Ellen Stewart, founder and director of the Off-Off-Broadway production house La MaMa E.T.C., died on 13 January, ending an era in New York theater. André De Shields, a prominent actor who got his start at La MaMa and sits on its advisory board, characterized her passing as “a paradigm shift of tectonic proportions.” Stewart, 91 at her death, was the last of the original Off-Off-Broadway producers, the small band of enthusiasts who in the 1960s launched the performance arena that was arguably the most vital and vibrant in the theatrical history of the city—and maybe of the whole country.
When Off-Broadway, the first important reaction against Broadway commercialism, itself became prone to commercial influences by the late ‘50s, New York’s theater artists launched the Off-Off-Broadway movement to focus on new plays, new writers, young actors and directors, and the innovative theatrical styles and techniques coming out of Europe after World War II. The first Off-Off-Broadway “theater” is generally accepted to have been Caffe Cino, founded by former dancer Joe Cino in the West Village in 1958. Cino originally intended his cafe to be a combination coffeehouse and art gallery, showing the work of his artist friends. He added poetry readings, and by 1961, Caffe Cino was hosting play readings and, soon, small productions were being mounted, spotlighting new writers.
The success of Caffe Cino inspired other small spaces to open and Cino’s coffeehouse was followed by the Judson Poets’ Theatre in 1961 (established and directed by Al Carmines who died in 2005 at 69), Stewart’s Café La MaMa in 1962, and Ralph Cook’s Theatre Genesis in 1964. (Stewart used to quip that Cino was the father of Off-Off-Broadway—and she was the Mama.) Then the dam just broke and small theaters began opening in storefronts, basements, lofts, church halls, Y’s, coffeehouses, and bars—just about anywhere in the city from downtown Manhattan (long before there was a TriBeCa), SoHo, the East and West Village, Chelsea, the fringes of the Theater District, the Upper West Side, and Harlem and East Harlem to Downtown Brooklyn and the other boroughs. Little or no admission was charged and production budgets were frequently under $50. The critics, usually the reifiers of cultural significance, were simply ignored. They weren’t needed: Off-Off-Broadway was spectator-oriented and the artists spoke directly to the community about their shared lives without the intermediation of the critics. Some of these theaters went on to become New York institutions and produced for decades into the ‘70s and ‘80s; a few became Off-Broadway producing houses and acquired the cachet of an established playhouse with an impressive reputation. But many lasted just a few years, sometimes only as long as the founding personality remained in command, foundering when that person retired, was removed, or died.
Joe Cino committed suicide in 1967 and Caffe Cino closed the next year. Theatre Genesis ceased operations a year after Cook left in 1969. Carmines suffered a brain aneurysm in 1978 and the Judson Poets’ Theatre ran until 1981. Only Stewart stayed around through the ‘80s and ‘90s and made it into the 21st century at the helm of La MaMa E.T.C., the only original Off-Off-Broadway theater to last beyond a few decades. (There is no indication now that La MaMa will close; it continues to produce under the leadership of Stewart’s co-artistic director, Mia Yoo. Still, nearly everyone says that La MaMa was Ellen Stewart, that she was “the guts of the place.”) In fact, it can easily be said that Ellen Stewart was the embodiment of Off-Off-Broadway, both its energy and spirit and its history. In many ways, she also represented the characteristics that made up the Off-Off-Broadway artist in its early days: she wasn’t a theater pro; she sort of backed into the business without starting out in that direction; she was a true bohemian, a woman who went her own way irrespective of mainstream trends, sometimes knowing she was doing it and sometimes simply unaware of the practices she was flouting. It didn’t matter, because her interest was in giving artists—the writers, directors, composers, actors, designers—a forum for their wares, their talents, and their ideas. In its beginning, that was what Off-Off-Broadway was meant to do; it’s why the earliest performances were called “showcases”—because that’s what they were.
Village theater and art in the early 1960s was just developing into the exciting, vibrant, and multicultural scene that it became known as by the end of the decade. Greenwich Village had been the center of New York’s bohemian life since the 19th century, attracting radical thinkers and artists in nearly every field, but after World War II, the West Village and the newly designated, edgier East Village became the cradle of New York’s Beat generation, with its new, raw, and mold-breaking style of poetry and writing; jazz, housed in the (not always tobacco) smoke-filled coffeehouses and night clubs; challenging forms of painting and art such as Abstract Expressionism, especially “action painting” as exemplified by Jackson Pollock, a Village resident; and the revolutionary politics preached by its denizens and frequent visitors. In response to the Eisenhower years, particularly the McCarthy probes, and the rise of issues like the war in Vietnam, nuclear-weapons development, civil and equal rights for African Americans and women (and later Latinos and gays), and proliferating consumerism, the Beat impulse evolved into the angrier and more activist ’60s. Folk and rock music also came to the Village in the early 1960s, and hipsters liked to go to bars near Washington Square, venues for singers, musicians, and songwriters like Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan, and poets like Allen Ginsberg. With this upheaval in the Village came the birth of the alternative theater inspired strongly by the writings of Antonin Artaud and the work of European dramatists and directors. Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, founded in 1947, were especially motivated by Artaud’s ideas, and the Living in turn heavily influenced the artists and groups that came after their departure in 1963 for a self-imposed European exile.
Oddly, among the first homes for the new experimental theater were the churches of the Village. Theatre Genesis, for example, was actually part of the cultural ministry of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie, and the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square and the Washington Square Methodist Church on West 4th Street (which would later house the first U.S. visit of Jerzy Grotowski’s Theatr Laboratorium in 1969), among others around the city, had their own cultural and theatrical programs. In addition, of course, were the two most prominent Off-Off-Broadway venues unaffiliated with a church: Caffe Cino and Café La MaMa (the predecessor of La MaMa E.T.C.). In these places and many others, spectators could see experimental films, Happenings (first presented at Judson Poets), jazz bands, political speakers, and radically innovative poets. And there were new kinds of theater being tried out by writers and directors—aided greatly, of course, by adventurous actors and imaginative designers and technicians—that were redefining the form, not to mention the content, of American theater.
Off-Off-Broadway has, of course, become almost as institutionalized as Off-Broadway did before it. There are permanent ensembles who are looking for the next hit that’ll move on up to Off-Broadway, to Broadway (everybody remembers Urinetown in 1999—an Off-Off-Broadway musical that went all the way to Broadway where it even won a passel of Tonys), and to film or TV success. The actors, singers, and dancers want to get into a show that will either take them along with it to the commercial arena or make them bankable. The directors and writers want the same, and the producers want to be the next Joe Papp or Lynne Meadow. Even by the time I got to it, in the mid-‘70s, there was a commercial tinge to most of what was happening Off-Off-Broadway—though, to be fair, there were still many producers and artists who just wanted to try new things and expand their artistic horizons in ways that the commercial and established theater wouldn’t permit. Stewart and La MaMa were nurturers of this strain of Off-Off-Broadway and they continued to be so throughout the history of the theater (and, I hope, beyond). Even so, La MaMa has had a hand in many productions, artists, and writers that have gone on to mainstream and commercial success. (Thank Heaven it did, too. When the theater looked as if it were breathing its last because of a debt crisis in March 1992, the former La MaMa actors, directors, and writers who’d made it to financial well-being came to Stewart’s rescue.)
Ellen Stewart, who was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 1919, grew up there and in Chicago. (Some sources assert she was born in Chicago and moved to Alexandria.) She bore the cultural imprint of both regions, speaking, for instance, in the Cajun lilt of central Louisiana bayou country but with the steel spine of a life-long Chicagoan. She came to New York City in 1950 to become a fashion designer, but worked at a variety of bread-and-butter jobs to support herself. One of those jobs was porter (a fancy name for a go-fer) for a designer at Saks Fifth Avenue, where her co-workers dubbed her “Mama.” She wore her own creations to work and they caught the attention of the store’s affluent customers so Saks hired her as a designer. At this time, Stewart was living in the East Village, just then beginning to be seen as a separate neighborhood instead of merely the northern blocks of the Lower East Side because of the presence of artists, musicians, Beatniks, and students (both NYU and Cooper Union are prominent occupants of the district). Attracted by low rents, often for large, open spaces ideal for studios, this influx brought inexpensive restaurants and coffeehouses, galleries, and stores and boutiques, which catered to and welcomed the hip, young, often impecunious residents. Among those moving into the neighborhood were stage artists, all of whom were finding it hard to get work in theater. Stewart opened a boutique for her designs in the basement of a tenement at 321 E. 9th Street, and on 21 October 1961, she invited her theater friends to do their plays there after store hours. Stewart called her theater, which cost her $55 a month in rent, Café La MaMa—coffee and cake were served and no admission was charged; artists were “paid” by passing a basket—because a license for a coffeehouse was easier to get than one for a theater. (One of Stewart’s friends suggested “La MaMa,” invoking Stewart’s Cajun-Creole exoticism, instead of her simple sobriquet “Mama.”) The first performance on 27 July 1962 was an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s short story “One Arm,” a transfer from Caffe Cino, and those first participants grabbed spectators off the street—though many, once coaxed inside, came back, asserted Stewart. The 25-seat basement wasn’t even a suitably appointed theater, as Stewart acknowledged in an anecdote. Examining the room, Andy Milligan, the director of One Arm, asked Stewart, "Do you have any lights?" "Just what you see," replied Stewart. The director told her to empty and wash four two-gallon cans of tomatoes and Milligan showed Stewart how to convert the cans into lighting instruments. With no money for supplies, Stewart and the directors and writers found ways to get their props, make-up, and other small necessities by working a “certain system,” as Stewart put it, at five-and-dime stores: they shoplifted. La MaMa had no sound system and no music source except the radio, so Stewart became adept at finding the appropriate music for each show on the dial and retuning the radio right before an announcement or commercial came on. That was Off-Off-Broadway in the beginning.
Stewart had constant trouble with city inspectors from the license, fire, health, and buildings departments, which had regulatory jurisdiction over public performance spaces and seemed to target her particularly. Moreover, she recalled, her neighbors wondered, “What was that colored woman doing with all those young white men in her basement?” thinking she must be running a brothel. Stewart had been arrested twice on building violations and spent a few nights in the Women’s House of Detention at 10th Street and 6th Avenue in the West Village (now the garden of my local library branch!). So in 1963, Café La MaMa moved several blocks south to a loft above a flower shop at 82 2nd Avenue to prevent a third arrest, which would make Stewart a felon under New York law, preventing her from ever getting a license to do anything again. The theater reopened with Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, directed by John Thompson, on 28 June and on 12 March 1964, Café La MaMa officially became the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. As an ostensibly private club, the 74-seat space was free of the city regulatory restrictions to which the cafe had been subjected—though Stewart never turned anyone away: if you couldn’t afford the dollar or two membership, Mama would take care of you. The new theater’s first show was The Drunkard by William H. Smith, a “temperance” melodrama from 1844 directed by Donald Brooks. The newly designated La MaMa E.T.C., as it’s universally known, soon became a real mecca for new theater, however, devoted to staging a new work every week by the likes of Jean-Claude van Itallie, Lanford Wilson, and Sam Shepard. Theatergoers started to know that something worth noting was happening down at La MaMa, long before the press and the academics did.
Harassment by city agencies didn’t stop with the renaming—Stewart took to sitting on the front steps to prevent inspectors from interrupting performances—and La MaMa moved again in November 1964. After the closing performance of James Wigfall and Steve Gary’s Dear Friends, according to La MaMa’s own website (other sources say it was Paul Foster’s Balls), the La MaMa audience all chipped in and picked up the whole kit and kaboodle—set, props, seats, coffeepot, pictures on the walls, and all—and, as the La MaMa archive records, “The procession up the avenue with the audience carrying the furniture is how we moved.” Back up at 9th Street, the new space at 122 2nd Avenue opened on 11 November with David Novak’s The Wedding of the Panda directed by Arthur Gorton. Each successive move brought La MaMa to ever larger spaces with greater seating capacity (122 2nd was officially still 74, but could fit 115 if packed to the gunnels), and with each increase came more interest from playwrights and directors looking for less cramped spaces to try out their scripts and ideas. Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, the first full-length play written for Off-Off-Broadway, requiring a cast of 25 actors, opened at La MaMa’s third theater on 20 January 1965 under the direction of Marshall Mason. (Mason and Wilson would go on to found the Circle Repertory Company in 1969 with Tanya Berezin and Robert Thirkield.) Despite a low-profile for publicity, relying almost entirely on word of mouth—La MaMa’s listings in the Village Voice bore no address or telephone number—the membership was now about 3,000. The theater remained in place for over three years, enough time to establish itself firmly in the imagination of both theater artists and theatergoers as an important and vital place for new and exciting performance. As Stewart assured me once, “Everything at La MaMa is unique.”
In April 1968, the lease at 122 2nd Avenue expired, but Stewart had secured grants to subsidize the purchase and renovation of La MaMa’s own building. While that space was being prepared, the company moved into its fourth location, a transitional theater on the second floor of 9 St. Mark’s Place. It opened on 8 January 1969 with Jeff Weiss’s The International Wrestling Match, directed by Ricardo Martinez, and closed on 27 March with Concept I & II, written and directed by Lawrence Sacharow. On 2 April, Stewart opened Tom Eyen’s staging of his own Caution: A Love Story in La MaMa’s new, permanent home at 74A E. 4th Street, the hub of its buzzing hive of artistic activity up to today. In August 1970, Stewart purchased the building at 47 Great Jones Street around the corner for rehearsal space and studio classrooms, and on 18 October 1974, the 299-seat La MaMa Annex (renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre in 2009) opened at 66 E. 4th Street with the now-famous production of Fragments of a Trilogy, conceived and directed by Andrei Serban with music composed by Elizabeth Swados. (The Annex, two doors west of the main theater, also contains a dormitory for visiting artists.)
When Stewart inaugurated Café La MaMa, none of the pioneers really knew what they were doing. They learned as they went, but they broke rules more because they didn’t know them or because they had no alternative than because they were rebelling against anything. Stewart proclaimed:
No one in our beginnings had any idea about changing theatre, or setting up an alternative theatre, or doing anything about Off-Broadway. We were a little group of people who wanted to write plays and who would be in these plays and who really didn’t know too much about theatre at all; certainly I knew nothing.
Though Stewart and her troupe, like most Off-Off-Broadway companies, shunned critics, few newspapers were very interested in what they were doing at first because, for all their enthusiasm and energy, the quality was uneven and the acting and directing were often laughable. When La MaMa was in Copenhagen in 1965—because the European press did cover La MaMa performances and Stewart thought that if she could get good notices on the continent, she could bring them back as proof of La MaMa’s success—the East Village impresario acknowledged that the Danes “loved our spirit, the love that seemed to come from us, but they all agreed we could not act and knew absolutely nothing about theatre.” But the company set out to learn and, after being laughed out of the Actors Studio, created its own style, largely invented by Tom O’Horgan, whose interest had been music and opera. Lee Strasberg later quipped to Stewart that it was good for La MaMa that the Actors Studio hadn’t taken the company on as students because then, the La MaMa style of theater wouldn’t have evolved.
That style had its source in La MaMa’s origins, though it didn’t become identifiable for a few years. Since she started Café La MaMa, Stewart supported non-establishment writers, directors, and theater companies from around the country and the world. She accepted Postmodern theater well before the mainstream culture did and La MaMa staged one of the first gay plays, Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, workshopped there as separate one-acts in 1978 and ’79. Among La MaMa’s stage innovations were breaking the fourth wall and arranging the audience seating specifically for each production, as in Fragments of a Trilogy, and using nudity (Rochelle Owen’s Futz!, 1967, as staged by Tom O’Horgan), cross-gender casting (Split Britches’ Double Agency, 2002), and audience participation (Paul Foster’s Tom Paine, 1967, also directed by O’Horgan). Stewart habitually declared, “La Mama E.T.C. is an experimental theatre club, dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre,” but in the 1970s, La MaMa shifted from focusing strictly on new plays and writers to innovative directors. Stewart’s vision stressed playmaking rather than playwriting so her artists were moved to express the text through visual, kinetic, and aural means. The troupe in time evolved, as Stewart put it, “a theatre that goes beyond the word but always began with a text,” and La MaMa productions often intermixed music, sound, movement, dance, visual effects, and lighting with acting and speech as principal parts of the performance text. All the innovations which marked La MaMa events when the techniques were introduced have become part of the mainstream director’s and playwright’s toolkit.
Over the decades, Stewart and La MaMa played nursemaid to many artists and not a few groups. The well-publicized list of artists who made early appearances on Stewart’s stages includes Harvey Fierstein, Sam Shepard, Tom O’Horgan, David and Amy Sedaris, Wallace Shawn, Richard Foreman, Lanford Wilson, and so many more it’s impossible to name even a fraction of them. La MaMa also provided a home to groups like Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre (Viet Rock, 1966), Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret (Brecht's Ashes 2, The Million, 1984), John Vaccaro's Playhouse of the Ridiculous (Cockstrong, 1969, among others), Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines (Mother, 1994), Hanay Geiogamah’s Native American Theatre Ensemble (Na Haaz'an, Body Indian, 1972; Coyote Tracks, Foghorn, 1973), Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver’s Split Britches (Double Agency, 2002), and Richard Schechner’s East Coast Artists (Amerika, 1994, and others). In January 2011, La MaMa hosted the Belarus Free Theater, a troupe that’s in severe political trouble in its home country, as part of the Under the Radar festival, produced by the Public Theater; BFT has been scheduled to return in April to La MaMa, which has offered the company an “artistic residency.” Of course, there was the La MaMa Repertory Company from the late ‘60s, directed first by O’Horgan, which became the Great Jones Rep Company in 1974, under Serban. These artists and the many others Stewart supported were those for whom art is their means of communication, regardless of what form that may take. “Non-establishment” not being the same as “anti-establishment,” however, she asserted that politics held no interest for her—“none whatsoever.” This attitude even got her into some difficulty with the African-American community in New York: Stewart asserted that some black activists during the volatile ‘60s resented her because she didn’t focus her productions on theater for black people or black political plays. Playwright Amiri Baraka, who wrote and directed the La MaMa production Money: A Jazz Opera in 1983 and was a fervent black nationalist in the ‘60s, confirmed this, adding, “Ellen was very free and open, but at the same time, she was determined to do things her own way. It was an interesting contradiction.”
While she was at once nurturing and demanding, freeing and restricting, open and controlling, Stewart was indeed in command of her own universe. As we heard from Baraka, the producer generally went her own way irrespective of anyone else’s opinion. “Ellen’s will is so strong,” said Gretchen Green, a former La MaMa managing director who now sits on its advisory board, “she’s just an incredible example of how to get things done and how to get them done your way.” “No one,” reported playwright van Itallie, “dared ignore La Mama.” Stewart may not have told her artists what to do or how to work, but she could let them know when she was unhappy or displeased. “She scolds me, she pushes me, she worries about me,” reported Talking Band co-founder Paul Zimet, a playwright and director. Actor Bill Irwin recalled that Stewart had a “shame on you” tone of voice when she needed it, as well as a “weary Mama voice” when a project didn’t work out. “Whenever she yells or gets mad, it only belongs to the work, to the world of the work,” recalled Michael Sirotta, a resident composer at the theater. “Working at La Mama has been a love affair; it’s been a hate affair.” Everyone who worked at La MaMa could feel Stewart’s lash occasionally, Sirotta said. She even once yelled at an entire audience—at a 1985 performance of Mythos Oedipus in Delphi, Greece—because they were seated in the wrong part of the amphitheater.
Mama Stewart could be bitter, too. She resented the fact that the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which she saw as being in the same business as La MaMa, got millions of dollars in grants and subsidies while she struggled to stay afloat. Harvey Lichtenstein’s BAM and Papp’s Public Theater became institutions, and Stewart said that her religion—she was a practicing Catholic—taught her that whatever happened, it was because it was meant to be that way. If Lichtenstein got $3 million from the NEA and she got $300,000 . . . well, that’s how she kept from becoming an institution and was able to keep doing what she liked to do. She also felt that her lack of profile, especially in the academic theater world and its journals, was because people like Richard Schechner, a professor at NYU's Department of Performance Studies and editor of The Drama Review, dismissed her as a dilettante. Yet in 1980, when Michael Kirby, also an NYU professor, was editor of TDR, he wrote that Stewart, as the producer of avant-garde theater, was arguably the most important figure in her field. And in 1985, she received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, recognizing her accomplishments and providing her the money to open La MaMa Umbria, the artists’ retreat she built in a 14th-century convent in Spoletto in central Italy.
In the early ‘90s, I was working with Leonardo Shapiro and his Shaliko Company as a sometime dramaturg and, in 1992-93, as a writer composing a profile for The Drama Review of him, his company, and their work. I spent seven days a week for months on end going to rehearsals or performances of various stage projects, observing classes of the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program, and attending meetings between Shapiro and his collaborators. The Shaliko Company had been performing at La MaMa since 1983, so much of this activity took place at one of Stewart’s facilities. Of course, Stewart famously didn’t attend rehearsals (unless asked) and didn’t hang around her artists at work, so I would never say that I got to know her, but I did meet her, even interviewing her for the Shaliko profile. And, obviously, I observed the effect she and her institution had on the artists and their work. (I also interviewed Shapiro over many hours and he spoke often of Stewart.) Now, I don’t suppose my impression of Ellen Stewart is especially informed or that my perspective is unique—in fact, many artists have said the same things about her—but having spent so much time in her orbit, I want to add my voice to the encomiums that have appeared since her death. I saw what she meant to the artists who worked at La MaMa; Shapiro’s memorial in 1997, for instance, was held in the La MaMa Annex because it was the one location in New York City (he died and is buried in New Mexico) that meant the most to him and those who attended. Each of us who’d known Shapiro knew him in connection to many locations in the city, but we all knew him in connection with La MaMa.
Everyone who knew Stewart called her “Mama,” even her elders. She was the wet nurse for an awful lot of New York theater, and she had her way of nurturing the artists she respected and supported. Her biggest gifts to the playwrights and directors whose work La MaMa housed were space, time, and freedom. She didn’t meddle or kibitz, she didn’t read scripts, she didn’t look in at rehearsals. She gave the artists a room to work in and time to develop their projects. The freedom she offered was the freedom to fail. Her support, and invitations to return, weren’t contingent on success, either in the press or at the box office. She offered no financial support, and the theater had precious few assets to dole out—no costume shop or set and prop storage the companies could raid. Production budgets were entirely the responsibility of the producing company. The company could use La MaMa’s press rep and, of course, its box office staff, but they were both pretty rudimentary and many troupes, like Shaliko, had their own publicists even if they used La MaMa’s services as well. (When Shaliko resided at the Public, by contrast, they received no money, but had access to NYSF’s hoard of costumes and set pieces, its efficient and effective publicity machine, and its cachet. The trade-off was that Papp could interfere with the project if he felt like it—he acted like a producer, in other words—and a resident company could be asked to find other quarters if Papp was displeased with the work.)
La MaMa, of course, had never been about the work, the product; for Stewart, it had always been about the people, the artists who were doing it. She judged artists not on their proposals, résumés, or track records, but on an almost mystical individual response to their personalities. “It’s not voodoo,” she insisted. “It’s what I get from a person.” Shapiro’s history with The Shaliko Company was tortuous, for instance. He’d started the company in 1972, installed it at the Public in 1974, and then disbanded it in 1976. He restarted Shaliko in 1980 for one season and when he tried again in 1981, he had no home base. He turned to Stewart, who maintained, “I think I was the one that encouraged him to start again.” Asked why she would be so interested in someone who’d never worked at La Mama before, she answered: “It’s just that I thought that he should come back, that’s all. There wasn’t any particular thing about his work. I just felt very strongly—very strongly—that he should come back and that he should rebuild.” Stewart said no to projects or artists in which she wasn’t interested, but, she said, “If my mind tells me I want to do this, then I do it.” She didn’t require artists to bring her their ideas or clear their projects with her: “I have my own way of knowing about things,” Stewart explained. “People either beep to me or they don’t,” she would offer.
The East Village impresario pretty much stayed out of the way. “I don’t read texts, okay. It’s very seldom that I even see a show that goes on here at La MaMa,” she insisted. “I’m not a scholar. I don’t go to rehearsals.” Moreover, “I’m not a person to go into an in-depth analysis about anybody about anything,” she explained. “You see, my particular interest is the person involved . . . . I don’t go watching what Leo [Shapiro] does,” said Stewart, for example. “I like to know he has a place to show his work; I know that he has the ability to do work, and I like to encourage that. That’s it. I’m like that with everything at La MaMa.” Of Shapiro she said, “I never ask him about what he’s going to do”; artists who “beeped” to her were “very secure here,” Stewart promised. Of Shapiro’s return to Shaliko, for instance, the impresario added: “I thought that he had some promise and that he should come back. I liked him as a person . . . and he’s been here ever since.” As Shapiro himself put it: “Ellen’s given me a place.”
Nevertheless, Stewart could be very protective and solicitous of her artists. ”You let yourself become one of them and you use whatever skills you have to enhance what they have, what they do,” she proclaimed. “This is my philosophy.” But what Stewart did best was stand in the breech: “Ellen doesn’t allow rules to get in the way of the work you’re doing” asserted Stacy Klein, director of the Double Edge Theatre, a La MaMa presenting company. David Diamond, coordinator of the La MaMa International Symposium for Directors in Umbria, said, “Ellen is happiest when she is creating something. She is truly the most creative person I’ve ever met. As a mentor, an inspiration, she is the embodiment of the philosophy that anything is possible.” In her own words, Stewart affirmed, “I enjoy everything I’m doing because I do what I want to do, always hoping something good will come to whoever is concerned. My good comes from the fact that they’ve done the work I wished they would do with me.” Even though she kept a distance from her artists—she often called them her “babies” or her “kids” and André De Shields wrote of being one of her “spirit children”—Stewart seemed to think of their work as hers as well. When I was talking to her about Shapiro’s work there, she spoke of what “we were going to do” and “what we did before.” If she was a mother to her artists in the beginning, though, she was a much more remote figure when I saw her at work; Schechner characterized her as “more Queen Victoria than Gaia.” Of course, she was well over 70 by the time I met her and had been at it for 30 years. As I mentioned in passing, she had also experienced the fright of nearly losing La MaMa to financial disaster just at the time I was observing Shaliko. If she wished to be an éminence grise rather than a visible presence, who could blame her? Though she took up directing late in her career (her first directorial credit: The Cotton Club Gala in 1975), hands-on wasn’t her style anyway. If an artist asked her for advice or counsel, she’d give it—but it might not be what the artist expected to hear. When Shapiro, who’d been an artist-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, became discouraged with the place, he went to Stewart and told her he was quitting Trinity. “Well, honey, you’ve gotta have a job,” he remembered her berating him. “Mama, I really cannot stand it,” he bridled. “I’ve gotta come back here and do what I really do.” Then Stewart suggested, “Well, honey, you get them to send the students to you.” He did, and the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program, administered from Hartford but taught at La MaMa in the East Village, was conceived. And Shapiro didn’t quit. “She’s really gifted in that way,” he added.
Shapiro may have wanted to install the Trinity College program at La MaMa because his company was based there; the head of the Trinity dance department, who would oversee the program, had her own reasons. On a visit to the theater during an exploratory field trip to New York City, she met Stewart and saw how the students responded very strongly to “the spirit of La MaMa and the experimentation and also very much its sense of down-to-earthness and community.” The Trinity performing arts departments wanted to use “the great acting, dance, and performance art theaters in New York City” to expand and “La Mama is the nexus of all that.” If the late Joe Papp’s Public Theater is, as its reputation has it, the busiest theater in New York City, La MaMa must be a very close second. Aside from the 99-seat First Floor Theatre, 74, as La MaMa’s East 4th Street home is called, also houses The Club on the second floor. A 125-seat cabaret space where performance artists frequently appear, The Club used to be in the basement of 74 and in 1985, I saw the late Danitra Vance there doing a one-woman performance reminiscent of an edgier Whoopi Goldberg show, before she came to prominence on Saturday Night Live. (The basement now houses the La MaMa Archive, the extensive repository of documents recording the history of the theater from its beginnings, and, along with it, the history of Off-Off-Broadway.) In 1984, Stewart launched La Galleria, a non-profit art gallery at 6 E. 1st Street, whose mission, like the theater’s, is “to nurture artistic experimentation,” concentrating on the East Village art scene.
On the top floor of 74 are three small, sun-lit rooms that since 1969 comprised Stewart’s living quarters. She literally lived “above the shop,” and the building having been renovated without installing an elevator—in 1968, no one thought it would be necessary—Stewart reached her memorabilia-crammed apartment, the walls lined with art from her travels, by climbing the four flights from the street level. Later, when she became weakened by age and illness, someone had to carry her up and down the stairs to and from the rooms which became even more cluttered with medical equipment. When it came to hardships and disappointments, however, Stewart insisted, “I’ve never thought about the difficulties in my life, except when I thought I was going to lose La MaMa.” Stewart continued, “Then an article appeared in The New York Times.” That was on 10 March 1992: the Times had announced that La MaMa had a $176,000 deficit and that the theater needed $150,000 to finish the season that was ending on 30 June. Mama Stewart rejoiced that “people sent money from all over the world,” pulling the theater back from the brink.
Stewart had recognized the importance of multicultural and international art exchanges before it was hip and academic conferences or graduate courses on the subject were conceived. A true Internationalist, the Off-Off-Broadway producer’s search for theater talent recognized no borders, ranging across Europe (including Eastern Europe), Asia, the Middle East, South and Central America, and Africa. Through the years, Stewart established satellite companies in many countries: currently operating are La MaMa Bogota; La MaMa Tel Aviv; La MaMa Melbourne; La MaMa Umbria, the retreat; and La MaMa Tokyo, a jazz club. More significant to me than Stewart’s importation of American avant-garde theater abroad, though, was her introduction of international theater culture to the U.S., arguably the most insular cultural enclave on the planet. La MaMa played host to many foreign artists whose work was barely known in the U.S., like Andrei Serban (Romania), whom Stewart was the first to employ in this country, Jerzy Grotowski (Poland), Ohno Kazuo (Butoh dancer from Japan), Maria Elena Anaya (dancer from Mexico), Peter Brook (England), Mark Sadan (Israel), Tan Dun (composer from China), Joe Kodeih (Lebanon), Denise Stoklos (Brazil), Rina Yerushalmi (Israel), Tadashi Suzuki (Japan), and Tadeusz Kantor (Poland). Productions Stewart herself directed were invariably imbued with multicultural influences and techniques, even before such concepts had become common on stage or at academic conferences.
If there was an overriding philosophy by which Stewart ran La MaMa, however, it was a lesson she learned from Abe Diamond, an Orchard Street fabric dealer who gave her material from which she fashioned the dresses that got her noticed at Saks back at the beginning. “Papa” Diamond adopted Stewart as his “artistic daughter” and, parading her around the Lower East Side to show off her creations, he explained that she “must always have a pushcart; that if I pushed the cart for other people it would take me wherever I wanted to go.” The pushcart was her own outlet with which she could serve others’ needs and sell her wares—either fabric or artistic. La MaMa was her pushcart, she always insisted, and it would always be a pushcart, not an institution like the other theaters she saw burgeoning around her in the ‘60s. “Institutions tie people down; they are not Stewart’s thing,” wrote Cindy Rosenthal, an arts writer who published an extensive profile of the producer and the company in TDR as recently as 2006. “It was more important for her to move around, to keep pushing her cart into more corners of the globe.” Ellen Stewart has pushed her cart to the end now.
[By coincidence, La MaMa is announcing it’s 12th Annual La MaMa International Symposium for Directors. Featured artists will include Ping Chong, Tina Landau, Ruth Maleczech, Dijana Milosevic (Serbia), Luca Ronconi (Italy), Hjalmar-Jorge Joffre-Eichorn (Bulgaria), JoAnne Akalaitis, Dorcy Rugamba (Rwanda), Marco Martinelli (Italy), Ermanna Montanari (Italy), and others, offering workshops for professional directors at La MaMa Umbria International in Spoleto, Italy this summer. The symposium takes place from 15 July-15 August 2011 at La MaMa Umbria. There will be two two-week sessions, each featuring at least four teaching artists and special guests. In addition, participants visit local cultural sites, attend arts festivals and community fairs and meet local artists. For registration information, visit http://e2ma.net/go/9113718186/3458096/103424231/35181/goto:http://lamama.org/programs/la-mama-umbria-international/directorssymposium/. Also at La MaMa Umbria will be the 5th Annual Playwright Retreat, 3-13 July; the 1st Annual Master Acting Workshop, 17-27 August; and a special workshop by Cricot-2, a Polish ensemble (Teresa and Andrzej Welminski), 13-26 June.
[After I wrote this memorial to Ellen Stewart, Lanford Wilson, one of the premier playwrights of Off-Off-Broadway and one of La MaMa’s early mainstays, died (Thursday, 24 March) at 73. I plan to post some sort of memorial to Wilson, a playwright I enjoyed immensely, very soon on ROT.
[In a few days, I’ll also be publishing an old review I wrote of a 1976 performance of Serban and Swados’s Fragments of a Trilogy, one of La MaMa’s most famous productions. Come back to ROT and see what I made of that show 35 years ago.]