Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ellen Stewart: 1919 - 2011

It must have been through a subscription I had to Playbill magazine that I wound up receiving Vanity Fair for a brief time in 1983; I certainly didn't order it. It was, however, a fortuitous mistake because one of the first issues I received (and the only one I remember) had an article about this woman who'd been running a theater in New York for over 20 years. I'd never heard of her or her theater but the article talked about all these plays she'd produced by famous playwrights like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Robert Patrick... and one by some guy named Tom Eyen called The White Whore and the Bit Player (and I wish I could find the production photo that was in the article—it was just as provocative as its title!). Anyway, the more I read, the more I came to believe that La MaMa ETC sounded like an absolutely wonderful place and Ellen Stewart, the artistic director, must be an amazing and incredible person.

I did not look up La MaMa as soon as I moved to New York. I wish I had. I saw a lot of shows there over the years—some of which were truly great—and got to know many of the people who work at La MaMa. But I'd actually been in the downtown theater community for over 15 years before I finally met Ellen Stewart. When Peculiar Works was developing the East Village half of our OFF Stage extravaganza, we knew that the focus of the event was going to be Ellen—because, really: when you're talking about the birth of Off Off Broadway in the East Village, you're talking about La MaMa. Part of our development process for the event was interviewing people who had worked in downtown theater in the '60s to get their help with ideas and material we could use for content in our tour. We'd heard over the years that Ellen could be... prickly... and we'd seen firsthand that she could be downright mean: we'd been at a panel discussion where she mercilessly berated someone for presuming to speak for La MaMa (the moderator insisted that she'd been invited to be on the panel but hadn't responded so they'd asked the other person). To say that we were intimidated by the idea of talking to her about our plan to celebrate her and the legacy of Off Off Broadway—who were we to presume?—was an understatement: we were all petrified.

In the winter of 2006, we finally asked Chris Kapp to help us set up a meeting with Ellen (and Chris told us that Ellen had heard about our project and had wondered what was taking us so long to come see her). It will come as no surprise to any artist who has ever worked with Ellen that she was beyond generous and helpful to us. She spent about an hour with us in her apartment above the theater and told us all about how she came to start the theater and all of the trials and tribulations she faced over the years. I remember being amazed at how well she remembered the tiniest details: shows that were in each space (there were three Cafe La MaMa's before the present spaces on East 4th Street), dates of particular productions and who was involved. At the end of our interview, Ellen emphasized that she wanted to help us however she could and that we should be sure to ask her when we needed something.

During the production in June of 2007, La MaMa provided us with a floor of the Great Jones rehearsal studios to use for dressing rooms and storage—an amazing and unexpected gift. They also allowed us to perform the finale—a short excerpt from Megan Terry and Maryann de Pury's Viet Rock—in the lobby of the Annex (now the Ellen Stewart Theater) on East 4th, while Ellen's own production of Romeo and Juliet was performing in the theater upstairs.

One thing we didn't share with Ellen was our decision to make her a character in our event; frankly, we were afraid she might not let us do it and we all knew it gave the East Village tour a perfect context. The text, which we adapted into a prologue and epilogue, was taken from Ellen's reminiscences about the early days of La MaMa; it was beautifully performed by Jacq Gregg, who heroically agreed to be at the event for four hours every night in order to begin and end all four tours. One night, early in the run, I happened to be in the Annex lobby just before Viet Rock began when the elevator doors opened and Ellen was wheeled out. The audience was already filing in and she told everyone that she wanted to stay and watch—we were busted. The Viet Rock scene went exceptionally well, and then Jacq entered, ringing a handbell (Ellen had opened every show in the early days of La MaMa by ringing a cowbell) as she spoke:
Art is a God-given resource for all humankind to draw upon—many times there is little else. A world without poverty or illiteracy would be wonderful, but without artistic expression it would be barren.

My coffeehouse struggled to survive against a background of Kafkaesque harassment which resulted in two evictions, a union imbroglio and innumerable trips to the pawnshop. The people in the building didn’t want me there because I’m a negress. They kept lodging complaints, and then a man comes to me with a warrant for my arrest for prostitution! I'm not a prostitute, I'm running a theater! I want to do plays that a black person can play in where they don’t have a needle in their arm, or their mother was washing clothes, or their father was in jail, or their mother was a prostitute.

I never had self-doubt. I was always taught by my mama that I'm on an island and there's not a soul on the island but me. And so whatever gets done, I have to do it. That's the way I was brought up. So I never thought about self-doubt. But anything that I've wanted to do, I always believed that somehow—I believe in the somehow —that I could find a way to do it.

Good night.
As the audience applause was dying down, we all heard Ellen's mellifluous voice call out, "That was me!" Far from being angry, it was clear that she'd enjoyed our homage. She spent another dozen or so minutes chatting with Jacq, me and the audience and gave us all a few more stories about those early days. We were also fortunate that our most excellent press representative, Jim Baldassare, was there and captured the moment in photos (below). As she was leaving, Ellen said again to let her know if we needed anything.

The last time I saw Ellen was during one of Chris Kapp's Coffeehouse Chronicles in 2007 or 2008; I think it was Robert Heide, Robert Dahdah and John Gilman talking about their work at La MaMa. At one point, they couldn't remember the name of someone who'd worked on a project; the person had had a small role in the piece and it was over 40 years before, after all. We were all surprised when that familiar voice rang out to fill in the blank for them: Ellen had quietly entered and was listening in the back. For a half hour or so, she stayed there and listened to their discussion (and corrected their mistakes) until someone with her insisted that she needed to leave. It was a remarkable display of her mental acuity; I only hope I have half that capacity in my late 80s!

I know that it's going to be tough in the new few weeks and months at La MaMa; even though her abilities had been significantly diminished over the past year or so, I heard that she was still being kept updated on what was happening and participated as best she could in the operations. They are fortunate to have had so much time with their MaMa, and for those years to have been so fruitful. We all feel their loss and lament with them but I'm certain that there are only many more great things to come from La MaMa. Ellen did her best to prepare everyone for this transition and, while it may not all go smoothly, I believe that the institution she built is much bigger than the individual. But for her family, the staff and for all her many friends and the artists that she nurtured for 50 years, it will never be the same again.

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