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Ellen Stewart

Ellen Stewart

The founder and artistic director of New York City's La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Ellen Stewart (born 1920) is credited with creating the oldest remaining, and most influential, Off-Off Broadway theater. In addition, she is considered a pioneer in the development of international theater by providing a home for artists from more than 70 nations and for bringing American plays to audiences around the world.

An African American fashion designer who became one of the most important names in twentieth-century theater, Stewart has been praised for making La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (LaMaMa ETC) the leading avant-garde theater in the United States. By providing a supportive environment for both artists and audiences, she created a venue that allows playwrights to develop without the pressures of traditional or "mainline" theater. Stewart founded La MaMa (the name is accented on the second syllable) in 1961 on the Lower East Side of New York, the area in which it still remains. For almost 40 years, La MaMa has consistently presented exciting, often radical, plays in a forum that nurtures and encourages the artist. In addition, La MaMa has produced a number of actors, musicians, directors, and visual artists who have become popular and respected names in their respective fields.

Born in 1920 in Alexandria, Louisiana (some sources say Chicago, Illinois), Stewart is notoriously reticent about her personal background. Most sources state that she is descended from Geechees, the slaves who settled along the Ogeechee River in Georgia. Stewart has said that some of her descendants were involved in vaudeville and burlesque. After her parents divorced, when she was young, Stewart spent her childhood traveling between her father, a tailor, in Louisiana and her mother, a teacher, in Detroit. Interested in theater from an early age, she remembers playing with a miniature theater that she and her foster brother Fred Lights made from shoeboxes, using spool people as actors. Stewart has noted that she received little formal education.

Before moving to New York, Stewart worked in Detroit and managed Boss Slim's nightclub in Chicago, where she booked artists such as Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. She studied education at Arkansas State University, married a postman (the first of five husbands), and gave birth to a son, Larry Hovell in 1943. Deciding that she wanted to be a fashion designer, Stewart moved to New York in 1950. At the time, New York was one of only two cities in the U.S. to accept African American design students, with the hope of studying at the Traphagen School of Design. Three days after arriving in Manhattan, Stewart walked into St. Patrick's Cathedral to light a candle and pray for help. She noticed Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store as she stepped outside the cathedral. Twenty minutes after lighting the candle, she had a job snipping threads from brassieres for designer Edith Lances. Stewart had originally planned to use her job at Saks to provide income for her education; however, she was about to move in an entirely different direction.

On her days off, Stewart enjoyed taking the subway into new neighborhoods and exploring them. On an expedition to the Lower East Side, she saw beautiful fabrics piled on the streets. An elderly man in a yarmulke noticed her looking at his merchandise and came out to sell her something. This man, clothing merchant Abraham Diamond, became Stewart's mentor. Diamond told Stewart that the most important thing in life was to have a pushcart; if she pushed for other people and not for herself, she would find fulfillment. Every Sunday, Diamond would give Stewart a packet of fabric, which she would turn into an outfit and wear for him the next week. Diamond would proudly show off his "daughter" and her new design around the neighborhood. When shoppers at Saks noticed Stewart's outfits under the blue smock that black employees were required to wear, they wanted to buy the designs. Consequently, Edith Laces set up an entire department for her "little genius," who went from being a porter to being executive designer of sportswear in just three months. Stewart, who stayed with Saks for eight years, became the only American to have two gowns at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. After an illness forced her to resign from Saks, she worked as a freelance designer for Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel. Stewart told Gaylen Moore of Ms., "I was a crackerjack designer. Few people know that."

Birth of Cafe La MaMa

After suffering another illness and then a nervous breakdown in 1961, Stewart went to Tangiers, Morocco, to recuperate. There, she met a friend, Theresa Klein, who spoke to her in the words of Abraham Diamond, who by then had passed away. Klein told Stewart that she should have a pushcart; the next day, Stewart left Tangiers for New York. She decided to create a theater because her foster brother, Fred Lights, and his friend Paul Foster wanted to be playwrights. In 1955, a musical that Lights had written had been optioned for Broadway. When it opened as The Vamp, Lights was not given authorship credit. Stewart vowed to do whatever she could to create a positive environment for young playwrights.

Back in New York, she applied for a designer position at a salon on 57th Street; the proprietor accused her of being a fraud, claiming that no person of color could be so accomplished. Upset by this encounter, Stewart went to a friend's frame shop on the Lower East Side in order to buy a print by Marc Chagall, an artist whose work had a calming effect on her. Walking along Ninth Street, a sign at number 321, "Basement for Rent," caught her eye. Stewart rented the basement, which she hoped to turn into a boutique for her designs. However, when Paul Foster suggested that the space could also double as a theater, Stewart realized that she had found her pushcart. Paul Foster dubbed the place MaMa, which was Stewart's nickname; "La" was added to give the venture more sophistication, and a pushcart wheel was hung over the entrance. In assessing the fledgling theater, Stewart told Josh Greenfield of the New York Times Magazine, "No floor. No plumbing. Nothing. But to me it looked beautiful."

The other tenants of the formerly all-white building accused Stewart of running a bordello and asked the Health Department to issue her a summons for prostitution. However, the inspector, himself a retired vaudevillian, arranged for her to get a restaurant license. Cafe La MaMa presented its first production, Andy Milligan's adaptation of Tennesee Williams's short story One Arm, on July 27, 1962. The theater presented its first original play, Michael Loscasio's A Corner of the Morning, on October 18, 1962. In its earliest days, La MaMa's productions were all based around a bed that served as the stage. The theater's eleventh production, The Room, introduced English playwright Harold Pinter to America. Not knowing that she had to have rights to the play in order to produce it, Stewart was threatened with a lawsuit. However, when Stewart told Pinter that she loved his plays and planned to do all of them at her theater, Pinter consented to let her do The Room as many times as she liked until it got a commercial production.

In April 1963, Cafe La MaMa was closed due to a zoning ordinance. The theater moved to a loft at 82 Second Avenue, where its opening production was The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco. As in the first establishment, coffee and cake were served, sometimes by the playwrights. Stewart was informed that she had to vacate the premises because she was making profits, so she stayed open by not charging for coffee. In her second home, Stewart began the practice of presenting only new plays. With this decision, La MaMa became the first Off-Off Broadway theatre to present original works. Cafe La MaMa premiered the works of playwrights who would later become recognized as some of America's finest writers. The plays of Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, and Tom Eyen were performed.

Six months after moving into her loft, Stewart was once again forced to move, this time to 82 Second Avenue. Problems with restaurant regulations resulted in the formation of a private, nonprofit club where patrons purchased short-term memberships rather than tickets. Thus, the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club was born in March 1964. The following year, Stewart sent her first troupe of La MaMa players to Europe. Glowing reviews led to publication of 12 of the 21 productions and to the establishment of touring companies as a permanent feature of La MaMa. At the same time, Stewart began to bring the best of European companies to New York, such as those of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and Romanian director, Andrei Serban. The Actor's Equity union banned the practice of having its members work for no pay in coffeehouses in 1966, so Stewart convinced the union that La MaMa's status as a private club made it exempt from this ruling.

In its first five years, La MaMa produced more than 200 new plays. Stewart, whose personal taste tends toward abstract plays that speak to the subconscious and are designed to bombard the senses, read each script and placed playwrights with directors. Although many of these works were considered exciting and challenging, some were viewed as perplexing and others as campy and amateurish. However, La MaMa allowed its playwrights the luxury of failure as a way to hone their craft. Several of the plays were controversial, including Rochelle Owens's Futz!, which was centered around a man's love for his pig. Directed by Tom O'Horgan, who would become a successful Broadway director, Futz! was moved Off-Broadway and was later filmed. Until 1967, Stewart was the principal benefactor for La MaMa. She paid for its productions, which usually cost less than a hundred dollars to mount, with the money she earned as the designer of swimsuits and sports clothes for a New York manufacturer. When it became fashionable for major foundations to donate grants to the arts, Stewart convinced the Rockefeller, Ford, and Kaplan Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts to give her money. With these funds, she bought a permanent building for La MaMa E.T.C. at 74 East Fourth Street. Later, the La MaMa Annex opened three doors away. La MaMa E.T.C. launched both the La MaMa Experimental Club and the La MaMa Repertory Theatre.

Perhaps the most influential of the plays presented during the early days was Hair, the rock musical by Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot. Hair represented the free and communal approach that La MaMa had developed—a physical, passionate, and energetic performance style that came to be recognized as a new movement in American theater. After it left La MaMa, Hair moved to Off-Broadway and then to Broadway, where it became a huge hit. The play, which spawned many international companies and was made into a film, continues to be performed regularly.

La MaMa Matured

By 1970, La MaMa was recognized as an international center for theater. The group was acclaimed as a representative of the American avant-garde while showcasing companies from around the world. In 1971, Stewart was asked by UNESCO to be a cultural ambassador to the Philippine Republic, where she met Cecile Guidote-Alvarez. With Guidote-Alvarez, Stewart organized the Third World Institute of Theatre Arts Studies (TWITAS), a program designed to foster cross-cultural exchange between Third World artists and minority artists from the United States. TWITAS festivals have featured workshops and productions from such countries as India, Indonesia, Japan, Surinam, and Uganda. The program also spawned a number of ethnic theater groups, such as the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, the Asian American Theatre, and the Greek Theatre of New York.

In 1974, the La MaMa Annex opened with Andrei Serban's Fragments of a Trilogy: Medea, The Trojan Women, and Electra; this large-scale production based on the plays of Greek dramatist, Euripides, received much critical acclaim. Stewart presented the First International Theatre Festival in 1977. The festival included performances of artists from five countries. In 1979, the Year of the Child, TWITAS joined with the United Nations to create educational programs for teachers, children, and cultural leaders. In the same year, the city of New York leased Six East First Street to La MaMa for a Third World Center. The space also includes an art gallery, La Galleria, where artists could exhibit their work for free and poets and musicians could have readings and concerts. Although La MaMa was praised for its multicultural commitment, the National Endowment for the Arts reduced its funding for 1978 and 1979, due to the theater's insistence on international programs.

In 1980, English director Peter Brook chose La MaMa to mount his productions of The Ik and The Conference of the Birds. Since Brook had been offered space by other theaters both on-and off-Broadway, his choice of La MaMa was considered a coup for the theater. La MaMa celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1981 with a retrospective of seventeen plays that had originated in the 1960s. Most of the productions featured original directors and casts. In 1984, Wickham Boyle joined the La MaMa staff as its first executive director. Boyle, who got her M.B.A. at Yale, ushered in a six-year period of relative financial stability.

La MaMa Today

In 1990, Stewart opened La MaMa Umbria International, a non-profit cultural center and artists' residence, a program that gives culturally diverse artists the opportunity to live together while working on productions or participating in workshops. The workshop series, which lasts for seven weeks, is held in the countryside surrounding the town of Spoleto, Italy, two hours outside of Rome. Also in 1990, controversy surrounding an exhibit by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, which included figures dressed in bondage gear and engaged in sexual acts, caused the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to make a request of its grant recipients. The NEA required that recipients state in writing that they would not use award money for works depicting sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts that, when taken as a whole, lacked merit as art, literature, politics, or science. Faced with the loss of her major source of funding, Stewart complied with the NEA's directive. La MaMa celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1991 with a presentation of Futz! that featured the original director, Tom O'Horgan, and most of the original cast.

However, by the next year, the celebratory mood had changed. Due to federal and state funding cuts, La MaMa was faced with closing. An emergency fundraising event—a tribute to Ellen Stewart—was held. Actors, Robert DeNiro and Estelle Getty were the honorary chairpersons. Sally Kirkland, Billy Crystal, and F. Murray Abraham were on the honorary committee. The event was hosted by Harvey Fierstein, the actor/playwright whose Torch Song Trilogy received its first production at La MaMa. This event, plus private donations, solved the short-term cash problems. However, since La MaMa was still in danger of closing, Stewart embarked on a campaign to convince city officials that La MaMa should receive the same kind of financial consideration as the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Public Theater, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She argued that, due to its accomplishments, La MaMa deserved consideration as a primary organization with appropriate funding. Although Stewart has consistently battled with city government on this issue, La MaMa is still thriving, due to the generosity of its supporters and the vision and tireless work of its founder.

Stewart has written, composed, and staged works at La MaMa, including several original folk operas that have been performed around the world. Well regarded as a lecturer, she is a visiting professor at the Institute of Drama in South Korea and a member of the Seoul International Theater Institute. Currently, La MaMa E.T.C. presents an average of 50 world and American premieres by new playwrights, directors, performers, and designers. In addition, it presents more than 100 single performances as well as concerts, readings, exhibits, and workshops.

Influence and Critical Reception

From its inception, La MaMa has been influential both inside and outside of the theatrical community. Performance spaces emulating La MaMa began springing up around the country in the early 1960s. The playwriting, performance style, and internationalism developed at the theater have greatly influenced international media since that time. Plays now considered part of popular culture—such as Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar —got their start at La MaMa. Actors such as Al Pacino, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, Danny DeVito, and Harvey Keitel; playwrights such as Elizabeth Swados, Israel Horovitz, Adrienne Kennedy, and Terence McNally; and directors such as Wilford Leach, Marshall Mason, Meredith Monk, and Ping Chong have been associated with the theater. La MaMa also spawned a number of resident and alumni companies, including the La MaMa Troupe, Mabou Mines, the E.T.C. Company, the Great Jones Repertory, the Open Theatre, and the Theatre of the Eye, among others. In addition, its resident ethnic companies—African American, Asian, Native American, and Puerto Rican—have become an important part of La MaMa.

Behind the success of La MaMa, is Ellen Stewart. Writing in Notable Black American Women, Robert L. Johns said that Stewart's "contribution to theater is immense. The creator, leader, fund-raiser, and exponent and defender of La MaMa, she has concentrated her efforts on this company and given it a longevity that is extraordinary among groups of this kind." Josh Greenfield of the New York Times Magazine added that her success "represents both a rare act of faith and an unflinching confrontation with the mechanics of moving mountains." In an interview with Barbara Lee Horn in Ellen Stewart and La MaMa: A Bio-Bibliography, Martha Coigney stated, "She was one person that insisted that the United States have an international profile, certainly in experimental theatre. She went out there with a machete and cut through the undergrowth and prepared the way for many others. And it is not that she has made it easier for others, she has made it necessary—something that could not be avoided." Calling Stewart "the Gertrude Stein of Off-Off Broadway," Barbara Lee Horn concluded that she "continues to manifest the spirit that she brought to her work many years ago, her passion for people and creativity, her immense courage and commitment to her vision of what theatre should be."

Further Reading

Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, edited by Monica O'Donnell Hubbard and Owen O'Donnell, Gale, 1988.

Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Theater Arts and Entertainment, edited by Darlene Clark Hines, Facts on File, Inc., 1997.

Horn, Barbara Lee, Ellen Stewart and La MaMa: A Bio-Bibliography Greenwood Press, 1993.

Mapp, Edward, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, second edition, Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Notable Black American Women, Book II, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Gale, 1996.

Ms., April, 1982.

New York Times, April 5, 1980.

New York Times Magazine, July 9, 1967.

"La MaMa E.T.C. Home Page," http://www.nytheatre-wire.com/LMhome.htm.

"La MaMa Theatre Etc.," http://www.lamama.org/archive.html.

"La MaMa Umbria," http://www.grafiekas.nl/~lamama/intro.html. □

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