Monday, February 28, 2011

Ellen Stewart: International Icon

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, David J. Diamond.

It seems like wherever I travel around the world, everyone knows Ellen Stewart and La MaMa Theatre (except, surprisingly for many places in the United States.) The breadth of her influence is astonishing. She was such an important part of my life as a theatre artist and also as a person; it is still hard to believe that she is gone. As you know, she passed away on January 13, 2011 at the age of 91. She lived every moment of her life to the fullest and she didn’t believe in the words, “It can’t be done.”  Her ceaseless creativity and her loving nature are the things about her I’ll remember the most.

Ellen Stewart & David Diamond
My initiation to La MaMa began when I first moved to New York City in 1980 to attend grad school at NYU in the Performance Studies Program. It was a fluke, what brought me to La MaMa at first. But now I think maybe not, maybe I was being directed in ways I didn’t understand. A colleague at NYU, Rick Richardson, asked me to assist him in stage managing a production at a small theatre in the East Village. I barely knew which way East was and I certainly had never heard of La MaMa. The show was T.N.T., the Musical, an EST-spoof, written by Richard Morrock and directed by Frank Carucci.
During the show at La MaMa and when it eventually moved to a commercial run Off-Broadway, I spent a bit of time with Ellen, but was completely intimidated by her. Fast-forward to fifteen years later. I had been traveling to Italy regularly by this time and Ellen always invited our groups to visit her at La MaMa Umbria International, the artists’ retreat she created just outside Spoleto, Italy.

When Ellen found this place, it was a wreck. She had it painstakingly restored, renovated and decorated, so that it became what you see today: a modern residence in a 700-year old borgo, with rehearsal studio, art gallery, café, outdoor stage, orchard, vegetable garden and lots of open space. Each room is outfitted with her collection of crafts and art collected during her world travels. There are collections of puppets, dolls, masks, pewter platters, blue glass, posters from productions she directed or produced, artwork done by friends, musical instruments from Africa, Asia, South America, everywhere. It’s like a museum, except for the fact that everything is useful and used.

La MaMa Umbria
One year, after spending some time visiting Larry Sacharow, then head of the Theatre Department at Fordham University, who organized a program for actors in Orvieto, Italy, I went to visit Ellen in Spoleto. Since I was working as Executive Director of Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, developing programs for the continuing education of directors was on my mind. I tentatively asked Ellen about the possibility of our producing a summer symposium for directors at La MaMa Umbria, bringing an international perspective on ways to create theatre. Unexpectedly, she said “Yes. Let’s do it!” I was stunned by the quick response. This summer we will be offering our 12th Annual International Symposium for Directors (among other programs) at La MaMa Umbria, thanks to Ellen, La MaMa Artistic Director Mia Yoo and our many collaborators.
But how did Ellen Stewart, the girl from Chicago, the first African American fashion designer hired by Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, who never had much interest in theatre, gain such international renown? That’s a story!
When Ellen first started Café La MaMa in New York in 1961 in a basement on Second Avenue, international theatre was the last thing on her mind. Her impetus came from her foster brother, Fred Lights and his friend Paul Foster, playwrights who were having difficulty getting produced in New York. Always ready to help a friend, Ellen decided that she would produce the plays herself – never having done anything like that before. She created the first incarnation of La MaMa, “dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre.” She produced plays by many unknown writers, such as Tom Eyen, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Jean Claude van Italie, etc. The plays would run at Café La MaMa and she would collect dues from the patrons – pay once a week and you could see all of the plays showing that week.
But the playwrights couldn’t get their plays reviewed or published. Ellen was told that if she took the plays to Europe, they would get reviewed and then they could get published back in the States, assuring the writers greater visibility and more productions. Using mostly her own money, Ellen bought plane tickets for her troupe of actors, directors, designers and writers. They traveled across Europe, doing productions and getting reviews.
Ellen Stewart and Andre Seban
In the following years, Ellen traveled consistently to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. She discovered talent wherever she went and invited her discoveries to come to New York. She often found them housing and paid for their meals, so they could work on their productions. Using money from her design business, she “took care” of many artists (both foreign and domestic). Artists such as Andre Serban, Tadeusz Kantor, Jean-Guy Lecat, Jerzy Grotowski, Ryszard Cieslak, Peter Brook – the list goes on, developed long and ongoing collaborations with Ellen and La MaMa. She brought Kathakali dance to New York for the first time; she housed one of the first native American theatre troupes, Pan Asian Rep, HT Chen and Dancers and dozens more.
Eventually, La MaMa-style theatres spang up in a dozen countries from New Zealand to Israel. She was appointed an “Officer” in the “Odre Des Arts Et Letters” of the Republic of France and received the Les Kurbas Award for “Distinguished Services to Art and Culture” from the Ukraine. In December 1994 Ellen Stewart was awarded the “Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette” by the Emperor of Japan. She also received the Human Rights Award of the Philippines from President Corazon Aquino among many other awards.
Her influence on theatre around the world will continue as La MaMa E.T.C. in New York continues to bring artists to the U.S. and La MaMa Umbria remains a center for artists to grow, study, learn, collaborate and share ideas that challenge what it means to create theatre. Ellen’s love of artists and her unique ability to manifest her vision continues to inpire me and countless others.


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