Viva La Mama

Ellen Stewart's friends, collaborators, admirers and "babies" remember the woman who invented American alternative theatre—and changed the face of world theatre

 

Ellen Stewart surrounded by her "babies" at a production meeting in her apartment in 1970 (courtesy of La MaMa Archive).

Ellen Stewart was a global citizen before anybody invented that identity as a way of being in the world. She staked a powerful claim on multiculturalism, intercultural thinking and multiethnic casting before any of these postures had acquired the patina of a fashionable movement dynamic. Stewart herself credited Joseph Cino for starting the Off-Off-Broadway movement—but if Cino was the father of Off-Off-Broadway, Stewart was the mother. In building her Greenwich Village coffeehouse, Café La MaMa—which morphed to become the world-famous La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club—our Mama welcomed huddled masses of artists yearning to breathe theatre. When it became clear to Mama that her playwriting babies would be mostly ignored in their own country, she pulled the pushcart for them abroad, where they nabbed the sort of attention that had naysayers sitting up and taking notice. She was, as the various recollections below demonstrate, a generative force in America and in world theatre.

As true as these achievements may be, they still pale in comparison with Mama herself. On stage or off, she could take your breath away, with her big-hearted sense of style, her honey-voiced insistence that plays ought to speak "beyond words" and her come-what-may belief in the endurance of repertory ideals. Mama didn't just walk the visionary talk—she lived it. She created spaces for it to take root and grow wildly. She also staged it: Growing into her dazzling own as an auteur, she created melody-based distillations of classical texts, boundary-breaking epics that thrillingly invoked her desire for a universal communication. Her Dionysus: Filius Dei, Seven Against Thebes and Mythos Oedipus swept you away with their immense primal feelings, athletic leaps and open theatricality. They came, as she did, out of the land of dreams.

Stewart was 91 at the time of her death on Jan. 13, 2011. At her stately funeral at Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral, Frank Carucci, president of La MaMa's board, reminded celebrants of the signature words Stewart always uttered, while ringing her famous cowbell, to introduce performances: "Welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre." Stewart did not live long enough to ring the cowbell for the 50th-anniversary season of her theatre this coming fall. Nevertheless, come the October kickoff, plans are afoot to live-stream the sight and sound of artists and organizations all over the world simultaneously ringing the bell for La MaMa's birthday. Mia B. Yoo, to whom Stewart entrusted La MaMa E.T.C., says the anniversary season will be "a homecoming of artists who have now gone on to do incredible work nationally and internationally, and for whom La MaMa was and continues to be their home." The likes of Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Wallace Shawn, Amy and David Sedaris, John Jesurun, Bette Midler, John Kelly, Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman, Buck Henry and Harvey Fierstein have promised to perform, host or create new work.

Next season will begin with Stewart's beloved Great Jones Repertory Company performing Ping Chong's Angels of Swedenborg. "La MaMa will forever be the home for new artists," Yoo says. As Carucci affirms, "Let's keep La MaMa E.T.C. alive for the next 50 years."   —Randy Gener

PING CHONG, artistic director, Ping Chong & Company

I met Ellen Stewart when I was performing in Meredith Monk's Quarry. Ellen was already a legend. I was a pony-tailed kid who had created a few shows of my own at friends' lofts. I guess her "beeps were working," as she used to say when she met an artist she was interested in, and she gave me a slot in La MaMa's First Floor Theater, where I presented Humboldt's Current. That was 1977.

Ellen was completely intuitive. If she liked your vibe, she would support you whether you succeeded or failed. She never asked about your show. It was unnecessary, you were her "baby," and she trusted you. So you would go see her and say:

"Mama, can I have a date for my next show in January?"

"No, baby, January isn't going to work."

"How about March?"

"I have to get back to you about March."

Then time would pass, but eventually you'd hear back from her halfway around the world. Maybe she'd be in Seoul or Manila or the Congo. She would have loved to have been in all three at once if she could. That's what made Mama happy—being with the world.

I am proud to be Mama's child. May her generosity of spirit and purity live on in all her children and all those whose lives she has touched. There will never be another like her.

MARTHA COIGNEY, honorary president of the International Theatre Institute/UNESCO

I first saw Ellen Stewart at the theatre space she rented in 1961, but I didn't meet her until I had started work at the International Theatre Institute. She arrived at ITI one morning with four young Peruvian performers who had been badly exploited by YWCA "patrons" throughout the southern U.S. She took for granted that ITI would share her outrage.

We did. We arranged a performance at P.S. 6 on East 81st Street at a school assembly. It was a mime show, so language was not a problem. The show was a small wonder. Full of irony and sly commentary on "grown-ups," it was a smash with the kids and an eye-opener for the faculty.

The second call for help was to find a child's slide—part of the set for a new play about Jackie Kennedy. I called FAO Schwarz, and they said, yes, if we could get a truck to their warehouse. So we did.

From there Ellen became a constant colleague in the work of ITI, and ITI became a permanent resource for Ellen's worldwide mission. She knew that theatre is a world language.

One by one Ellen brought bright geniuses from around the world to work at La MaMa. She took work from La MaMa out to foreign theatres for performances, workshops and festivals. Ellen believed that theatre could teach us the world. She gave her life to that mission, and on her way she gave us evidence of theatre's power to save and to heal us all.

DAVID DIAMOND, co-coordinator of the La MaMa International Symposium and Retreat

The first time I stepped foot into the 500-year-old former convent that was to become La MaMa Umbria, I fell in love. Ellen was standing there, waiting for me and my partner, Frank Carucci. (We had gotten lost on the road to Bazzano Superiore.) I looked around at the place and then back at Ellen. She said, "You're home now, aren't you?" She was right. That's how I felt. I knew at once that this was a place I had to return to.

I did return—every year for the next 15 years (and counting). When I suggested to Ellen that we could do a symposium for directors here, she immediately said, "Okay. Do it." That quickly. No long interview with questions, concerns, ideas—nothing. One year later Mia Yoo, Ellen and I presented the first La MaMa International Symposium for Directors. This summer will be our 12th.

Ellen took the greatest care to prepare each room, designing and outfitting them with her treasure trove of booty she collected from her tours around the globe. She knew all of the finest artisans in Spoleto—the furniture-maker, the framer, the iron man who made the window gates, the ceramicists, painters, all the artists. They were all her friends. When she needed a wardrobe or dresser, she loved going to the mercatino [used furniture store]. She had an unerring eye and was a fierce negotiator. She invariably bought exactly what was needed (plus 10 other things) and paid a pittance. She had the uncanny ability to remember each room in the villa (of which there are more than 20) and how they were decorated, and she could see in her mind's eye just what was needed to complete it. "Baby, put these ceramic angels in the Tom O'Horgan room, on the dresser," she would say. Later she would go by and see if you had placed them correctly. Her painstaking attention to detail could drive you crazy, but it was worth it in the end. Today, the house stands as a warm, welcoming, loving environment to inspire artists. Her spirit is there in every room, in every detail. I can't wait to go home again.

CECILE GUIDOTE-ALVAREZ, head of the Philippine Center of the International Theatre Institute and president of the Earthsavers Movement DREAMS Ensemble and Academy

Ellen Stewart nurtured the creative growth of her children in all corners of the world. She had a special place for the Philippines in her heart. Her commitment to human rights and freedom was manifest in providing a haven for Filipino exiles, who had fought for 13 years for the restoration of democracy in the Philippines during the 1970s and 1980s. She continuously provided a center for creative expression for Filipinos in the homeland and in diaspora. I always took it for granted she was immortal and would continue to be the fairy godmother of artists.

Our paths crossed in the International Theatre Institute beginning in 1969. Ellen always championed our cause—to veer away from American and Eurocentric theatre paradigms but to pay attention to the wealth of the diversity of cultures in Asia, Africa and Latin America, interacting with ethnic minorities in developed countries.

Ellen's years of crisscrossing continents as a real ambassador, promoting intercultural, interfaith dialogue through the arts, must be engraved in world theatre history and kept alive by kindred spirits who will pursue her mission: promoting international understanding to harmonize one global family.

RICHARD S. LANIER, president of the Asian Cultural Council

The first time my wife Mary and I saw Ellen Stewart was in 1965, when she took to the stage to ring the bell before the start of a La MaMa production of Jean-Claude van Itallie's amazing America Hurrah. In the almost five decades since that first, jaw-dropping encounter with that crazy, wonderful woman, we had the privilege of seeing at La MaMa some of the greatest performances we have ever seen in our lives. Which says everything there is to say about Ellen's uncanny ability to present productions that are hands-down winners as well as her willingness to take chances in presenting productions that turned out to be god-awful losers. The risk-taking openness that Ellen wore with pride—most often in the face of serious financial, logistical and/or artistic odds—represents a legacy of excellence that we can only hope producers and presenters of today and tomorrow will look to and follow. As the old saying goes, "You'll never succeed if you aren't willing to fail." And no one succeeded like Ellen.

JEAN-GUY LECAT, stage designer and architect

"Jean-Guy, pouvez-vous nous sauver?"

We are in Paris in 1970, sometime before Christmas at the famous Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. La Mama of New York has just arrived to present four plays. One of these is an opera based on Carmilla, an Irish novella about a lesbian vampire. I have been instructed to stand behind the stage and manually help along the reels of film, because the film projector is not running at the right speed. The person who convinces me to do that is not Wilford Leach, the director, or the stage manager—no! It is Ellen, with her singing Louisiana accent, who convinces me to work the projector—Ellen, who seems to be everywhere looking after everything. This is my first experience with Ellen Stewart, who had an extraordinary ability to convince people to do something that at first looks impossible.

Carmilla was an extraordinary success, just as it was later at the Avignon Festival, when La MaMa E.T.C. returned with Medea, directed by Andrei Serban. During that festival Ellen asked me to be her stage manager for Electra, the second part of the trilogy. We created the play in Bordeaux in the Entrepôt Lainé, a beautiful storage place of the 18th century. As we turned this place full of garbage, pigeons and rats into a theatre, I discovered another side of Ellen—she showed me how to work like an architect.

I joined the company in New York some time later. Ellen had just secured a part of a new building on East 4th Street she called "the Annex." I spent months renovating this cavernous space with a carpenter who had just arrived from Japan. From early morning to late night she would conduct the whole transformation. That experience was an extraordinary lesson for me about what theatre needs or should be: how not to go too far to preserve the poetical dimension of the original space, and how at the same time to create something completely singular. What I learned from her was a core for my further life with Peter Brook, when I had to search for and transform spaces for him. In La MaMa, there was life, and still is, everywhere.

RAMENDU MAJUMDAR, president (worldwide) of the International Theatre Institute

I was visiting the U.S. under the International Visitors Program back in 1980. One day I landed in the office of Ellen Stewart, who showed me around La MaMa E.T.C. She told me that an organization called International Theatre Institute would be holding the next Third World Theatre Festival in Seoul, and that I should participate in it with my group. I went, and there I was first exposed to ITI. After a lot of correspondence in the following months, we were able to create the Bangladesh Centre of ITI. Ellen opened the gateway to a new world of theatre for me. And I am told she did the same for many like me.

Ellen strongly believed in the ideals of multicultural exchange and respect for "otherness," which ITI also propagates. She was a constant source of inspiration for young creative artists from any part of the world. Her arms were always open to embrace new talents and provide them with a platform for expression.

MEREDITH MONK, composer, singer, filmmaker, choreographer and director

In the spring of 1976, after we finished the first three-week run of my opera Quarry in the La MaMa Annex, Ellen invited us back to perform it again in December of that year. The cast was quite large, and there were many stage elements, so I had to line up 42 performers as well as all of the designers to be ready for the remount. A few months before we were going back into production, Ellen received word from the police department that the Annex was not up to code. The space required some kind of work that would not be finished in time for us to present the second round of performances. There was nothing she could do. When she told me, we both just stood there and cried. At a moment like that, to be with someone who cared that deeply and fought so hard to help bring a work to life meant the world to me.

Ellen never succumbed to a bureaucratic way of thinking. She brought a human touch to everything she did and created a home for us to make our art. She knew intuitively that good art comes from love, and in that way she was an artist herself. I feel profoundly blessed to have been on Earth at the same time as Mama.

RICHARD SCHECHNER, critic, director, New York University professor, editor of TDR

Ellen Stewart's genius was her vision of a theatre from everywhere for everyone. Always on the move, she lived without horizons. Before each performance, she was over the rainbow ringing her bell of celebration and warning. A mama? Not hardly, not to me. I remember Ellen more as an empress than mother, more Queen Victoria than Gaia. Ellen reigned imperious and generous, irritable and loving, definite and expansive. To both├é┬ábeginning and world-class artists, she gave the most fundamental support: rehearsal and performance spaces, advice but not interference, administrative and box-office staff, and unlimited I've-got-your-back. If she had anointed you as one of her kids, you were in. No hoops to jump through, no applications to fill out, no committees to please. Ellen was unto herself the decider. Living in her apartment over her theatres, she presided over her theatres—she was her theatres.

ANDREI SERBAN, theatre director

Ellen "discovered" me when I was a young student in Zagreb, during an international festival. "While waiting in line to have lunch," she said. A current of energy circulated between us, and she knew right away we belonged to the same artistic family. This accidental shoulder-touching was essential for the way Ellen operated, and it was enough to change my life. I left Romania to work at La MaMa E.T.C. when nobody knew who I was, but Ellen knew. Her perception of people and theatre was unique. She never read plays, she rarely saw productions, but she used her "beeps," an intelligence of the heart, to put together a community of artists in search of new ways to discover theatre.

Ellen created the perfect atmosphere where one could freely explore a vocabulary that goes beyond understandable language. She reminded me of the Eleusinian Mysteries, where singing and dancing were the origin of ritual, the roots of theatre. Fragments of a Greek Trilogy, which is possibly my best work in the theatre, was done under her spells. She was a shaman, a voodoo goddess, and at the same time a very practical and down-to-earth woman, filled with common sense and courage. She undertook impossible risks and inspired young artists in need of a home.

ELIZABETH SWADOS, composer and writer

When I was 20, I lived in the small room across from the second-floor theatre at La MaMa on East 4th Street. Ellen grabbed me one day and said, "We're going for a walk." I didn't have a clue where she was leading me. Suddenly she steered me up some stairs and opened the door to an apartment that absolutely put me into a state of quiet ecstasy. I think it was Tom O'Horgan's, but I'm not sure. There were gongs bigger than my body, drums from all over the world, gamelans from Indonesia, horns that came from the Middle East, bagpipes from Africa, instruments from Aborigines, stringed instruments from Tibet and India—and these were only an eighth of what I saw that morning. Ellen said I could touch anything I wanted as long as I was careful. I was overcome by a range of sounds that opened up possibilities I had never dreamed of. "This is just the beginning for you, baby," she said. "You are going to make beautiful music with sounds like these and more than your little brain can imagine." Then she gave me a long hug and looked at me with her mischievous and challenging smile. But a second later she frowned and said, "Wash your feet."

JEAN-CLAUDE VAN ITALLIE, playwright

Nearly 50 years ago, a young playwright in search of a theatre, I climbed the stairs to La MaMa, then a loft at 122 Second Avenue. I was greeted by an elegant high-energy African-American lady with an engaging bright smile: "You're home, honey." Ellen remained my most staunch supporter and loving ally till last fall, when my latest play was performed at La MaMa, and last week, when her packed-house funeral transformed St. Patrick's Cathedral into a Village church.

Simply put, Ellen was the heart of Off-Off-Broadway. She made us feel like a family.

She rarely if ever read a script, rather trusting her "vibes" about the play and the playwright. During performances she sat outside the loft door, on the stairs, guarding against latecomers and city inspectors.

At first she supported La MaMa through clothes design. In the early '50s, quickly, miraculously, at Saks Fifth Avenue she worked her way up from lowly assistant to being the store's first black designer. When American seamstresses refused to work for her, she hired European refugees—it was they who dubbed her "La Mama." She was the only American designer with three dresses at Queen Elizabeth's coronation. But when Dior picked Ellen and Yves Saint Laurent as his apprentices, Ellen had other plans. Ellen's "Papa Diamond," the Orchard Street fabric-store owner who had befriended her when she first came to New York City, had taught her, "Ellen, you've got to have a pushcart." La MaMa E.T.C. became Ellen's pushcart, her raison d'être.

Always Ellen cut through the superfluous with the casual ruthlessness of a Zen master. She encouraged us, "my baby playwrights," to show, not tell. She always fed us royal jelly: "People need to see your work," she would say. "It's important."

She appointed herself ambassador to the majority of theatregoers who, in the mid-'60s, never dreamed of the kind of plays we were writing—and who wouldn't have seen them otherwise.

New York became the de facto capital of world theatre, because Ellen arranged the first American productions of the likes of Jerzy Grotowski and Harold Pinter. Later she founded La MaMa acting troupes around the globe and often traveled to make pieces with them.

In November 1966, when America Hurrah, my trilogy of three short plays, opened Off-Broadway, at intermission Ellen harangued the critics. "Pay attention or lose a generation of playwrights," she said. No one dared ignore La Mama.

ROBERT WILSON, director and visual artist

In the early '60s, my friend David Finkbeiner took me to see a performance at the Café La MaMa, which had recently opened. After the performance I met Ellen Stewart, and she asked me what I did. I told her I was a student at Pratt Institute studying painting and architecture, and she said, "Why don't you design something for us?"

The next day, Jean-Claude Van Itallie asked me if I would design his play America Hurrah, which was going to be performed at Café LaMaMa. I agreed and went the same day again to look more carefully at the stage. Once again, there was Ellen Stewart. I told her that I was planning to design Jean-Claude's play, and she said, "Wow, that was quick! You don't waste time. What are you thinking about the design?" I replied that I didn't know. And she said: "I hope you, as an architect, will make use of contemporary materials." I thought a lot about what Ellen said, and as a result I designed a stage set of aluminum foil, plastic sheets, Saran Wrap and DayGlo paint. After the opening night Ellen said to me: "So you listened to Mama. Congratulations." This was the beginning of my theatre career.

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