Ellen Stewart is the much acclaimed and venerated founder and director of La MaMa E.T.C., which celebrates its 47th Anniversary in October. The company occupies a unique presence not only in the storied world of Off Off and Off Broadway but in international theatrical circles. Just as Stewart's name is synonymous with controversy and controversial productions, it ranks at the top of the list of daring and avant garde theater.

Make no mistake about it, experimentation, politics, risk-taking and challenging artistic boundaries and the public or various city administrations' definition of decency have been the focus of work created at La MaMa.

The stories about Ellen Stewart, her struggles against censorship and the establishment, are legendary and could fill a couple of books. She's been arrested, ridiculed and harangued in news articles. The problem is you don't how many of these stories are true and which have been exaggerated. So to get to the bottom of things, it seemed best to go to her.

Ms. Stewart, now in her 80s and going as fast as she can here and overseas, often in four directions at the same time, doesn't grant many interviews. But when she does, you can bet it's going to freewheeling, informative and a helluva lot of fun.

Her Greenwich Village loft apartment on the top floor of the La MaMa complex on East Fourth Street, between First and Second Avenues, is filled with photos, books, plays and a vast array of music and theater memorabilia; so vast, in fact, you might wonder if this lady could put her fingers on something she wants when she wants it or when some inquiring mind asks a question about that something.

Worry not because, like Joe Franklin in his office of nostalgic memorabilia that gives "piles of clutter" a new definition, Mama, as anyone remotely close to her calls Ms. Stewart, knows exactly where it is, how long it's been there and who's touched it last. And you better ask before you touch it!

The company's philosophy can be summed up in their mission statement: "La MaMa believes that in order to flourish, art needs the company of colleagues, the spirit of collaboration, the comfort of continuation, a public forum in which to be evaluated and fiscal support."

Annually, La MaMa prides itself on introducing to audiences at its two East Village venues to artists from around the world. "Cultural pluralism and ethnic diversity have been inherent in the work created at La MaMa," notes Ms. Stewart. "Whatever else you say about us, and plenty has been, you definitely can say we are an international theater company."

To date there have been more than 1,900 productions - and over 1,000 original scores. Resident troupes have spanned the world: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Columbia, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Greece, Holland, Iran, Italy, Korea, Lebanon, Venezuela, Macedonia, The Netherlands, Scotland, Siberia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.
Mama has lectured and directed, written librettos and composed music for shows presented throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin and South America.

La MaMa has given work to fledging actors, such as Bette Midler, before anyone ever heard of her, and writers such as Harvey Fierstein and Sam Shepard; composers Tom Eyen, Philip Glass and Elizabeth Swados; directors Wilford Leach, Tom O'Horgan and Romanian director Andrei Serban [still active with the company].
The company introduced New York to troupes such as Mabou Mines; and theater from the Eastern bloc, especially with the debut in the company's first decade of Polish ultra avant-garde theater director Jerzy Grotowski.

The company name came about because playwrights, directors, actors, designers and staff in the early years considered Stewart a mother figure. As one put it, "In those days, we were all kids, and she was the adult."
Actually, in mind, body and spirit, she was probably younger than they. To this day, even in her 80s, she still thinks young and has a sly, devilish spirit. And an incredible memory!

In a rare nod to Off Broadway and beyond, in 1993 Stewart was elected by critics to the Theater Hall of Fame. She's been honored with dozens of Drama Desk Awards and over 30 Obies. And Ms. Stewart has been given so many honorary and distinguished service awards and doctorates that she has an archive and archivist to keep track of them while cataloging the early work presented.

La MaMa started ever so simply. It was such a lark that, according to Mama, no one really knew exactly what they were doing. They just had ideas and decided they were going to bring them to fruition. "Never in a million years did I ever think we would accomplish all we've accomplished and become what La MaMa has become," she says. "Our mission was and is to develop, nurture, support, produce and present new and original performance work by artists of all nations and cultures."

In fact, when she was growing up in Chicago, theater never entered Stewart's mind. She wanted to be a fashion designer. As a young black woman, she knew it wouldn't be easy. "No surprise," she laughs, "it wasn't. At that time Chicago had nothing on the Deep South as far as racism rearing its ugly head."

To escape, she came to what she thought was very cosmopolitan New York City. But there were surprises here, too. "Bernard Gimbel, then president of Gimbel's, hired me as an executive designer for their Saks Fifth Avenue store but found resistance from their high-end customers." But stick by her, he did. By the time doors started to open, she had met an interesting circle of friends - some in very high places. And, in a nutshell, she decided one night to put on a show.

La MaMa began as a tiny, second-floor space over a Second Avenue tailor shop. Interestingly, Miss Stewart said she didn't start off looking to be controversial, "but we certainly stirred up quite a bit of controversy."
The first play "to get us some headlines" was O'Horgan's 1964 production of Genet's The Maids because of his decision to do it with boys."

She notes that the show that really put La MaMa "on the map," and in more ways than one, was 1967's Futz by Rochelle Owens and directed by O'Horgan. The dark, very dark, comedy didn't exactly conform to social norms of the day. Without raising her voice in exclaimation - in fact, very matter-of-factly, Mama recounts the story.
"It was about a farmer who's had so many bad experiences with women that he falls in love with Amanda, his pet pig, and marries her. There was also a very attractive, but not too tightly-wrapped, hayseed who's a Peeping Tom at Mr. Futz's basement window. While Mr. Futz had, well, darlin', let's just say intercourse with his pig and told her that they'd always be together, the chorus made sexual sounds which excited the boy. The town's most beautiful and richest girl - a stunning blonde, has a crush on him.
"John Bakos [Cyrus Futz] starred along with Seth Allen, Mari-Claire Charba and Frederick Forrest. Sally Kirkland did narration.

"Now, Tom is a composer and musician," she continues, "He could play every instrument imaginable. So there he is in the wings with various instruments tied and hanging on him - a one-man orchestra. He had made a living singing on the Borscht Belt as a counter tenor, and he was making these sounds.

"One night, the boy brings the girl to watch Mr. Futz and Miss Pig. He starts using Mr. Futz's rhythm, and the more Mr. Futz gets - gets - you know.. Yes - very excited, the more the boy gets excited; and, in a very dramatic and graphic scene, he rapes the girl. He's arrested and is sentenced to hang. His mother comes to pay a last visit, and they commiserate in a Southern cracker dialect. To suckle him, she exposes a breast and puts it in his mouth. Well. Right. Nothing like this had been done before."

As word spread, lines formed around the block. La MaMa's tiny space couldn't contain the crowds. When asked how long a run the play enjoyed, Miss Stewart laughs, "We don't got runs. We never had runs. Unless you want to count me running. La MaMa's early history is marked by the number of times I was running. Running from the police! Always running! We couldn't stay long!"

Mama also decided to tour the show in England and Europe. "Now, after what happened here, imagine this in very conservative Edinburgh!" Were there protests? "Protests?" she asks. "Oh, yes! The Scottish Daily Mail accused me of shipping filth to their country."

The controversy sold tickets. "They had lines down the block," she states, not able to control her excitement or laughter, "and around the block, down and around another block, across the street and down another block. You had to see this scene of local women protesting with placards accusing us of all sorts of things, and audiences wanting us to do five shows a night!" As it played Germany and other cities in Europe, the scene was repeated over and over.
"You wanted to know what put us on the map!" adds Mama. "After that, we were known! So we all were laughing when there was all that fuss over nudity in Tom's Hair. That was nothing!"

Futz! later transferred to what is now the Lucille Lortel and Actor's Playhouse and was filmed, says Miss Stewart, "with Sally riding buck naked on a pig!"

Bette Midler got her first theatrical break at the original La MaMa on Second Avenue with Tom Eyen in Miss Nefertiti. "She had just arrived from Hawaii," recalls Miss Stewart, "and she was a knockout. Quite voluptuous. Those breasts! She was supposed to be nude from the waist up, but Bette was quite modest in those days. She wouldn't take her hands off her boobs. We would go, 'Bette, psssst. Come on. Go ahead.'"

Harvey Fierstein, whom Mama had the pleasure of introducing at his recent induction into the Theater Hall of Fame, also started at La MaMa. "We will never forget his debut!" says Stewart. "He came running onstage with his fly unzipped and his cockylove popped out. He ran off stage and I had to get down on my hands and knees to sew the fly shut."

Nudity in La MaMa shows caused "some" problems, but, says Mama, "I never did it; but, back in the day, I was really beautiful, and if a role called for me to run naked, I would have. But no more!"

It didn't take long for La MaMa to outgrow Second Avenue. In 1969, it began business on East Fourth between First and Second Avenues in a building that now comprises two theatres and a cabaret.

Stewart discovered the work of Serban and brought him to La MaMa that year. "I was much more political then and concerned with the state of the Negro or black or whatever we were called and how we were shown culturally. I wanted to do theater where a black could play a role that didn't require a needle in the arm, a jail cell, being a domestic washing dishes or clothes or being in the morgue."

To accomplish this goal, Serban, "who didn't know from black and white," and Swados chose Medea and cast black actress Betty Howard. It was decided to do the play in Greek because "to Andrei and Elizabeth's ear, the way Americans spoke English didn't sound poetic enough."
She is cracking up laughing, having a difficult time catching her breath as she described the long process of putting the play in French, German and several other languages. Finally, Andrei, who's half Greek, said, 'Let's try Greek.' I got a tutor to teach the company, and it was sounding pretty good. Still, with the music Elizabeth had in mind, they decided to translate further into 'Ancient Greek, and were finally satisfied the music went with that."

When Howard was cast in a Broadway show, Priscilla Smith stepped in, receiving great acclaim in what became a landmark production for La MaMa, that toured internationally. It was the first of several collaborations between Serban and Swados.

Controversy followed to the new site. Mama got arrested several times. She recalls harassment from the Fire Department over safety issues at La MaMa, especially during the Koch administration. She claims the former Mayor was out to get her and close La MaMa.

The first show there was Caution: A Love Story, written and directed by the late Tom Eyen with music by the late Bruce Kirle [later a generous scholarship donor at La MaMa]. Eyen went on to become a Broadway director, playwright and lyricist. He co-wrote and directed Paul Jabara's 1973's Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don't You Ever Forget It, the thinly-disguised musical satire based on the life of Bette Midler, which starred Jabara, Ellen Greene, Anita Morris and Andre De Shields [it never officially opened]; and will forever known in theatrical books as lyricist and book writer of Dreamgirls, with music by Henry Krieger.

Popularity and demand for tickets meant having to find a larger space and, in a lottery for East Village buildings owned by the City, Miss Stewart landed a few doors West in what is called The Annex. Grant money from the Ford Foundation paid for the extensive renovations in a building that had once been a TV sound stage and, as legend has it, the last place Judy Garland recorded a song for a movie.

It opened in 1974 with The Trojan Women presented, as had become tradition, in Swados' invented language.

Miss Stewart has had many memorable milestones, from the controversial to the beautiful, such as the first chamber opera, Camila, about two lesbian vampires, in 1970, which was created by Wilford Leach, La MaMa's artistic director. He went on to become a resident director at the Public and direct The Pirates of Penzance and Rupert Holmes' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for which he won Tony and Drama Desk Awards.

According to Mama, Leach as designer and director, was quite the ahead-of-his-time theatrical innovator. "He used projected slides and film to enhance the opera. Cast members used mikes onstage. When I tell people this, they call me a liar. They say nothing like that was done then. But it was, and it was done at La MaMa."

When Leach returned to La MaMa in 1981 to revive Camila, the earlier production was recalled. "The Village Voice lead theater critic wrote a page-long article asking how we stoop so low as to claim we had opera, projections and the like in 1970 when it didn't exist anywhere in the world. Needless to say, a big fight broke out between me and the Voice. I went down there with a baseball bat, but I won. I even went so far to forbid entry to their critics. However, they threatened a lawsuit, stating that I couldn't bar anyone."

Along the way, Mama found generous benefactors, and La MaMa's work has benefited from, believe it or not, the usually conservative National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to theater and cabaret, La MaMa has internships at the high school and college level and a ticket subsidy program open to students, seniors, social orgs and the physically and mentally-challenged allowing attendance at performances at no cost.

In 1986, with the proceeds from a MacArthur Genius Award, Miss Stewart founded La MaMa Umbria, an artists' retreat in Umbria, Italy, where workshops and festivals are held each summer.


Key Subjects: 
Ellen Stewart, La MaMa ETC., Futz, Elizabeth Swados, Tom Eyen, Village Voice, Andrei Serban
Ellis Nassour
February 2008
Ellen Stewart's 47 Years at an Off-Off-Broadway Institution