Ellen Stewart, 91, doyenne of La MaMa and all avant drama | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Ellen Stewart, 91, doyenne of La MaMa and all avant drama

Ellen Stewart (Photo courtesy of La MaMa E.T.C.)

By Wickham Boyle

Ellen Stewart, the mercurial, magical, inventive, prescient founder and longtime artistic director of the famed La MaMa Theatre, died in New York City on Jan. 13. Stewart was my mentor, my boss, my partner, the grandmother to my children — and to generations of us who worked in New York City or American or world theater, she was our mother.

Everything about Ellen Stewart is swathed in mystery and wonder. Even The New York Times, bastion of fact, attributes three possible dates for her birth, from 1917 to 1919. Her birthplace was Chicago, but her accent morphed. It was different when she spoke to the press, her adoring audiences or to her bad “babies,” and it could range from Geechee Louisianan, to across the world or become the grittiest street-corner banter. Like the theatrical form she spawned, global, multicultural, cross-disciplinary and just damn undeniably La MaMa, Ellen Stewart herself was a hybrid before anyone else envisioned that possibility.

Stewart came to New York City with a carpetbag jammed full of dreams to be a fashion designer. She was going to study at Parsons, but lack of funding saw her land as a porter in Saks Fifth Avenue. Stewart so often told this story:

“The coloreds, for back then that is what we were, coloreds, wore blue smocks and carted the goods everywhere in the store. One day as I was leaving for lunch, wearing one of my own creations, sewn in my little garret, a fancy patron stopped me and inquired where I had bought my dress. When I told her honestly that I myself had made it, she marched me to my boss to be dressed down for insubordination.” Instead, the wise head of Saks gave Stewart her own line of dresses, Miss Ellen. “And that, baby, is how Mama made good on a promise to my brother Freddy [Lights] and his friend Paul [Foster] to make a little playhouse for them,” she said.

In the early years the police constantly raided Stewart and La MaMa because, as she said, “The police saw a Negress in a basement and lots of white men traipsing down the stairs and they thought — Ahhhhh, brothel. Well, baby, it was only theater.”

And yes, theater it was, but never only theater. The theatrical style that was developed and championed by Ellen Stewart and La MaMa literally changed the face of every piece of live performance, video and film that modern viewers take for granted. La MaMa pioneered shows that crossed over and married swirling stages, bespoke films, live music, electronic accoutrements, words and not just in English; all wrapped around a directorial style where the audience was immersed in, surrounded by or an actual part of the show. The world stage is now chockablock full of these techniques; you see them in commercials, in Broadway shows, in circus and in school plays. But when La MaMa began in 1961 all of this was uncharted territory.

Ellen Stewart prided herself on never reading scripts and picking plays, opera or art shows by a series of reactions she called her “beeps.”

“Baby, if it beeps to me, Mama will know, and if it doesn’t, I don’t care what the words say and who your real mama is, it is not for La MaMa!” I would see her on the phone to Bogotá or Brooklyn or Belgium with artists and she giving notes via her beeps: “Look at Pages 5, 23 and 91, that is where the trouble lies.” And time after time, artists told me that information was salient to redoing the work.

If it all sounds magical, voodoo crazy, woo-woo incomprehensible, then so does the fairy tale Stewart spun in the East Village and around the world. La MaMa will celebrate its 50th anniversary this October and it boasts two buildings on East Fourth Street alone. In fact the La MaMa Theatre really was the linchpin on which the East 4th Street Cultural District was anchored. In these two buildings are three theaters, an office, Stewart’s private residence and an amazing archives, containing every script, mask, piece of Mylar, check stub, video and photograph ever to emanate from the halls of La MaMa. On East First Street is La MaMa’s La Galleria, which holds down the funky distaff side of an East Village now resembling nothing of its gritty roots.

The roll call of legends who began, returned or graced La MaMa include (but beware this list could never be exhaustive, or it would encompass pages): Harvey Keitel, Liz Swados, Andrei Serban, Diane Lane, Harvey Fierstein, Al Pacino, Bette Midler, Bob Wilson, Philip Glass, Sam Shepard, Adrienne Rich, Tom O’Horgan, Peter Brook, Robert De Niro and even Joe Papp himself before he founded the Public Theater. As a wonderful, and deserved tribute, the Public sent out a press release saying that their season would be dedicated to Ellen Stewart.

And the list of awards bestowed upon her is equally august. Stewart won a Tony in 2006 for theatrical excellence, countless OBIE awards, the Human Rights Award from the government of the Philippines, the Sacred Treasure Award from the emperor of Japan and the Les Kurbas Award from Ukraine, and she was an officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Ellen Stewart was a MacArthur Genius (MacArthur Fellowship) grantee in 1985 and she took her subvention and purchased a former monastery in Umbria, Italy, in the shadows of the renowned Spoleto Festival. Here, Stewart and La MaMa created a summer institute for international artists of stature and acolytes. When Stewart first proposed this idea to the then business manager, James Moore, he exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what will she do with that pile of rocks?” As with everything she touched, Stewart’s alchemy spun it into artistic gold.

Even with all these honors, Ellen Stewart could still be seen sweeping the sidewalk in front of the theaters. When I interviewed with her to be the executive director back in the 1980’s she asked me, “Well, Miss Wicki [we were all Miss or Mr. and our first name], you have gotten a fancy education since first working here at Mama’s when you were 19. Are you too big to clean a toilet or sweep with me?” I wasn’t then and it was always an honor to do whatever it took to light up the stages and watch Mama’s silver locks shake as she rang her bell and sang out in that complicated lilt, “Welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and ALLLLLLLLL aspects of the theater.”