Ellen Stewart (1919-2011)

Remembering the woman who helped invent downtown theater

Many years later, I moderated a panel at Yale for students in the Theater Management program. My guests were the playwright María Irene Fornés and Ellen. In the Q&A period, a young woman student raised her hand and shyly asked, "Ms. Stewart, could you describe for us your academic training in theater?" And Mama told the story—she had told it many times—of how Andy Milligan, the first director to work at La MaMa, had come to East 9th Street, looked at the space, and asked, "Do you have any lights?" And when she said, "Just what you see," he told her to buy four two-gallon cans of tomatoes. "Empty them and wash them out, and I'll be back tomorrow." When he came back the next day, he showed her how to rig light bulbs in the tomato cans and hang them up as lighting instruments. "You've just had a lesson," I said when Ellen had finished, "in what academic training can do for the theater."

It was Irene Fornés who once compared Ellen to a madwoman who holds up a piece of junk, swearing to everybody that it's gold—and after a while, the junk has become pure gold.

The Mama of La MaMa
Courtesy La MaMa E.T.C.
The Mama of La MaMa

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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