We have lost a great voice for American theatre.
Ellen Stewart, the founder, artistic director and de facto producer of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, a multicultural hive of avant-garde drama and performance art in New York for almost half a century, died Thursday in Manhattan. She was 91.
Ms. Stewart was a dress designer when she started La MaMa in a basement apartment in 1961, a woman entirely without theater experience or even much interest in the theater. But within a few years, and with an indomitable personality, she had become a theater pioneer.
Not only did she introduce unusual new work to the stage, she also helped colonize a new territory for the theater, planting a flag in the name of low-budget experimental productions in the East Village of Manhattan and creating the capital of what became known as Off Off Broadway.
She was a vivid figure, often described as beautiful — an African-American woman whose long hair, frequently worn in cornrows, turned silver in her later years. Her wardrobe was flamboyant, replete with bangles, bracelets and scarves. Her voice was deep, carrying an accent reminiscent of her Louisiana roots.
Few producers could match her energy, perseverance and fortitude. In the decades after World War II her influence on American theater was comparable to that of Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, though the two approached the stage from different wings. Papp straddled the commercial and noncommercial worlds, while Ms. Stewart’s terrain was international and decidedly noncommercial.
Her theater became a remarkable springboard for an impressive roster of promising playwrights, directors and actors who went on to accomplished careers both in mainstream entertainment and in push-the-envelope theater.
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, Diane Lane and Nick Nolte were among the actors who performed at La MaMa in its first two decades. Playwrights like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Maria Irene Fornes and Adrienne Rich developed early work there. So did composers like Elizabeth Swados, Philip Glass and Stephen Schwartz.
She was a remarkable force, even more so in a business that is tough enough without being a person of color and a woman. It is safe to say that without Ms. Stewart and La MaMa, the world would have missed out on some incredible talent and voices.
La MaMa is the kind of theatre that I love; the home of spontaneous and energetic new efforts that can create magic out of an old chair and a rickety table on a bare stage. That is the way theatre really should be done; not the pre-packaged and over-produced thrill rides that pass for Broadway musicals now. There’s a lot more meaning and truth in the “wooden O” that Shakespeare spoke of in Henry V or the bare stage of Our Town, and the legacy of these theatres, be it La MaMa in Greenwich Village, the Manhattan Rep (where my play Can’t Live Without You was done in a shoebox-sized space over a Duane Reade store on West 42nd) or the basement of a church in Toledo or a vacant shoe store in Minneapolis, is that they are where the new plays, playwrights, and actors are born, grow, and outlast the multi-million-dollar turkeys on Broadway.
And had it not been for La Mama, chances are that playwright Lanford Wilson and director Marshall W. Mason would not have met and formed their collaboration that led to the creation of the Circle Rep Theatre, and I would not have had a topic for my doctoral thesis.