur was the director of the Grin & Tonic Theatre Troupe at the time. The presentation at that first La Bamba was Savage Cabaret, directed and devised by Robert Arthur, an hour-long program of the poetry and the songs of Bertolt Brecht which we had first presented in 1979 in Cardwell in North Queensland, together with an hour of clowning, Right on the Night, at a time when the Grin & Tonic shows were directed by Robert Arthur and Geoffrey Rush. Prue Gibbs and Chrissie Mildren were two of the fab first four in Savage Cabaret, but those two were travelling far abroad by 1982. However Robert Arthur reinvented the show for La Bamba in 1982, and it was a runaway success and a delight in old La Boite. We played a Friday night (as later La Bambas continued to do) and from this first wonderful night, I clearly remember some remarkable moments including Ros Vidgen's singing of Pirate Jenny (myself at the piano) and of course Robert Arthur's stunning comic subtlety and brilliance.
Savage Cabaret, in 1982, was such a high, that we and everyone around La Boite's essence on that night, felt that it must be organised to become a regular Friday night event for young and/or bright Brisbane, and so it did, before people lost their faith in old La Boite. So that was the start of La Bamba during one of those times when Brisbane experienced a flush of its own creative life. I can't remember whether the name La Bamba was used at Savage Cabaret, but there is no doubt that we who brought early La Bamba's energies to life in its earliest days knew well that that was where it began.[i]
Errol O’Neill recalled another– and very eclectic – early La Bamba program:
I think I read a short story and someone else played some music … Frank Millwood played something odd on the piano. And there was this long haired blond Ursula Andress type woman who did something in a catsuit. And there was this young man in a powder blue suit with an open neck shirt with a gold chain and he sang New York New York, that Frank Sinatra song. It was so kind of un-the audience. The audience was laughing. He was absolutely straight. At interval he came down and he said “Why were they laughing during my song?” I remember thinking at the time “Oh, yes, they’re the La Boite audience, a bit on the left, ready for a bit of cultural mayhem, social critique, a bit of satire”, and they must have either thought this guy was being satirical or they were laughing out of embarrassment. It was an odd moment that stands in my memory because it said something about how to pitch your stuff to a La Boite audience. [ii]
When John Stanwell was producing La Bamba in early 1984, a typical late Friday night show might include impressionist Gerry Connelly introducing characters such as Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Queen Elizabeth, Viva La Burt (Bacharach) with Anna Macrossan, Leah Cotterell and Maria Cleary, The Modern Appliances which featured contemporary electronic music, and The Stampede of the Tippie Toe Babies, a collection of skits, music, visual effects and dance. [iii]
A particularly successful La Bamba event was a two night season of The Paisley Pirates of Penzance directed by David Pyle and Sean Mee in 1985 with a cast and crew of 45 and starring Leah Cotterell, Justine Anderson, Pat Leo, Sean Mee, Gerry Connolly and Brian Cavanagh. By then La Bamba was officially regarded as part of La Boite’s Youth Theatre activities and was included in the Theatre Board submission as “an ongoing late night theatre and cabaret program aimed at encouraging and developing young local performing artists and a young audience”. [iv]
Another popular success in 1985 was Conway Christ, Redneck Superstar again directed by Sean Mee and David Pyle with a cast and crew of over 120. Many from these productions were by now emerging professionals developing their skills and building careers, including Justine Anderson, Andrew Blackman, Andrew Buchanan, Brian Cavanagh, Gerry Connolly, Leah Cotterell, Adam Couper, Annette Kerwitz, Sean Mee, Toni Mott, David Pyle, Andrew Raymond and Scott Witt. These 1985 La Bamba productions were the beginnings of a Brisbane phenomenon that evolved into Toadshow, a collective of creative people which did much to develop Brisbane’s semi-professional and professional theatre scene.
Writer: Christine Comans