January 13, 2011

Paying Last Respects to the Mama of La MaMa

The news came today that Ellen Stewart has died.  She was 91 and news report say that she died peacefully in her sleep.  So this is less a note of mourning than one of celebration for the remarkable life she lead—and how she used it to help change theater in this country.  

It couldn't have been easy for a black woman to start an experimental theater company--not even in the Village and not even in the 1960s.  But Stewart founded Café La MaMa in 1961 and for the next 50 years, she was a leading advocate of avantgarde theater.  

Stewart was an early champion of Harold Pinter, whose first American production was done at La MaMa. Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson  also develop some of their early plays there, as did Philip Glass and Elizabeth Swados. Plays like Steven Schwartz's Godspell and Harvey Feirstein's Torch Song Trilogy got their starts there. Game-changing directors like Peter Brooks, Andrei Serban and Robert Wilson worked there.  And Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Bette Midler and scores of other now iconic actors performed there.  

When I was in college, there was no cooler place to do theater than at La MaMa and I remember stifling my jealousy (partially) when my roommate got a small part in a play there. The heat cooled over the years but Stewart's enthusiasm didn't flag.  She put on as many as 70 productions a year, brought in from literally all over the world. 

The last time I went down to La MaMa was in 2008 to see The Raven, an adaptation of a play by the 18th century Italian writer Carlo Gozzi that Stewart reimagined as a Chinese opera (click here to see my review).  They had to wheel her on stage for her to take her curtain call bow but she looked as fabulous and as commanding as ever.  

The Public Theater has already announced that it will dedicate this season to her.  And there are sure to be more tributes. But the best way to honor Stewart's memory may be to go to a show that's outside the usual norms—maybe in a different part of town, by people you've never heard of, in a style that's unfamiliar but that is done, as Stewart did it, purely for the love of theater. 

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