How the Company That Launched Torch Song Trilogy Stays at the Forefront of Experimental Theatre

Interview   How the Company That Launched Torch Song Trilogy Stays at the Forefront of Experimental Theatre
La MaMa artistic director Mia Yoo reveals her winning philosophy for the Tony Award-winning theatre.
Mia Yoo
Mia Yoo Marc J. Franklin

Though Mia Yoo has been the artistic director of the Tony-winning La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club for close to a decade, she’s reluctant to call it her theatre. “It’s a real shared responsibility when I think of who represents La MaMa,” says Yoo, who took over from Ellen Stewart, the downtown institution’s founder, in 2011. “I would say the artists represent La MaMa and this community represents La MaMa.”

La MaMa has always belonged to the artists. Every season, La MaMa welcomes local and international theatremakers to take ownership of the space and call it theirs. Each artist is given a residency for their show, says Yoo, with access to the company’s free rehearsal studios and workshop space, as well as an open dialogue with the La MaMa staff and larger community.

Yoo’s mission is to not just be a temporary home for artists, but a longstanding one. “It’s about jumping off the cliff with that artist,” says the artistic director. “It’s not so much about us presenting a particular piece, it’s about the relationship that we have with the artist.”

This ethos of committing to a vision rather than a single production has both attracted, and cultivated, La MaMa’s loyal audience over the years—theatregoers who are excited about being part of the creative process. “They’re coming in as the first ones to engage with that work,” says Yoo, “and that’s crucial to the development of both that piece and that artist.”

Nurturing risk-taking is at the heart of La MaMa. In the ecosystem of New York theatre, it’s become a proven and tested hotbed for groundbreaking work. Take Elizabeth Swados and Andrei Serban’s The Trojan Women (which the company brings back December 5–15), a piece that would go on to tour the world and influence generations of artists.

“A space like La MaMa is necessary because you need to have a place where an artist can either start out—a seedbed for new work—but it’s also a space where established artists can push themselves in directions they maybe didn’t imagine,” says Yoo. “It’s about pushing the boundaries of the field.”

Having artists at different stages of their careers be in conversation with one another is also by design. “There’s this beautiful, rich intergenerational community here,” says Yoo of an essential feature that feeds into the kind of work La MaMa does. “Something Ellen [Stewart] would often say is: ‘The is, is the was, and the was, is the is.’ This interconnectivity between different generations and communities—that’s something that we’re holding onto as essential.”

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