Ellen Stewart's Genius

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced the annual recipients of its so-called genius awards. Twenty-three people received grants of half a million dollars each, to use in any way they wished. One early winner whom I personally know was Ellen Stewart, founder and director of La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club), an off-off Broadway theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She received her genius award in 1985. Living nearby at Nativity parish, which she attended on Sundays, I became an admirer, and often attended some of her productions, which were well reviewed by the New York City critics. I especially remember seeing her adaptation of Euripedes’ “The Trojan Women,” with the actors circulating among the audience and speaking in a mixture of Greek and Latin and Hebrew-sounding words that were quite understandable in the context of the action. Such mixtures were “our way of doing language, all combined with music” she said in an interview in America February 8, 1997.

Ellen encouraged young directors, like Tom O’Horgan who became famous later as the director of “Hair” on Broadway. The three plays that became “Torch Song Trilogy” were written for LaMama. It was there, too, that Harold Pinter’s first play in the United States was produced, “The Room,” in 1962. And it was there that Billy Crystal got his start in the Elizabethan play, “Arden of Faversham.” Later, she took her young actors abroad for performances in foreign cities. She used her own genius award to buy a 14th century building near Spoleto as an artists’ residence in Italy. While her strength permitted, she traveled there every summer.

Now, just a few weeks ago after a two-year absence from Manhattan during which we had fallen out of touch, I visited her again. We quickly reconnected at the local hospital where she was having check-ups. Though no longer physically strong, she was as mentally sharp as ever. Her humble start in Manhattan had been anything but easy. She came to New York from Chicago in the 1950s, and first worked as a porter at Saks 5th Avenue, where, as an African American, she met considerable discrimination. She persevered, though, and after beginning her theatre work in a basement on East 9th Street, moved finally to the present address on East 4th Street, where LaMama continues to flourish today. Ellen, as her friends call her–or else, simply Mama--is, as, one of her actors has said, indeed a living legend.

George Anderson, S.J.

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