Ellen Stewart, Off-Off-Broadway Beacon and Founder of La Mama, Dies at 91

Obituaries   Ellen Stewart, Off-Off-Broadway Beacon and Founder of La Mama, Dies at 91
Ellen Stewart, the powerhouse impresario who, as the founder of the downtown Manhattan theatre complex La MaMa, E.T.C. (short for Experimental Theatre Club), was one of the central figures in the creation of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, died Jan. 13 in New York City. She was 91.

Ellen Stewart
Ellen Stewart Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Ms. Stewart founded La MaMa in 1961, and remained its director until her death. Over the years, the company nurtured aborning talents such as playwrights Sam Shepard, Tom Eyen, William Hoffman, Lanford Wilson, Adrienne Kennedy, Rochelle Owens, Jeff Weiss, Harvey Fierstein and Jean Claude Van Itallie; directors Robert Wilson, Julie Bovasso, Tom O'Horgan, Richard Foreman, Wilford Leach and Meredith Monk; performance artists like John Kelly and Blue Man Group; and actors Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.

Fierstein said on Jan. 13, "I began my career at Ellen's theatre in 1971. She always treated me like family. And she was always like a mother to me. As anyone with any knowledge of theatre knows, she changed the world." He added, "And not only did she give us the avant garde, she also gave us the muumuu."

The company supported a wide variety of avant garde troupes at various times, including The La MaMa Troupe directed by future Hair director Tom O'Horgan; Mabou Mines, directed by Lee Breuer; The Great Jones Repertory, directed by Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados; La MaMa Chinatown, directed by Wu Jing-jyi and Ching Yeh of Taiwan — out of which grew The Pan Asian Repertory; and Ping Chong and Company. In more recent years, La MaMa was the home of the plays of Jim Neu and the comic sketches of brother-sister team of Amy and David Sedaris, as well as countless foreign productions hailing from everywhere from Lebanon to Croatia.

The musical Godspell, which moved to Off-Broadway in 1971, began at La MaMa, and Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy was developed there. But for the most part, the heart of the company — unlike the Public Theater, an institution of comparable influence, which sent many shows to Broadway — remained below 14th Street, aligned with the city's scrappy, struggling and striving creative souls.

The African-American Ms. Stewart, a striking figure with a wild mane of blonde hair, sometimes worn in corn rows, was a familiar sight at her East 4th Street complex of stages and offices. Often she personally introduced each performance, and more than occasionally implored the audience members to donate to the perpetually cash-strapped organization. The theatre's peculiar name was an expression of Ms. Stewart's role at the institution. And, indeed, she did take on a kind of Earth Mother status in the downtown theatre world, giving hundreds of young artists a chance and an artistic home. She didn't write, didn't act, didn't direct until late in her career, but she spurred on and lent succor to those who did, or wanted to.

Her influence in the New York theatre world was so far-ranging that, in 1993, she was inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame, the first Off-Off-Broadway Producer to be so honored. She also was given a Tony Award in 2006 for Excellence in Theater.

Ellen Stewart was born Nov. 7, 1919, in Alexandria, Louisiana. She moved to New York in 1950 and began her career in fashion. (She was once a designer for Saks.) She started a theatre in her tiny basement boutique at 312 E. 9th Street, mainly because she wanted to provide a stage for the works of her foster brother Frederick Lights. She sold clothes by day, and opened up the space to playwrights at night.

She wasn't the first to offer writers a haven to experiment outside the commercial strictures of Broadway and Off-Broadway. Joe Cino invited artists into his Greenwich Village coffee house Caffe Cino in 1959, and Al Carmines founded Judson Poet's Theatre in 1961. But La MaMa was certainly the most long-lived of the building blocks that formed the Off-Off-Broadway movement, primarily due to Ms. Stewart's tenacity. Her achievement was all the more remarkable in that she was both black and a woman when there were few leaders in the theatre who were either.

Cafe La MaMa (so called because coffee house licenses were easier to get that those for theatres) had a dirt floor and sat 25 people. Ms. Stewart offered cake, coffee and free admission. The hat was passed. The primarily white residents of the 9th Street building became so alarmed by the variety of men coming in and out of the basement that they called the authorities. They thought Ms. Stewart was running a bordello.

As the theatre was frequently closed over fire code violations during its first year, Ms. Stewart began looking for a new home. She found it on the floor above a florist at 82 Second Avenue. She renamed the company La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (La MaMa E.T.C) and began charging a nominal admission. She abandoned her fashion career and began presenting one new play a week. Whereas early one she had produced many revivals of old plays, she now dedicated herself to new playwrights. Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard, two veterans of Caffe Cino, were among her first authors.

Running from harassing city officials again (Ms. Stewart was arrested twice), La MaMa relocated again in late 1964. "It was the closing performance of Balls, Paul Foster's play," recalled Ms. Stewart in 1993. "There must have been 35 people who came to see the play. Many of them had never been there before, I told them just to strike the café. Many didn't know what I meant, but they all saw the others picking up chairs and tables. Everybody picked something up and followed me down the street. We took everything, paintings, tables, chairs, coffeepots — everything. Well, they moved me in one hour."

They landed on the second floor of 122 Second Avenue, La MaMa's third home and space. This location saw the premiere of Wilson's Balm in Gilead, directed by Marshall Mason, and later regarded as one of his best plays. Sometimes, she took on productions that had commenced at Caffe Cino but were not able to extend. La MaMa stayed at this address until 1967, finding an audience mainly through word of mouth, as advertisements and a sign indicating the theatre's presence would have attracted unwanted civic attention.

To a certain extent, La MaMa specialized in the one-act in its early phase. Shepard, Wilson and others would stage their longer works later and elsewhere, but they cut their teeth with trenchant short plays with Ms. Stewart. Notable one-acts that premiered at La MaMa in the 1960s included Shepard's Chicago, Dog and Melodrama Play, Wilson's Home Free and This Is Rill Speaking, Leonard Melfi's Birdbath, Line by Israel Horowitz, and H.M. Koutoukas' Medea in the Laundromat. Some of these were packaged as Six From La MaMa and produced commercially by Ted Mann at the Martinique Theatre in 1966. American Hurrah, the most significant play produced by Van Itallie, and a landmark in OOB history, was essentially a collection of three thematically joined one-acts.

By 1967, La MaMa had achieved nonprofit status and in 1969 it won grants from the Ford, Rockefeller, and Doris Duke Foundation. The company moved to a former meatpacking plant on E. 4th Street and stayed there. The top floor served as Ms. Stewart's home. It later expanded operations to 66 E. 4th Street, a space two doors away, referred to as The Annex.

La MaMa productions — and production qualities — were often rough around the edges and had a improvised air. "In its combative anarchy and outrageous iconoclasm," wrote Village Voice theatre editor Ross Wetzsteon, "in its rebellion against traditional definitions of 'talent,' and in its aggressive intimacy with its audience, Off-Off-Broadway made even Off-Broadway seem conventional." Shows experimented with writing styles, performance styles, even the relationship with the theatregoer.

In the years to come, Ms. Stewart opened her theatre to troupes from a wide range of countries, more than 70 nations in total, and, partly as a result, its connection to the New York theatre scene grew less vital, and its cultural influence, as it applied to the advancement of American theatre, lessened. The 1990s, however, saw a new generation of tenant nest in La MaMa theatres, include the Sedaris siblings, who created a series of wildly popular comic pieces includign One Woman Shoe, Target Margin Theatre, playwright Jim Neu and John Kelly.

La MaMa has been honored with over 30 Obie Awards, and dozens of Drama Desk Awards, Bessie Awards and Villager Awards.

In 1985, the MacArthur Foundation gave her "Genius" Award. She used the $300,000 grant to buy a former monastery in Umbria, Italy, and turned it into an international theatre center.

According to the New York Times, she was married at least once and had a son, Larry Hovell, who died in 1998. Her survivors include an adopted son, Duk Hyung Yoo, and eight grandchildren.

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