Ellen Stewart, inspirational founder and Directrice of New York City’s La MaMa (1919-2011)
For more details view www.lamama.org
Beth Porter, who worked with the New York La MaMa before co-founding The Wherehouse La MaMa in London, has written:
‘It is with the heaviest of hearts that I must report the death of the woman I have long considered my “real” mother, my MaMa. LaMaMa. Ellen Stewart.
The revolution she helped create took place in the theatrical arena, not the overtly political one. But as someone who trod a less conventional path into battle, her banner waved equally over all who became part of her family.
As she did for so many people she revolutionised my life. She believed in me when I didn’t know enough to believe in myself. She shared whatever she could, whatever I needed and what I didn’t know I needed.
You, too, share some of her legacy whenever you encounter Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Nick Nolte, Pacino, de Niro, Midler, and Keitel among the parade of people whom she welcomed to her world.
It was Lanford who first introduced me to “Miz Stewart,” as we always called her, though she was universally known as Mama. He’d seen me in a production of Othello and wanted me to play opposite Frederic Forrest for the premiere of
The Rimers of Eldritch at LaMaMa. She’d recently opened her makeshift theatre to the public, in the days when the critics wouldn’t travel down to NYC’s East Village.
She and her artistic director, the late Tom O’Horgan, invited me to join the new LaMaMa Troupe preparing for its European tour. I remained with them for several years before Ellen appointed me to run the UK LaMaMa.
Up to her death I was her baby.
Ellen’s aim was never to be a producer; indeed at the beginning she wouldn’t have been able to define the word. She wanted to provide a platform for the plays of her brother who’d been unable to get past establishment theatrical receptionists because he was black. For her, the writer provided the blueprint for a team equally contributing their skills to a unique theatrical experience.
She introduced every performance by ringing a hand-bell and declaring LaMaMa was “dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre.”
That she parlayed such a genuinely human motivation into the legend she became, attests to the ethos she instinctively shared with this newspaper – people before profit, equal opportunities for everyone, and a trust in the ability of any
one of us to enhance us all.
The internet today is filled with tributes to a woman who rose from the brutal prejudice endemic in America to the first producer of Pinter in America, to being awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award. Because she was a true
internationalist she’s recognised throughout the world for her seminal influence on post-war theatre.
At a time when the Con-Dem philistines are devaluing the importance of culture, Ellen’s life is a cogent reminder that the spirit of human creativity pays more dividends than the stock market ever could.
She always called us her babies. How lucky I am she was my MaMa.’
We interviewed Beth Porter early in 2011 and are currently editing the recording which we will be available later this year. She speaks extensively on Ellen Stewart, La MaMa, Tom O’Horgan, Wherehouse La MaMa and describes the work they created.