"Without La Boite, the heart sinks to one’s thongs”
The 1972 opening of ‘La Boite’, Australia’s first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round in Hale Street, Milton heralded a new kind of theatre experience for Brisbane audiences. Although no challenge to the overtly political Popular Theatre Troupe, La Boite Theatre soon earned itself a reputation for being, in theatre critic Katharine Brisbane’s words, “the place to go to see the red meat of theatre”.
Consecutive artistic directors Jennifer Blocksidge, Rick Billinghurst and Malcolm Blaylock programmed risky, non-commercial theatre, occasionally so alternative that public response was explosive. There was, for example, the shock walk-out in 1975 of fifty Lions club members during a violent scene in Edward Bond’s Saved. Then there was its 1977 devised work Happy Birthday East Timor which was politically ‘suspect’ enough for the Special Branch of the Queensland Police to mingle with the opening night crowd in the foyer. Critical of Indonesia’s recent invasion of East Timor the production was panned as political propaganda by most critics but certainly stimulated debate about the Timor issue.
Blaylock’s programming of plays with strong political themes such as Stephen Sewell’s Traitors in 1980 and Trevor Griffiths Occupations in 1981 also attracted the attention of the Special Branch – and in the case of Traitors, another audience walk-out. Blaylock recalled that the police would turn up in a marked police car usually on preview night so they wouldn’t have to pay. Two or three of them would sit in the front row, watch the play, then leave. While nothing ever happened, it confirmed for Blaylock La Boite’s role in creating challenging theatre as a small but noisy counter to the right wing Bjelke-Petersen government of the time. Unlike the Popular Theatre Troupe, La Boite, whose seasons were always a balance between ‘risky’ and non-controversial plays, was never perceived during this period as so left-wing that its State Government funding was ever threatened.
Writer: Dr Christine Comans