Thursday, January 13, 2011


From The Village Voice:

Ellen Stewart, La MaMa Founder, Has Died at Age 91


Ellen Stewart at La MaMa in 1991 (photo by Jonathan Slaff)

Ellen Stewart, 91, universally known as La Mama and acclaimed as one of the formidable figures who shaped the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement, died peacefully in her sleep on Wednesday night. The founder and guiding spirit of Café La MaMa, later known as La MaMa E.T.C. (standing for "Experimental Theatre Club"), she created a haven for innovative playwrights, directors, designers, and performers that has had permanent artistic effects worldwide. A homey, straightforward, no-nonsense woman, she was famous for the signature gesture by which, in the early years, she opened every La MaMa performance: ringing a cowbell and declaring, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and to all aspects of the theater."

And her theater was indeed so dedicated. A passionate believer in internationalism and cultural freedom, Ellen Stewart sent troupes from LaMaMa across the globe, and traveled it herself in search of kindred spirits she could bring back to show their work at home. The original La MaMa Troupe, formed by director Tom O'Horgan, startled Europe with plays by new writers like Paul Foster, Rochelle Owens, and Sam Shepard; an important early importation, found at a theater festival in Bucharest, was the young director Andrei Serban, whose trilogy of Greek tragedy stagings became the keystone work of another La MaMa troupe. The countless artists who have worked since those days at La MaMa's three spaces on East 4th Street (one of them now renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre) have built from the ring of that first cowbell a peal of chimes that will never stop resonating to her memory worldwide.


During a bad quarter of a century or so when the classic American musical seemed to be moving toward extinction, when the costs of Broadway productions (and everything else in New York) were driving playwrights away from the City, and when revivals were almost the only bankable property on Broadway, there was Off-Broadway and Off-off Broadway.  Ellen Stewart, along with the late, dearly loved and much lamented Joe Papp, became twin pillars of New York Theater.  Both were nurturers.  Each saw new playwrights mature as writers and achieve fame as a result of their care, and the opportunities Papp and Stewart gave them.  Off and Off-off became the nursery for important work in acting, directing and, most importantly, writing. 

Stewart's death marks the end of a dazzlingly creative and exciting era for theater in New York City.

I'm sorry for your loss. I imagine that I would love to have someone like Ellen Stewart in my life.

Take care.

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