Friday, January 14, 2011

RIP Ellen Stewart, Founder & Steward of LaMaMa

One of the truisms of this world is that someone somewhere is always leaving us. Years ago I realized that if I were to note the death of everyone I considered significant or admired, I could fill this blog up with nothing but such accounts--and I love reading obituaries, especially the fuller and more fulsome British versions--but that struck me as macabre and time-consuming, so, as regular J's Theater readers know, when I have time to blog I will post thoughtful but brief personal commemorations, and when time is as scarce as mountaintop air, I will simply post links and a short note.  I have little time today, so I'll be posting links to several obituaries of one of my personal hero(in)es, Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa e.t.c., who died yesterday at age 91.

La MaMa e.t.c. (for Experimental Theater Club), which I am glad to be able to say I set foot in a few times, during the late 1990s (though I only smiled at Ms. Stewart, too afraid to utter a single world), is simply one of the most important theater and performance institutions in New York and the United States. Countless major actors, playwrights and performance artists got their start in its E. 9th St. basement and later first-floor spaces on E. 4th Street from 1962 onwards. Stewart, an African-American woman who had no theater experience when she started La MaMa and was working as a dress designer, directed and maintained this jewel with an almost unerring aesthetic compass and a determination that would make many a soldier jealous.  It has played an almost incalculable role in the development of Off and Off-Off Broadway theater, as well as in nurturing the possibilities of formal experimentation in a city and a larger culture that over the last 50 years has become increasingly hostile to anything non-commercial that isn't located within the walls of academe.

As I pointed out on a friend's Facebook link about Stewart's passing, one of the things that ought be noted is how crucial to the aesthetic, social and economic ecology of New York theater and performance, and national and global theater and performance this little downtown theater has been. Writers such as Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepherd, Harvey Fierstein, Lanford Wilson, David and Amy Sedaris, and Tom Eyen, to name just a few, had some of their earliest productions in its theater, and, to quote the New York Times, acclaimed actors including "Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, Diane Lane and Nick Nolte" appeared in its productions during its early years.  The Times's Ben Brantley, in his appraisal of Stewart, notes how artists from around the world, sometimes significant figures from troubled regions, such as the Belarus Free Theatre and its current joint La MaMa-Under the Radar Festival production of Being Harold Pinter, circulated through Stewart's institution, making it a key node in an vital and thriving thick, material network of international artistic and intellectual exchange and relations.

The Public Theater has announced that it will dedicate the remainder of its 55th season to Ms. Stewart, and the Under the Radar Festival, which ends on January 16, has followed suit.

Ellen Stewart's Playbill obituary
Ellen Stewart's New York Times obituary
Ben Brantley's New York Times encomium to Ellen Stewart

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