TIE – Betty Burstall Biography

Betty Burstall
A Biography

Betty Burstall is the most under rated Shaker in Australian Theatre and Film history, bit of a travesty really, certain very successful players should be ashamed.

Betty Burstall

Betty Burstall – 1945 Portrait by Arthur Boyd

All these players she gave a start to over the years – including playwright David Williamson, even actor cum writer, biographer, and The Australian columnist, Graeme Blundell – but none of them could be bothered putting up her biography on the Internet (Google her and it’s only her husband or La Mama 1967) let alone a Book, or dare we say a Play or Film. So we’ve had a go here at DVSA, a bit like Elizabeth Trentham really:

So there is not a real lot of information laying around on her. We hope to get Liz Jones, who took over Betty’s brainchild, David Williamson et al,  to assist our humble endeavour, but no doubt we will be ignored.

About all we know of her early years so far is that Betty Margaret Rogers was born in 1926.

Then most of the credit for her creativity and drive has gone to her husband, Tim Burstall, who she met at the University of Melbourne in the 1940s and were married on 27 April 1948.

They later built a mud brick house at Eltham (20 km NE of the CDB). They started Eltham Films there in 1959. A key focus was Australian art films featuring Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. They were also one of the first to really promoted Indigenous art.

Then frustrated with the Australian shake-scene they went to the U.S. in 1965.

When she returned to Melbourne in 1967 Betty founded her pioneering La Mama Theatre,
“a place where new ideas, new ways of expression can be tried out; a place where you can hear what people are thinking and feeling”

She was determined to establish a performance space like the coffee house theatres she had seen in Greenwich Village. She had been impressed by the potential of these informal theatres to allow for the development of new work and the exploration of relationships between performers and audience. Using La Mama in New York as a model Burstall rented an old shirt factory in Faraday Street and opened La Mama with a production of Jack Hibberd’s Three Old Friends.

Betty BurstallLa Mama

BETTY BURSTALL, FOUNDER, LA MAMA THEATRE: How did La Mama come about? I was living in New York for a couple of years, and during that time, I was introduced to La Mama in New York. I found it very stimulating altogether and decided when I came back to Australia that’s what I would do. I would start a theatre like this. And I had to find a place. And I needed a place – it had to not have a high rent. A student area was a good idea, I thought.

What we now call La Mama was an old factory which was empty. And I looked at it and I liked the look of it. And I decided that it would do as my place. I had a meeting with a few people. I don’t remember how I chose them actually now. But at that initial meeting, there was, um — Graeme Blundell, um — David Williamson, a group of other people, as sort of semi — either university or semi-theatrical people. That initial meeting was enough to make me feel I could go ahead.

BARRY HUMPHRIES: We were very restless in the 1960s, trying to find a voice for ourselves. What did happen and what did come out of it, was we did have our own theatre movement.

DON DUNSTAN: The most significant influence of all was David Williamson’s. Um — we had had a brief success of an Australian play er — a long time before with ‘The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’. But it seemed to be a lone thing which was not followed up.

GEORGE NEGUS: Anyway, while Richard was at the Old Bailey, back here lots of other young Oz types were also redefining themselves and questioning what it meant to be Australian, like Betty Burstall who founded the La Mama Theatre in Melbourne in the late ’60s…
http://www.abc.net.au/dimensions/dimensions_in_time/Transcripts/s608236.htm ABC 26 July 2002 Dimensions in Time:

The alternative theatres, 1967-75
A new era in Australian theatre began in 1967 in Carlton, a working class and immigrant suburb of Melbourne with a large student population, when Betty Burstall opened an intimate coffee-theatre on the model of the alternate venues in New York, and named La Mama after one of them, La Mama quickly became a focus for new poets, musicians, and actors, and a group of playwrights including Jack Hibberd, John Romeril, David Williamson and Barry Oakley. The La Mama Company of actors and writers also presented street theatre, often at large anti Vietnam War demonstrations, and toured factories in AGIT-PROP political pieces. In 1970 they moved to a large warehouse theatre, the Pram Factory, and renamed themselves the Australian Performing Group, relfecting their commitment to an indigenous drama and playing style; the Pram Factory quickly gained a reputation for robust and irreverant productions…for 10 years the APG remained a theatrical cooperative and umbrella organization for factory tours, innovative versions of the classics, film-making and a writers’ agency…

Sydney’s version of Alternative Theatre grew out of the blockbusting Jane Street success in 1970 of the Legend of King O’Malley, Micahel Boddy’s and Bob Ellis’ revue-style portrait of a former political figure, which went to an Australian wide tour. Later the same year its director, John Bell with Keith Horler,  founded  the small Nimrod Stret theatre in the inner  city suburb of Darlinghurst…

The Cambridge Guide to Theatre by Martin Banham 1988

A big chunck of Graeme Blundell’s autobiogrpahy is devoted to Betty and the legacy of her La Mama:

Betty Burstall managed the space of La Mama with the dedication of a Zen high priestess. She lived on nerve and altruism with a steely grace…

Often quoting playwright Barry Oakley (The Feet of Daniel Mannix 1975 –

‘Betty, in her larger-than-life, earth-motherish, schoolteacher way, was filled with enthusiasm about a new kind of theatre she had seen in New York.’

A movement started because most theatre doors closed in their faces.

…Well Betty Burstall was home and talking passionately of an immediate, rough, hard-hitting theatre with the actor right there next to you, close enough to touch, low-budget, experimental theatre, a workshop where radicalism could be shared between actor and audience, argumentative and questioning… only actors working up close with material developed by writers from their own world.

‘In a sense the medium was the message; the way the thing was done was a powerful as what was done’, is how Oakley would later sum up Burstall’s ideas.

Betty found a dilapidated dunny in the tiny courtyard of an old reddish-brown brick lingerie and shirtt factory… Betty accosted the real estate agent on 26 July 1967. Blundell was in the first play presented there, Jack Hibberd’s Three Old  Friends

Once the shows began half of Melbourne stumbled into La Mama. Melburnians have always loved that they discover the new first, that their city is always at the experimental centre. [Premier Barry Farrell take note – are you really about lifting Sydney?]

La Mama’s environment encouraged an increasingly wide cross-section of the community to experience dramatic productions…

We wanted to return theatre to the social act and share common daylight, weather and life… actors and writers even started to produce plays in the car park, on the stairs, and in the streets… It truly was theatre where, as Betty Burstall had promised Barry Oakley, you could touch the actors.

La Mama quickly became a workshop of ideas, a theatrical and literary laboratory. Writers were able to fail – as indeed they must – in order to improve; directors could play to their heart’s content; and actors stretched, and sometimes discovered, themselves…

The Naked Truth: A Life in Parts, Graeme Blundell, 2008

Our small movement coincided with the return to Melbourne of a woman called Betty Burstall and her husband, Tim Burstall.

Her idea is to bring the New York theatre movement to Carlton, to Melbourne. She finds an old lingerie factory, Faraday Street in Carlton, she calls it La Mama, after one of the theatre companies in New York. We wanted to lock into that, into a very physical, broad acting style that was comic and satirical. Because, influenced by the new politics of that era, we wanted the theatre to be political in a way that the conventional bourgeois theatre in Australia certainly wasn’t.

Gradually, around Carlton, this extraordinary group of actors developed. People like Max Gillies and Kerry Dwyer, who eventually became my first wife, Bruce Spence, Peter Cummins. This eventually became the La Mama Company which eventually became the Australian Performing Group, which moves from the La Mama Theatre to another theatre around the corner called The Pram Factory, which really becomes the centre of the whole alternative theatre in that era, now called the New Wave.
Graeme Blundell – Peter Thompson’s Talking Heads (29vi09)

Also note his Australian Theatre: Backstage with Graeme Blundell 1997

[You know reading all this about Betty’s La Mama brainchild, you just think, heck, if we can’t get a Local Theatre to help us start fair dinkum Theatre in Education, we’ll just have to start our own ‘Betty Burstall Memorial TIE – Shake a Spear at Ignorance Theatre’ from scratch, shame that American sponsor into coughing up the money – 24/7 webcams everywhere – the making of, backstage, the actual Plays – “the medium was the message” Barry Oakley said (a ‘hats off’ to cutting edge educator Marshall McLuhan, 1911-1980) – in the modernday that medium is Social Networking – to make TIE financially viable, i.e. ‘bang for the buck’ of our Local Sponsors, everything goes up on our Youtube Channel, even train up and use lots of LPDs (Lame, Poor and Dispossessed Australians) to work with the Schools to replicate the formula…]

…It was a time you can’t think yourself back into unless you’re my age, I don’t think, but there was a simmering anger that television was almost totally non-Australian, the occasional Australian novel happened, no film industry at all, absolutely zilch, none, no Australian plays on our stages. In fact, the Melbourne Theatre Company’s articles of association of intent started off…number one was virtually…I can’t recall the exact words but the meaning was ‘to educate and uplift the barbarous natives‘. That was the function of theatre… because we are not a refined nation and theatre is one of the refining influences. It was that sort of scene; our stories weren’t being told, our accents weren’t being used and the alternative theatres at Carlton [La Mama] sprang up fired by the off-off Broadway experience in the case of Betty Burstall, looking for new Australian voices, looking for Australian voices who were prepared to use their own accents, which was rare. So there was that pent up anger against a nation that wouldn’t let its own stories be told.
The Book Show, ABC, 26 July 2006 – a conversation with playwright David Williamson

“…In addition Betty Burstall, founder of the pioneering alternative theatre, La Mama, is interviewed…
Betty Burstall has perceptively observed that Williamson’s scripts (and I would add characters) are ‘flat’…
Williamson’s emergence as a playwright came through his association with La Mama. The experimental milieu proved conducive for Williamson’s predilection for exploring a contemporary Australian idiom within the form of naturalistic theatre…”

James Paull Review 29 May 2008

Stork is based on David Williamson’s first play, The Coming of Stork, which Betty Burstall had premiered at La Mama, her café-theatre in Melbourne, in 1970. The play was co-directed by young actors Alan Finney and Martin Phelan, and had only nine performances, but it was popular… Alan Finney had begun working at Village Roadshow, writing study guides for schools. Stork became one of the first Australian films that Village Roadshow would distribute. Its success led directly to the formation of Hexagon Productions, a partnership between Village Roadshow and the companies that made Stork. This was the first time that distribution and production were integrated in one Australian company, a model that has rarely been possible since. Hexagon was a major force in the commercial revival of an Australian film industry, producing a string of popular films, among them Alvin Purple

Stork was the first of the so-called ‘ocker’ comedies (it preceded Bazza McKenzie and Alvin Purple). Its social milieu is the Carlton counter-culture of the 60s. The targets of its humour are the social goals and values of the middle-classes – conformity, ambition, marriage, the pretensions of the corporate world or the academic and art establishments. To everyone’s amazement, Stork turned out to be the first Australian commercial feature success since the 50s …
Australian Screen – National Film Archive

Clearly, without Betty Burstall’s creative iniative and drive in getting La Mama going, Stork would not have happened, and if Stork didn’t happen, then neither would have Alvin Purple and the rest of Tim Burstall’s Film career. Right from the start in the mid 1940s, she was the one that got in with Arthur Boyd shake-scene.

If he hadn’t ran into Betty, Tim probably would not have a Wikipedia page today. Conversely,  the way it’s all worked out, Betty doesn’t have a Wikipedia page (once we get a bit further along with her biography will correct that too, as mentioned elsewhere it took us to create the Wikipedia page for her counterpart, Elizabeth Trentham,  as well as  Susan de Vere.)

(The same goes for the career of thermo dynamics engineering teacher cum playwright David Williamson.)

It’s interesting to note that Betty Burstall was listed on Tim Burstall’s IMDB brief as an obscure Betty Rogers – no where in her 60+ year career does she use that name.

But there are some that recognize her achievements, she was awarded her AO (Order of Australia) years before Tim got his.

“… and the 1986 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo… launched the film careers of many well-known actors including Bruce Spence, Jacki Weaver, Graeme Blundell, Jack Thompson, John Waters and Judy Davis. His wife Betty, an important figure in her own right, founded the pioneering La Mama Theatre in Melbourne in the late ’60s, where many leading ‘new wave’ playwrights including David Williamson had their first successes, and Tim was an integral part of the fertile creative scene that centred on the theatre.

Alan Finney, general manager of Australian-based film distributor Buena Vista International, worked with Burstall in his production company, Hexagon Productions, and helped produce Alvin Purple, Peterson and other films.

“We didn’t have a film industry in Australia then. What Stork, along with the likes of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and The Naked Bunyip did was lead us to believe that there was a possibility that we could continuously make films in Australia, that we could establish an industry where the stories came out of here and the actors, directors and other technicians came out of here. Tim was always the combination of a fantastic creative filmmaker. At the same time he had a very good sense of business strategies.”

Tim Burstall died suddenly and unexpectedly on the evening of Sunday 18 April. He suffered a massive stroke while attending a screening of his short films, organised by Eltham Council, the Melbourne suburb where he made his first feature, The Prize. He was taken to hospital, but died soon after, in the early hours of 19 April.

Burstall is survived by his wife Betty and his sons Dan, a cinematographer, and Tom, a film producer and husband of actor Sigrid Thornton.


Tim Burstall suffered a stroke on Sunday evening during a screening of his films organised by Eltham Council, the Melbourne suburb where he made his first feature, The Prize. He was taken to hospital, but died yesterday morning.

Burstall is survived by his sons Tom and Dan and his partner Betty Burstall, the founder of Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre.


Video Interview
Betty Burstall interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection [sound recording] 1973
In the interview Burstall speaks of La Mama Experimental Theatre and Writers Workshop; her aspirations for the theatre and workshop; the selection criteria for plays to be produced in La Mama.

Also there is the book La Mama, the story of a theatre / Liz Jones with Betty Burstall and Helen Garner, 1986

Betty sat for several portraits for Arthur Boyd (20/07/1920 – 24/4/1999) in the late 1940s, she would even go around and help out Boyd’s pottery business at Murrumbeena.

Betty Burstall has parted with her John Blackman drawing (inset) after some 40-odd years.

Betty Burstall parted with her
John Blackman drawing (inset)
in 2005
after some 40-odd years

One of the Films particularly relevant to us is the 1986  production, Kangaroo. 

Starring the husband and wife team of Colin Friels (apparently he is into the Australian Light Horse like us too,
“He has no illusions about being an actor in Australia.
‘It’s a hobby. There’s no work.’

That gives him time for his other great love, horses. He was involved in putting on a horse show in Tamworth that recreated the Battle of Bathsheba and says that put him on cloud nine in a way that theatre rarely does. Still, Friels is always complaining about not getting offered any work.
‘I haven’t worked for 10 years’ …
SMH Friels Fires Up by Catherine Keenan 25 February 2011
May be Colin would be interested in playing General Harry Chauvel in our Australians of Arabia movie) and Judy Davis (we have the ideal part for her too http://australiansofarabia.wordpress.com/screenplay/
We were hoping to get the AOA movie made for the Government’s Anzac Centenary – which we were actually the catalyst with all our letters to Canberra in early 2010, but no doubt will have to be made overseas because of the Gallipoli defeat tunnel vision. And of course it would be dedicated to Betty Burstall.)
Anyway Kangaroo is about DH Lawrence and wife Frieda’s time in Australia at Thirroul in 1922 which we cover here:

Betty and Tim had two sons, Dan Burstall (b. 1951) a cinematographer, including Kangaroo and Tom Burstall (b. 1954), who started out as a director after graduating from NIDA in 1972, later branching into film risk manager and producer. Tom is very much involved in Australian Film through Cinemedia and acts as a production analyst for several Australian and International Film companies. He is married to actor Sigrid Thornton (b. 1959) – in turn giving Betty at least two grandchildren, Ben and Jaz.

Sigrid and Tom
with Fred Schepisi

Betty Burstall, Order of Australia
Betty Burstall was awarded an Order of Australia first before her husband in 1993 (Tim got his AO a few years later) in recognition of her service to the performing arts:
Name: BURSTALL, Betty Margaret
Award: Member of the Order of Australia
Post-nominal: AM
Date granted: 13 June 1993
State: VIC
Postcode: 3065
Country: Australia
Citation: In recognition of service to the performing arts

Betty Margaret Burstall AO
Shaked a Spear at Ignorance



One Response to “TIE – Betty Burstall Biography”

  1. yvonne hamilton nee mann Says:

    Very interesting to read, Mrs Burstll was my french teacher at Eltham High School 1956/1958, in those days I lived not far from her house (and the dam) in Buena Vista Drive, afraid to say that when we did get a chance to travell and went to Paris in 1985 my french was very poor however I remember her fondly and those gorgeous little boys.

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