Sad news in the independent theater community today, as BroadwayWorld confirms that Ellen Stewart, the founder and longtime-artistic director of legendary Downtown performance venue and company La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, passed away this morning.
Stewart was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 1919, and began her career in New York as a fairly successful fashion designer for Saks. Then, on October 18 1961, with no training or experience in theater and performance, founded La MaMa in the East Village.
The theater’s first incarnation, in a basement space at 321 East Ninth Street (the monthly rent cost $55), was intended to be both a boutique of Stewart’s fashion designs, and a theater in which her playwright friends could showcase their work. That first space, with space 25 seats and a dirt floor that was covered by planks fashioned from orange crates, hosted new plays virtually very week. In 1963 La MaMa (then Cafe La MaMa) moved to 82 Second Avenue. The following year it took on the name it bears today, La MaMa E.T.C., and moved to 122 Second Avenue. Stewart’s fashion work kept the place afloat throughout the 60s. In April of 1969 the theatre, which had earned non-profit status two years earlier, moved into its current space at 74A East 4th Street.
Over the last 50 years Stewart oversaw virtually all activities at La MaMa, bringing touring companies from all over the world, directing, producing, designing and sewing costumes, etc. Her choices of what shows to bring and produce had tremendous influence in shaping the Downtown performance scene, for instance when she brought members of the emerging Eastern European theater scene to La MaMa in 1967. Her many accolades include a MacArthur “Genius” Award and the National Endowment for Arts and Culture, and being the first Off-Off Broadway producer ever inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame (in 1993). Back in 2009, La MaMa’s Annex Theatre was renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre.
This being the theatre’s 50th anniversary (unheard-of longevity in the Off-Off Broadway world), it’s bittersweet that after such a long and successful life and career, Stewart won’t be around to celebrate that milestone. Her influence, though, will be felt for decades to come.