La MaMa Throws Itself a Gala 50th Birthday and the Theater Community Helps

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By Wickham Boyle

La MaMa Experimental Theater Club and its founder, the marvelous, mercurial Ellen Stewart-well, if you know them, they need no introduction. It's like saying "Thomas Edison" and "electricity." But if you don't, here are the Cliff's Notes.

Stewart was a hopeful African-American fashion design student who came from Chicago to New York City in the early '60s to follow her dreams. Upon arrival she found she had no scholarship and found a job as a porter at Saks Fifth Avenue to make ends meet. On weekends she would go to Orchard Street and buy snippets of fabric to made incredible concoctions, which she wore under her blue smock as she wheeled carts around Saks.

One day, on her way to lunch wearing a "Miss Ellen Creation" a shopper stopped her to inquire where she had bought the dress. When told it was her own design, the shopper, incensed at Stewart's uppity-ness, took her to management. Management saw the diamond in the rough and gave her a line of dresses called, you got it, Miss Ellen.

Stewart had friends writing plays-her stepbrother among them-and attempting to make it in the theater. To help them out, exactly 50 years ago this week, Stewart had the prescience to rent a small space on Second Avenue and begin the La MaMa Theater. Any time Stewart attended a performance, she would ring a tinkling bell and croon in a voice tinged with Creole honey, "Welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theater." Last year alone the space saw 60 different showings of dance, theater, music, multimedia and everything in between from Downtown and around the world.

Stewart died this January past the age of 90, and there have been many obits, tributes and dedications to her, but none were as personal, uproarious and full of wonder as last night in the theater she called the Annex, now dubbed the Ellen Stewart Theater on her beloved East Fourth Street. Mayor Michael Bloomberg even lionized Stewart and renamed the block Ellen Stewart Way, promising million of dollars to help renovate the wonderful old theater. Actors Bill Irwin, Harvey Keitel, Diane Lane and Estelle Parsons were there. Parsons said, "Where would the bright lights of the theater be without her? Performers, musicians, composers, everything-there's no place like it on earth."

La MaMa spawned hybrid performance before anyone had thought of it. Stewart combined poets, choreographers, writers, musicians, composers and visual artists and let them all find their way to create boundary-breaking art. Composers Philip Glass, Meredith Monk and Elizabeth Swados all got their start at La MaMa, and last night Swados premiered her new La MaMa Cantata, which will bow in its entirety Nov. 7, Stewart's birthday.

Wallace Shawn performed an excerpt of his Hotel Play and Amiri Baraka, whose early work as Leroy Jones was seen on La MaMa's tiny stages, read a poem. He later told me, "Ellen was a very courageous pioneer in the wilderness of crazy, white America."

The Annex was filled with tables and revelers kept switching chairs and wandering during performance breaks to visit those Stewart would have called her babies. One long-time La MaMa baby, director Paul Zimet of the Talking Band, told me, "I am seeing people I haven't seen in years-the creative output of all of us in this room is so extra ordinary." As he said this, director Ping Chong stopped by, followed by Dario D'Ambrosi, who had flown in from Italy. D'ambrosi began his career with Stewart in 1979 on a chance meeting.

One of the purposes of the evening, other than honoring Stewart and raising funds, was to award the first Ellen Stewart Theater award. Honoree Sam Shepard could not be there. His agent, Judy Boles explained, "Sam had to be on a film set unexpectedly in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Sam doesn't fly so it takes time, but he sent this video." In the video, the perennially handsome over-60-year-old declared his affection for Stewart. "I was told there was this woman with a theater Downtown and I had a script and I took it to her. She was gorgeous and she took the script and my hand and said, 'Baby, we are going to do your play.' She never read it and yes, we did it and many more."

Stewart was famous for her instincts about people and projects. The story Shepard told is no different than any of the thousands told by others or witnessed by me during my tenure as the theater's executive director during the '80s and '90s. Stewart would hold court for writers or directors to come to her, when she would let her "beeps"-what she called her instincts-go off. She said, "Baby, if it beeps to me, MaMa will do it. If it doesn't, well then, no."

Stewart's beeps launched the careers of Peter Brook, Andrei Serban, Robert Wilson, Paul Foster, Jean Claude Van Italie, Lanford Wilson, Adrienne Kennedy, Wilford Leach, John Kelly, Al Pacino, Bette Midler, Joe Chaikin, Harvey Fierstein, Robert De Niro. As the seasons, unfold there will be more new stars in the La MaMa firmament-just wait and watch.

Top Photo: The late Ellen Stewart, founded of LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club. Photos courtesy of LaMama Experimental Theater Club.

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