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


« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Bro. Leon
Bro. Leon

Several days ago for some reason I began to think about La MaMa Theater. I am a native Philadelphian who, as a result of college, graduate school and employment, has lived throughout the United States, including New England, Raleigh, North Carolina, Seattle, Washington, both Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota and now Maryland for over 21 years. Growing up in the rough and tumble streets of West Philly I was always mesmerized by the arts. I always enjoyed writing and acting, and while attending college I wrote poetry and did some amateur acting. Nonetheless, I first heard about Ellen Stewart and La MaMa in the early 1970s. Also, I recall Ms. Stewart receiving a MacArthur "genius award" in the 1980s. I'm almost 66 years-old now, and I was sitting at the dinner table with my wife and my 11 year-old daughter, my only child, and telling them I was just thinking about Ms. Stewart, and was in a state of shock. My daughter is a singer, dancer and actor already, and I told her about the great La Mama. She was such an inspiration to so many people from around the world. What a great, great humanitarian!

New York Concert Tickets