Ellen Stewart Biography ((?)-)

Born in Alexandria, LA; daughter of a laborer and a school teacher; married five times. Addresses: OFFICE--La Mama ETC, 74A E. 4th Street, New York, NY 10003.

Ellen Stewart's brainchild, La Mama Experimental Theatre Club (La Mama ETC),has been the birthplace of the avant-garde since its conception in 1962. "Theoldest and perhaps most influential" of Off-Off Broadway theatres, accordingto the April 5, 1980 New York Times, La Mama numbers among its alumni such renowned playwrights, directors, and performers as Sam Shepard, Harvey Fierstein, Wilford Leach, Bette Midler, and Al Pacino. Joanne Mattera explained thatthe theatre got its name because it "was so much an extension of Stewart's warmly maternal personality that her friends simply called it what they calledher" (Women's Wear Daily, August 5, 1985).

Stewart, nicknamed "Mama" by her friends, had no intention of entering show business when she first came to New York City in 1950. Born in Louisiana and raised in Chicago, she wanted to become a fashion designer, but, being black,she was not allowed to enroll in design school in Illinois. To choose betweenthe two cities where fashion schools did admit blacks--San Francisco and NewYork-- Stewart "flipped a coin and came here," she told Mattera. Stewart calls what followed her "Cinderella story," according to Mattera. She went to work as a porter at Saks Fifth Avenue to earn tuition money, but the position "became her launching pad instead." Customers noticed the hand-made clothes Stewart wore under the blue smock she was required to wear while on the job; within three months she was promoted to executive designer. After a number of successful years with the department store, she left to work as a free-lance designer.

Yet, as late as 1961, "I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn't know what I wanted to do," Stewart told Lynn Gilbert in an interview published in the April, 1982 Ms. Her merchant friend Abraham Diamond often told Stewart sheneeded a symbolic "pushcart" in her life. "Even if all you have is in a pushcart," the producer quoted to Sidney Fields (Daily News, January 6, 1972), "push it, not only for yourself, but for the whole world." Stewart had been brooding about the problems her brother Fred Light and a friend, both playwrights, faced in finding a theatre to produce their plays, when she realized thatshe could help them and herself. "I saw a sign on Ninth Street: 'Basement forRent': Ping! Pushcart!," she recalled to Josh Greenfeld in the July 9, 1967New York Times Magazine. "I rushed in and asked for a lease," intending to set up a theatre there for her brother and other playwrights, which she would support with her income as a designer. "And my basement looked beautiful," shetold Greenfeld. "No floor. No plumbing. No nothing. But to me it looked beautiful."

"Not knowing anything about theaters," she related to Gilbert, "I thought itwas like playing house.... I would have this little theater and they would write plays and all their friends would be in them and live happily ever after." Difficulties soon arose, however, when the other tenants in her building, noticing the number of men entering the basement room to help fix it up, triedto get Stewart evicted for prostitution. "They didn't want to be living witha nigger," Stewart told Gilbert. Luckily, the officer called to inspect thecase was a retired actor who became sympathetic when he learned of Stewart'splans for a performance space. Pointing out that theatre licenses were difficult to obtain, he offered to help get a restaurant permit so Stewart could open a coffeehouse where they could set up a stage for performances. When askedwhat the name of the place would be, one of the group suggested "Mama," Stewart recalled, and someone else said, "No, La Mama," and one of the first Greenwich Village coffeehouses was born.

Cafe La Mama, as it was called at that time, became an international theatrewithin a few years of its founding. "Publishers wouldn't publish our plays unless they had been reviewed," Stewart told Mattera, "and the critics wouldn'tcome to our little basement" with its twenty-five-seat theatre and stage "not much bigger than a bed." So in 1965 Stewart sent sixteen people with twentyplays to Europe, where she had heard that virtually every play produced wasreviewed. "We would have gone to Timbuktu, anywhere to get critiques so thatthe plays could be published," she affirmed to Gilbert. Soon after the troupereturned, twelve of the plays were published; Stewart maintained the practice of sending her troupes abroad and, in addition, hosted New York productionsby many groups they met on tours of France, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and other countries. Moreover, branches of La Mama sprang up in Japan, Colombia, England, and elsewhere.

Despite the respect it earned worldwide, however, Stewart's coffeehouse stillhad to struggle locally to survive "against a background of Kafkaesque harassment which has resulted in two evictions, a union imbroglio and innumerabletrips to the pawnshop," reported Greenfeld in 1967. To circumvent legal regulations governing the sale of theatre tickets, Stewart changed the coffeehouse/theatre into a theatre club in the mid-1960s, selling no tickets but collecting weekly "dues" from "members" who were allowed, after paying their fees, to attend an unlimited number of the week's performances. Helped by grant money, in 1969 La Mama moved to its present location, occupying six floors of rehearsal space and three stages, and for a time the theatre club thrived. La Mama's accomplishments have been numerous and varied, and include staging the first U.S. production of the British playwright Harold Pinter as well as premiering works by Americans who have subsequently achieved wide renown. La Mamapresented a well-received version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet in Korean,five plays by the first American Indian theatre group, and an Eskimo Antigone, among many other unusual offerings in its over one thousand productions. "{Stewart's} success, in short, represents both a rare act of faith and an unflinching confrontation with the mechanics of moving mountains," Greenfeld declared.

During the 1980s, however, the National Endowment for the Arts and other supporting institutions began reducing their grants to La Mama considerably, which "has meant reducing the number of shows on {the theatre's} three stages, abandoning plans for a permanent repertory company and cutting the salaries ofLa Mama's staff," reported the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani (April 5, 1980). Nevertheless, Stewart has remained optimistic about La Mama's future. After all, as she told Kakutani, "Maybe I'd still be in that little basement ifI was never kicked out.... Each kick has become something new." She added, "I'm just an instrument through which La Mama functions. I never dictate.... Maybe it's fatalistic, but I know La Mama has its own spirit and if that spirit wishes to keep going, it will. All I can do is be a part of it."

Such mysticism, say those who have met Stewart, plays a significant role in her life. "I do not tell La Mama what to do," she explained to Mattera. "La Mama tells me, and I listen." Despite her twenty- five years experience in theindustry, she claims to know little about theatre. "I don't know how to reada play, really, to tell the truth," she asserted to Gilbert. "I don't know because I don't have an academic education in theater. But I do know a little bit about how to read a person." Stewart chooses the plays La Mama will produce more on her assessment of the playwright than on her opinion of his or herplay. "If the play is good, then it's good," she declared to Mel Gussow (NewYork Times, December 22, 1985). "If it's bad, that does not change my way ofthinking about the person involved.... I've never been sorry about anything Iput on." Director Alan Schneider lauded her ideal: "The important thing about La Mama," he asserted to Greenfeld, "is not whether the work is good or bad, but that Ellen Stewart helps keep theater alive by constantly giving new playwrights productions." "In some ways, she could be compared to a hostess whocannot help but ask guests to her house," Gussow observed. "Her art is in inspiring the art of others."

"I started La Mama so there would be a place where a playwright could write,see and learn," Stewart told Greenfeld. "My whole joy," she affirmed to Gussow, "is knowing the person is doing whatever he is doing." By keeping her theatre alive, Stewart believes she is helping to promote art, a calling she takes extremely seriously. "Art," she explained to Mattera, "is the only thing that's free.... A mother singing to her child is art, even though she might have nothing to eat and a tent to live in. It's a God-given resource for all humankind to draw upon--many times there is nothing else." Stewart added, "A world without poverty or illiteracy would be wonderful, but without artistic expression it would be barren."


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