Ellen Stewart, the founder and director of the Off-Off-Broadway pioneering group La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, died Thursday at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital after an extended illness, said Mia Yoo, the theater’s co-artistic director. Stewart was 91.
During Stewart’s 49-year tenure, La MaMa presented some 3,000 productions, hosted artists from more than 70 countries and earned countless cultural awards. She was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1985 and a 2006 Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater.
“She was extremely nurturing to young theatrical talent and also very open to new ideas and inventive theater,” said Brenda Smiley, an actress, writer and journalist who worked with Stewart and remained close. “She allowed people to go beyond and to break barriers in a lot of ways.”
Stewart, who was born in Chicago, began her career in New York as a fashion designer and started La MaMa in 1961 when she rented a tiny basement in lower Manhattan for $55 a month to provide her brother and his playwright friends with a space to showcase their plays. Already nicknamed “Mama,” one of her actors suggested La MaMa as the name for her theater.
La MaMa moved several more times and took up residence in its original and current space on East 4th Street in 1969. In 1974, the company acquired a second space, The Annex, down the street. In November 2009, on the occasion of Stewart’s 90th birthday, The Annex was officially renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre.
Theater spokesman Sam Rudy said Stewart was instrumental in introducing to American audiences some of the world’s most influential artists, including Andrei Serban, Tom O’Horgan, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Maria Irene Fornes, Tom Eyen, Jean Claude van Itallie and countless others.
“She had a profound impact on the lives of countless artists, and she left a mark on the city of New York that will never be erased,” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, said in a statement.
The company’s resident theater troupes have performed throughout the world including Columbia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Iran, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Scotland, England, Sweden, France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Croatia, Korea, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Australia, Greece, Ukraine, Siberia, The Netherlands and Macedonia.
Stewart received the Human Rights Award of the Philippines from President Corazon Aquino and awards from the Emperor of Japan and from France. In the late 1980’s, Stewart established La MaMa Umbria International, an artist residence in Spoleto, Italy.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated on Monday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Source: The Associated Press.