For decades, a show at the East Village’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club began with a jingling sound both authoritative and merry. Like a very hip schoolmarm, Ellen Stewart, La MaMa’s founder and artistic director, would open the performance by ringing a handbell, hushing the audience. Then, in resonant tones, she would read aloud from the program, introducing the show’s title and praising its creators. Only then could the play commence.
But Stewart, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, has suffered poor health for 10 years or more and no longer inaugurates each performance. She continues to work at the theater, though she watched the premiere of her most recent show, Asclepius, from a hospital bed tucked into the Annex space. On November 1, La MaMa’s board of directors renamed the space the Ellen Stewart Theatre. Stewart attended the gala, resplendent in a sequined blouse, but she seemed weakened by a recent hospital stay. (Indeed, illness prevented her from contributing to this article.) The assistant who maneuvered her wheelchair had to fit her hands around the commemorative bouquets and turn her toward the flashbulbs. She seemed only passingly aware of the standing ovation.
Yet Stewart is a resilient woman, and many younger colleagues comfortably predict that she will outlive them all. As La MaMa’s board president, Frank Carucci, says, “I expect to live to be 100, at which point she’ll be 150. She is La MaMa.” Despite her troubled health, Stewart still makes most of La MaMa’s artistic decisions and has scheduled shows through 2012. But as she participates less in the day-to-day running of the theater, an uncomfortable question arises: What will become of La MaMa without her?
Arriving in New York from Louisiana in 1950, Stewart carved out a successful career in women’s wear, crafting bathing suits and day dresses for the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue. She did not consider herself a theater artist, telling The New York Times, “I can’t write myself, and I can’t act.” Yet in 1961, she rented a basement storefront as a place for her brother and his friend to put on their plays, supporting it with her design work. Two evictions, countless financial crises, various NEA battles, more than 2,000 shows, and 48 years later, La MaMa sprawls over two buildings on East 4th Street, producing some 60 shows per year.
In its early days, La MaMa—along with Judson Poets Theatre, Caffe Cino, and Theater Genesis—created the Off-Off-Broadway movement. It’s the only one of those theaters to survive to the present. A jaw-dropping array of artists have appeared on its stages, among them Sam Shepard, Blue Man Group, Harvey Keitel, Jerzy Grotowski, Bette Midler, Lanford Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor, John Kelly, Meredith Monk, Tom O’Horgan, Peter Brook, David and Amy Sedaris, Charles Ludlam, and Harvey Fierstein. On the first floor of the Annex, an archive teems with records and videos of their storied productions, as well as odder accoutrements—feathered masks, a papier-mâché penguin, several statues of Stewart herself. In a glass case, a café menu from La MaMa’s first year advertises sassafrass tea with honey for 60 cents, a grenadine soda for 55 cents, and “pasteries” for 50 cents.
Much has changed since then. Sassafrass tea is no longer on offer, not even in the upstairs club, the space that most resembles La MaMa’s earlier incarnation. And while Stewart initially championed local writers, the theater moved away from script-based theater and toward director-centered works. It also turned increasingly to international artists. Meanwhile, an emphasis on fostering new artists gradually shifted toward continuing relationships with established ones, though the club space, curated by Nicky Paraiso, continues to promote newer talent, such as Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf. Once an artist had performed at La MaMa, Stewart ensured that he or she always had a place there. Eventually, Stewart belied the “I can’t write myself” protest and began to create theater, adapting and directing Greek plays for the Great Jones Repertory, the resident company she founded with Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados. Over the years, her work as an artist and artistic director has earned her a MacArthur Genius Grant, a Tony, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale, and 15 honorary doctorates.
Hers is a tough act to follow, yet Stewart has long known that follow her someone must. She has always gathered acolytes around her—former and current performers compose much of La MaMa’s board and staff. As Paraiso says, “La MaMa is her house, and once you’re invited here to do a show, you become part of the family.” Recently, Stewart named one such family member, Mia Yoo—a former actress in the Great Jones Repertory and La MaMa’s current artistic associate—her successor. As managing director and board member Mary Fulham says, “Mia understands the complexity of taking this on, of ensuring Ellen’s legacy and the legacy of La MaMa in what is now a changed landscape.”
The landscape of the East Village has altered strikingly since La MaMa opened its doors. Off-Off-Broadway playhouses now litter this neighborhood, challenging La MaMa’s claims to risk and innovation. In this changed environment, La MaMa no longer seems so singular. Several artists and producers who spoke to the Voice diagnose mustiness in La MaMa’s offerings, a sense that it has not kept up with the times. Indeed, much of the work seems stuck in an earlier, outmoded vision of the avant-garde. In recent decades, spots such as the Chocolate Factory, the Bushwick Starr, the Ontological Incubator, and Dixon Place have emerged as sites of more inventive theater. Vallejo Gantner, who runs another longtime Village institution, P.S.122, says, “La MaMa faces the same challenges as all of us downtown of keeping the creative dynamism of the East Village alive and kicking as the neighborhood changes radically—[the Village] is no longer the real hub or center for people making work.”
Of course, what keeps La MaMa alive and kicking, what renders it distinct, is the asset it must one day lose—Stewart herself. More than any other aspect of La MaMa, artists revere Stewart’s uniquely maternal support. Fulham says Stewart created “a birthing place”; Paraiso describes her “nurturing.” Puppeteer Theodora Skipitares, who has performed at La MaMa for 18 years, says that whenever an artist had questions about an upcoming show, “You could go to her room, you could talk to her on the phone.” Stewart would even help you decide what color costumes a particular puppet should wear. At the renaming celebration, Jean-Claude van Itallie recalled meeting Stewart in the early ’60s: “I said to her, ‘I am a playwright,’ and she said, ‘Welcome home, honey.’ “
No one knows what will become of that home after Stewart retires. Perhaps it will return to greater relevance, perhaps it will fade like the other institutions of its day. Yoo, who emphasizes that Stewart is still very much La MaMa’s leader, says, “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like without her. I don’t want to.”
A soft-spoken woman, far less flamboyant than Stewart, Yoo likely won’t inspire the same cult of personality, nor does she claim to judge projects, as Stewart famously did, on the basis of whether or not they “beep” at her. Nevertheless, her tastes sound remarkably similar to Stewart’s: “I am compelled by work that touches me emotionally,” she says. “Work that is hard to box in and categorize. Work that pushes and questions human potential.”
Yoo remains vague about what sort of artists and companies she would like to bring to La MaMa, but makes one firm prediction for the theater’s future: “This place is going to go on with Ellen’s spirit here.”