"Artists have ancestors. We are on the shoulders of very talented, bold, fearless and important people. They have given you the license to create and it is your responsibility to take it further. That is the heirloom that they are passing down to this generation."
How do you decide on what sorts of things to archive?
We will often ask ourselves, “What are we going to use this material for?” And that influences what we decide to preserve. Having this archive gives us a foundation for when we are applying for funds or when we are working with new collaborators. They can see how we developed and that we have a track record. We can pull these files and say, “Look, we’ve been doing this for many many years.” They can immediately see that we have a strong infrastructure, a backbone and a kind of strength. Its not that La MaMa is not known, but sometimes much of our work is taken for granted and the archive demonstrates the enormity of the work we’ve done. Also, Ellen foresaw that there was a time when our history and everything that she had accumulated would be relevant to the education of young artists and scholars. All of that informs what we preserve.
Our files contain all kinds of information and no file is the same. We definitely collect: programs, press releases, reviews, letters (personal and public), photographs, VHS tapes, CDs, articles from magazines, articles from magazines from other countries. You could find receipts. You could find corrections to texts. You could find personal correspondence written between the author and the director or between the director and Ellen. These items give you an incredible sense of the immediacy of the moment.
We have files for our tours – and we’ve been to over 50 countries – this is so incredible because the Resident Companies - some of them are based here in America and some are visiting - are all producing new works of art. We have records for all the tours.
We have show posters that were painted by people who weren’t even artists at the time but later went on to became very important. They slapped together collages because they had seen something from Basquiat or Warhol and decided, “Oh, I can do something like that.” These posters were supposed to last a week and were put outside of a basement door. No one thought, “This is art that will one day be important.” That’s what it became because it was an evolutionary time and we were all evolving. The archive helps to preserve that. It preserves that kind of immediacy. It’s an appointment in time aside from information that you could glean from a book.
Ellen received more awards than you can imagine and we have all of those. She wasn’t pretentious about all of this stuff. It had happened and she carried it with her, but the tangible proof of these things happening is the legacy that she passed down.
This is a living archive because our work is still going on. You can learn about La MaMa’s history here and then go upstairs and see the work that is currently being done.
We’re doing a series called the Coffeehouse Chronicles where some of the surviving original members of La MaMa and the Off-Off-Broadway movement come in and talk. We just did Richard Schechner and then we had Adrienne Kennedy, and then Elizabeth Swados. Through this series, the archive can capture their experiences and it becomes a part of our heritage. Artists have ancestors. We are on the shoulders of very talented, bold, fearless and important people. They have given you the license to create and it is your responsibility to take it further. That is the heirloom that they are passing down to this generation.
Ellen’s last, great project was this archive. We had the space and we were finally able to display all of the: costumes, set pieces, props, scripts, scores that she had collected. Every time we had a little larger space, she would find more things. Really, it’s remarkable. But she was thrilled to see it come to fruition.
The La MaMa Archives is a not-for-profit organization sustained by La MaMa E.T.C. The Archives are made available to the public as an educational service to the performing arts community, the press, scholars, historians, emerging artists, and students of theatre the world over. The Archives are open to the public Monday-Friday, Noon to 5PM and are located at 66 East 4th Street on the Mezzanine level.
Interview conducted by Shay Gines