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Remembering Ellen Stewart, Giant Of N.Y. Theater
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Remembering Ellen Stewart, Giant Of N.Y. Theater

Theater

Remembering Ellen Stewart, Giant Of N.Y. Theater

Remembering Ellen Stewart, Giant Of N.Y. Theater
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As the founder and artistic director of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in 1961, Ellen Stewart launched Off Off Broadway and provided a stage for such playwrights as Harvey Fierstein — whose Torch Song Trilogy started there — and such actors as Harvey Keitel and Olympia Dukakis. Godspell also began at La MaMa. Stewart died this week at the age of 91.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The New York theater world is mourning the death of its MaMa. Ellen Stewart, the founder and artistic director of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club died yesterday at the age of 91.

For nearly half a century, Stewart nurtured playwrights and performers who would go on to change the face of theater in New York City and beyond. NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE: Ellen Stewart had a hand in everything at La MaMa.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Ms. ELLEN STEWART: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to La MaMa.

ROSE: Stewart welcomed audiences, she designed costumes, and commissioned new plays. In the early years, she even swept the steps outside the East Village basement that served at La MaMa's performance space. This was a long way from the mainstream theater scene in the early 1960s as she told NPR 20 years ago.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. ELLEN STEWART: Particularly since the dressing room was the bathroom, and we had to tell everybody, if you want to go to the bathroom, you can't. You have to go out and go down the street to the bar, because the actors are in there.

ROSE: In the succession of basements and warehouses, La MaMa helped launched the careers of playwrights Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson; directors Robert Wilson and Tom O'Horgan, and too many well-known actors to name.

(Soundbite of movie, "Torch Song Trilogy")

Mr. HARVEY FIERSTEIN (Actor and Playwright): (as Arnold Beckoff) That's right, Ma, you had it easy. You lost your husband in a nice, clean hospital. You know where I lost mine? I lost mine on the street, that's right. They killed him on the street. Twenty-seven years old laying dead on the street, killed by a bunch of kids with baseball bats. That's right, Ma, killed by children. Children taught by people like you, because everybody knows that queers don't matter.

ROSE: Before "Torch Song Trilogy" became a film or a Broadway hit, Harvey Fierstein's play had their first performances at La MaMa. Fierstein says Stewart had an unconventional way of deciding what to produce.

Mr. FIERSTEIN: She had an instinct. She didn't read scripts. She was the first to tell you, I don't read scripts. She didn't watch very many of the shows. She watched some of them, but not - she wasn't all that interested. What interested her was being MaMa and inspiring people to do work.

ROSE: Stewart was an inspiring presence: an African-American woman with a flamboyant wardrobe and accent to match. She grew up in Louisiana. She moved to New York in 1950 and found work as a fashion designer. Stewart started La MaMa as a place where aspiring playwrights could see their work produced.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. ELLEN STEWART: My only notion was that they were supposed to write some plays. I was going to make the costumes. I would support this little basement that I had rented by doing freelance work.

ROSE: Stewart transformed an abandoned frankfurter factory on east Fourth Street into the center of off off-Broadway. La MaMa archivist Ozzie Rodriguez remembers the first time he saw the company's current home in the late 1960s.

Mr. OZZIE RODRIGUEZ (La MaMa Archivist): When I first saw this building it had been abandoned for 17 years. She showed me the building, I thought this is a disaster. She said, oh no, you're not looking at it the right way. Look at the possibilities, not the faults, the possibilities.

ROSE: That was Ellen Stewart's approach to everything. She presented hundreds of shows at La MaMa taking many of them abroad and inviting dozens of foreign performers to New York.

Most of those shows never made it to Broadway, but actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein says that wasn't the point.

Mr. FIERSTEIN: Though each one of these plays may not be so famous our known by a wide audience, somebody saw that play and that encouraged them to go on and do something else if you know what I mean. It's the art that comes out of a community.

ROSE: That community honored Stewart two years ago at a ceremony renaming one of La MaMa's theaters in her honor.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROSE: In spite of her age and declining health, Stewart kept working to produce more than 50 shows a year at La MaMa.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. ELLEN STEWART: I just hope to God we can survive, that's all. There are other places that are much younger than we who do get funds as an institution, so all we can do is just hope to survive.

ROSE: To do that, the institution had to be in her words, better than everyone else. Thanks to Ellen Stewart's maternal care, that's exactly what La MaMa has been.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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