Supporting creative work by women
(November 7, 1919 – January 13, 2011)
I remember the first time I saw Ellen Stewart. It was 1974, and I had gone to La MaMa ETC, at 74 East 4th St., to see Andrei Serban’s The Trojan Women—the centerpiece of his iconoclastic Fragments of a Trilogy.
Like the rest of the eager audience that night, I was standing in a crowded, bland, poorly lit room, waiting for the doors to open. Eventually I heard a cow bell, and I located a small, dark-haired woman wearing elaborate earrings and a colorful scarf knotted to one side of her head, standing on a chair. I hadn’t seen how or when she slipped into the room, but at the sound of the bell, everyone stopped chattering and gave her their full attention. And in a throaty, slightly accented voice, she said, “Welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwrights and all aspects of the theater.”
She probably said a few other things pertaining to the production in which we were about to immerse ourselves. I don’t remember. I do recall that, like the rest of the audience, I responded to the welcome as though I had been admitted to a special family, one that felt privileged to partake of the theatrical experience waiting in the darkness beyond the doors.
And that was my introduction to Ellen Stewart.
As becomes a legend, especially perhaps a theatrical one, Stewart’s journey to reigning mother of off-off Broadway is itself mysterious—certainly complex. According to Albert Poland and Bruce Mailman’s excellent (and, sadly, out-of-print The Off Off Broadway Book), Stewart was born in a Cajun parish of Louisiana, got married and ended up in Chicago. During World War II she apparently worked as a riveter in a defense plant, subsequently was investigated by the FBI (authorities would always find Stewart a challenge), “suffered a breakdown,” and ended up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
There, in 1961, she found her way to Orchard Street and acquired a pushcart, from which she peddled clothes she had made.
That pushcart, as she often told interviewers, became a symbol. For a woman needs her own pushcart–her own enterprise.
Her first NYC job, according to Poland/Mailman, was running an elevator at Saks Fifth Avenue. But her striking garb caught peoples’ attention. She was hired to design clothes, was fired, opened a boutique with an unemployment check, and somehow encountered the playwright Paul Foster. Together they started a combination boutique and theater in a tenement basement at 321 East 9th Street. They covered the dirt floor with orange crates, cleaned out garbage, chased away the rats. On July 27, 1962, Stewart presented her first play: One Arm by Tennessee Williams. It ran a week.
Soon Stewart was being dubbed Mother Earth and then La MaMa by the playwrights whose work she presented.
Her theater, initially called Café La MaMa, was the target of many a NYC official, for the city kept trying to close La MaMa for one supposed violation or another. Famously, on closing night at her second home, 82 Second Avenue, Stewart asked each audience member to pick up a chair or table, and she led a procession up Second Avenue to yet another loft.
The peregrinations stopped finally at 74 East 4th Street, a former meat-packing plant that was renovated to enclose two theaters. Called La MaMa ETC (Experimental Theatre Club), one venue opened on April 2, 1969, with Tom Eyen’s Caution: A Love Story. The other space was inaugurated two weeks later with Julie Bovasso’s Gloria and Esperanza.
Just as there are stories about La MaMa’s beginnings as a producer, there are tales about how she chose the plays she presented. That she would rest her hand on a typescript, for instance, and feel vibrations. That she never read a play.
True or not, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that, beginning in the 1960s, she hosted every playwright that would ultimately revitalize the American theater: Megan Terry, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Rochelle Owens, Adrienne Kennedy, Charles Ludlam, Robert Patrick, William Hoffman, Maria Irene Fornes—and many more who came and went unsung, mingling their imaginations and explorations in the crucible that came to be known as off off-Broadway.
When Stewart died January 13, at 91, after a long illness, her pushcart had become an institution. But in addition to innumerable plays and productions, she has left us a legacy of grit, generosity, shrewdness, charisma, and the extraordinary ability to transform a theater audience into a community, and a community into participants in a magical event.
Alexis Greene is a New York-based author and editor who writes about theater, the environment and issues of concern to women.