Stewart, Ellen (c. 1920—)

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Stewart, Ellen (c. 1920—)

African-American theater producer, manager, and director who founded the pioneer La Mama Experimental Theater Company, spawning the "off-off-Broadway" renaissance and originating one of the most important experimental theaters in the world. Name variations: Mama Stewart. Born around 1920 in Alexandria, Louisiana; educated at Arkansas State University.

Little is known of Ellen Stewart's early life other than that she was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, around 1920, and that she grew up in Chicago and was educated at Arkansas State University. According to Gaylen Moore , she wanted to attend fashion school and tossed a coin to decide whether it would be in San Francisco or New York City. After arriving in Manhattan in 1950, she worked at Saks Fifth Avenue as an elevator operator and lingerie finisher. Stewart told Moore that during lunchtime, she would remove the blue smock required by Saks for its "colored" help, revealing her own creations underneath, which drew the attention of women in the store who thought she was modeling Balenciaga. From that experience, she became an executive designer and ran the sportswear department at Saks. Stewart worked as a freelance designer until 1961 and was the only American designer to have two of her gowns worn at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II .

Despite her success, Stewart tired of the racism in the fashion industry and turned her attention to theater. After witnessing the frustration of her foster brother as he tried to build a theater career, Stewart rented a basement on Ninth Street and began renovations to start her own theater where her brother and his friends could write and produce their plays. Her new neighbors, less than thrilled by the prospect of a black woman in residence nearby, used the constant parade of male construction workers at the site to bring Stewart up on charges of prostitution.

Stewart had to clear another hurdle in getting a license to run her business. The difficulty in obtaining a theater license prompted her to seek a restaurant license instead, with the plan of putting on play productions within a coffeehouse setting. Although she knew nothing about theater, she learned as she went along and never gave up, which became a hallmark of her career. The push-cart wheel over the door of her theater became a symbol of her persevering spirit. In 1961, Stewart named the place La Mama because everyone called her Mama Stewart. As the theater evolved through various physical moves and ideological concepts, the name remained a constant.

The theater's first production was on July 27, 1962, with Tennessee Williams' One Arm. The first original play the group performed was by Michael Locascio. They also did Harold Pinter's The Room. Stewart had produced Pinter's play without permission, but her enthusiasm for his work won the playwright over, and he gave La Mama authorization to perform his plays. Years later, he proclaimed himself one of the La Mama playwrights.

Stewart was an untiring friend to aspiring playwrights, and her efforts to get their work published led to the international scope of La Mama. The lack of critical reviews for La Mama's productions caused publishers also to ignore the playwrights associated with the theater. However, when one of the plays was produced as a student production in Colombia, it won a prize and received international attention. The play was then produced at a festival in Germany, where it was seen by a Danish group, which contacted Stewart and requested more. Realizing that she could get reviews from international critics if her troupe toured other countries, Stewart took 22 plays and 16 actors to Europe in 1965. Mixed reviews from European critics prompted Stewart to seek out acting teachers to give her actors proper training in professional theater. Tom O'Horgan, later director of Hair on Broadway, started workshops to

teach acting and more directors and actors were added to the company.

Stewart's European experience also gave her an idea for an intensive exchange program, in which La Mama would travel abroad and foreign theater groups would perform at her theater in New York. As a result, American audiences had the opportunity to see dramatic troupes from all over the world, and La Mama's international influence exported American avant-garde theater to the world. Stewart told Moore that her friend Bruce Howard, then an executive director of National Education Television (NET), produced "Three Plays from La Mama" in 1966. Although Howard eventually lost his job because of it, the telecast permitted the group, in 1969, to move to larger quarters and produce longer plays. By 1981, there were four La Mama theaters in the New York area. Branches of La Mama were also established in Boston, Amsterdam, Bogota, Israel, London, Melbourne, Morocco, Munich, Paris, Tokyo, Toronto, and Vienna. Stewart's international vision directly influenced her choice of plays to produce. While La Mama produced plays by established writers like Eugene O'Neill and Shakespeare, Stewart wanted works that transcended the borders of language and culture, plays that were comprehensible to any audience. As she told George W. Anderson, she believed in expressing the literal meaning of a play through visuals, music and dance "beyond the medium of language."

Although she received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Arts Council, the Kaplan Fund, and the New York State Arts Council, this international scope often made financial support difficult to obtain. Some agencies faulted Stewart for not running a theater specifically focused on African-American culture, and others did not wish to support a theater that funneled American dollars to foreign dramatic troupes. In the early years, her actors, writers, and directors were not paid a salary, and international groups were paid with box-office receipts.

Stewart did not permit the hardships to deter her from her vision, and, as a result, La Mama boasted over 2,000 productions from an impressive corps of writers, including Andre Gide, George Bernard Shaw, William Saroyan, Jean Anouilh, Gertrude Stein , Eugene Ionesco, Lanford Wilson, Jean Genet, Sam Shepard, Ross Alexander, Israel Horowitz, Peter Weiss, Eric Bentley, Andy Warhol, Harvey Fierstein, and Terrence McNally by the end of the 20th century. Some of the actors who started at La Mama include Billy Crystal, Danny DeVito, Robert De Niro, and Bette Midler . In 1985, Stewart received the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" grant, and in January 1993 she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.


Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times. NY: Clarkston N. Potter, 1981, pp. 33–41.

Herbert, Ian. ed. Who's Who in the Theatre. 17th ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.

Moore, Gaylen. "Ellen Stewart: The Mama of La Mama," in Ms. April 1982, pp. 52–55.

Stewart, Ellen. "Interview with George W. Anderson," in America. Vol. 176, no. 4. February 8, 1997, pp. 28–32.

Martha Jones , M.L.S., Natick, Massachusetts

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Stewart, Ellen (c. 1920—)

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