Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa E.T.C. (40152)

The esteemed Ellen Stewart, founder of the internationally renowned La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club), died tranquilly in her sleep last Thursday morning, Jan. 13 in New York City. She was 91.

In memoriam of Stewart, who was born on Nov. 7, 1919, in Alexandria, La. (and raised in Chicago), a three-day observance was held on Saturday, Jan. 15 at the Church of the Nativity at 44 Second Ave., followed on Sunday, Jan. 16 at Greenwich Village Funeral Home at 199 Bleecker St. A mass of Christian burial took place on Monday, Jan. 17 at 10 a.m. at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue at 51st Street.

During her remarkable half-century reign at La MaMA, which houses three theaters on East 4th Street in New York’s Lower East Side, both Ellen Stewart, the grand dame of the ’60s Off-Off Broadway movement, and her organization have become landmark cultural treasures, providing playwrights, directors, performers and technical designers with a home to work and present their craft to the world. Amongst the remarkable roster of greats who have passed through La MaMa are such luminaries as Al Pacino, Sam Shepard, Robert De Nero, Harvey Fierstein and Bette Midler.

Founded in 1961, La MaMa was created after Stewart, who was raised in Chicago, relocated to New York to study fashion design because Chicago’s discrimination laws prevented her from attending this type of school. After procuring a job as a porter at Saks on Fifth Avenue to enable her to earn her tuition for design school, Stewart was singled out by customers for the well-crafted, handmade garments she wore under her smock. Subsequently after three months, she was promoted to the position of executive designer at the upscale store.

After a successful career at Saks, Stewart left to work as a freelance designer. Her caring, maternal nature–which would later inspire the name La MaMa–prompted her to assist her brother Fred Light, a playwright, and his friend, who were having a challenging time getting their plays produced in New York City. Using the earnings she made as a designer, Stewart subsequently rented a basement on 9th Street, which she converted into a theater for the playwrights to produce their work

This desire to help someone achieve his dreams would, in 1962, manifest into the creation of Cafe La MaMa, which evolved into the present-day La MaMa E.T.C., the distinguished company of some of the most innovative cross-cultural theater initiatives.

To date, more than 1,900 productions have been presented by its resident theater troupes–the first one created by the director Tom O’Horgan, featuring the works of Sam Shephard and Rochelle Owens. Since that time, La MaMa troupes have performed worldwide, including in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Columbia, Croatia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Greece, Holland, Iran, Italy, Korea, Lebanon, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Scotland, Siberia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yugoslavia.

In turn, La MaMa has played host at its East 4th Street spaces to international companies such as New Eastern European Theatre, when artists Ryszard Cieslak, Ludwig Flaszen and Jerzy Grotowski were introduced to America by Stewart with the assistance of New York University’s Ted Hoffman. Since then, as the visionary host of over 70 countries, La MaMa has attained the eminent distinction as being an international theater, where at each performance the harmonious chimes of Stewart’s trademark cowbell, followed by her warm welcome at the top of the show, readies the audience for a unique, inspirational, edutainment theater experience.

A versatile artist, Stewart has staged, composed, directed and written librettos for original folk opera-spectacles that have been presented in America as well as all over the world, including: Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Republic of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Italy, Morocco, Nigeria, the Philippines, Senegal, Yugoslavia and Zaire–where she has also lectured. Stewart, who has also served as a visiting professor at the Institute of Drama in South Korea, was also a member of the Seoul International Theatre Institute.

The recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and awards, including the MacArthur “Genius Award” and the National Endowment for Arts and Culture Award, Stewart was inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame in 1993. She was also made an officer in France’s “Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” (Order of Arts and Letters) and has received numerous other awards, amongst them the Les Kurbas Award for Distinguished Services to Art and Culture from the Ukraine; the Order of the Sacred Treasure: Gold Rays with Rosette by the emperor of Japan; and the Human Rights Award of the Philippines from President Corazon Aquino.

La MaMa’s neighbor, the Public Theater, dedicated its 2010-2011 55th anniversary season, as well as the remaining performances of this year’s acclaimed Under the Radar Festival, “in memory of Ellen Stewart, a dear friend.”

“Ellen Stewart was a giant of the American theater and of the world theater. Her vision, her taste, her passion, and her integrity set a shining example that all of us can aspire to,” said Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis. “She had a profound impact on the lives of countless artists, and she left a mark on the city of New York that will never be erased. We are proud to dedicate the entire season at the Public Theater to celebrate her memory.”

Under the Radar Festival producer Mark Russell commented: “Ellen Stewart was the mother of all of us in downtown theater. Her vision and influence extends around the globe, and her impact on the world’s theater is immense.”

The Casting Pearls series pays tribute to the brilliant professional talent of stage and screen and to institutions promoting daring, brilliant productions.