Ellen Stewart (1919-2011)


I never called her anything but “Mama.” I remember being startled the first time I actually heard someone address her as “Ellen.” Strangers, to be courteous, might say, “Ms. Stewart,” but if they lingered a few hours, they were soon calling her “Mama” like everybody else. Their courtesy came naturally: Ellen Stewart—our Mama, the creator and the lifeblood of La MaMa E.T.C.—was courteous to all visitors. She called intimates, myself occasionally included, “honey” or “baby,” but most often, during my 40 years of visits to her theater, I called her “Mama” and she called me “Mr. Feingold”—four gently enunciated syllables, nestled in a soft Cajun accent.

I loved that accent, loved how it would thicken perceptibly when her theater was crowded with smartly suited foundation executives or other uptowners (she once told me this came from her innate shyness). I loved, too, how it would shimmer through her sentences when she felt particularly elated about the event you were attending. You could also gauge her elation by how enthusiastically she rang the famous cowbell with which she traditionally introduced every performance at one of La MaMa’s multiple spaces on East 4th Street.

“Welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theater. We thank you very much that you’ve come.” In how many people’s memories, I wonder, did those words chime, with cowbell accompaniment, as they chimed in mine on Thursday, January 13, when I got the news—the unsurprising but still unendurable news—that Ellen Stewart had died, peacefully in her sleep, early that morning. She had been seriously ill for some time, but she had successfully fought off countless previous brushes with illness. Having to preside over her theater from a wheelchair had not quenched her desire to create new pieces or to revive old ones. Death had to catch Ellen Stewart asleep to douse her torchlight; if it had come while she was ringing the cowbell, she would have told Death, “Not now, honey, I don’t want to spoil the performance.”

Our Mama would have been as bluntly, good-humoredly obstinate with Death as she was with anyone whom she perceived as blocking an artist’s way, from beat cops to heads of state. Though she was raised as (and apparently remained) a devout Catholic, church and state meant nothing to her compared to art, which took precedence over everything. And art, in her understanding, defied all definitions. Her sense of it was instinctive, impulsive, and staggeringly inclusive: A Greek myth, a Turkish poet, a Mongolian epic, a Mayan chant, an American comic strip—you might find any or all of them in a show at La MaMa. In building her theater, Ellen Stewart built her own cultural United Nations, appointing herself its Secretary-General for life.

Unless some biographer had actually asked her, it would be hard to say, now, if that had been her intention when she began. The tale of her own career trajectory is as fabulous as any myth ever staged at La MaMa. Arriving in New York in 1950, from Louisiana via Chicago, a young African-American woman rises quickly from an elevator operator at Saks to a noted fashion designer with her own label. Flush with success, she conceives a desire to right the injustice she sees the commercial theater displaying toward her playwright friends. She rents a basement apartment on East 9th Street and starts to put on plays, arousing the suspicion of neighbors who, seeing young men lined up nightly outside, accuse her of running a bordello. A kindly fire inspector tells her that the space could qualify as a coffeehouse if she served coffee, and Café La MaMa is born.

Moving to a second and then a third location, it morphs into La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, and has been La MaMa E.T.C. ever since, for half a century. And what a half-century! To list the artists who contributed to it is to compile a who’s who; to list the events it generated is to compile a history of world theater. Strong-arming the grant-givers and mopping the floor, staving off the developers and sheltering the artists, Ellen Stewart—our Mama—was mother to it all.

The building at 74A East 4th Street that has housed La MaMa for four decades actually opened for business in the spring of 1969, though its official opening didn’t take place until renovations were completed in 1971. The first two productions were Caution: A Love Story, Tom Eyen’s puckish take on the courtship of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Gloria and Esperanza, a long, discursive delirium of a play, by Julie Bovasso, about a visionary poet.

I met Ellen Stewart for the first time that weekend, a stranger, from academia, known to her only as the author of a nitpicky article in a scholarly quarterly about a La MaMa play that had been seen Off-Broadway, Paul Foster’s Tom Paine. This did not stop her from treating me as an old friend, or from sneaking me into both performances, which were not only sold out, but specially intended for donors to the new building. “Come with me, honey,” she said. “There’s no seats, but maybe we find you one.” When I said I felt awkward, not having made any contribution, she replied, “You’re here with us, aren’t you?” I fell in love with Ellen Stewart at that moment.

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.