Celebrating Ellen Stewart, 1919 – 2011  

Doug Strassler 

Ellen Stewart accepts the inaugural Stewardship Award at the 2005 IT Awards ceremony

The Off-Off-Broadway world said goodbye to a major pioneer today as Ellen Stewart passed away. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, Stewart came to New York as a fashion designer, but she made her biggest impact in the 1960s as the founder of La MaMa, E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club). In its earliest days, La MaMa was a theater dedicated to the playwright, encouraging young playwrights and primarily producing new plays, including works by Paul Foster, Jean Claude Van Itallie, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy and Rochelle Owens, though it came to favor the total integration of drama, music, dance and movement (Bette Midler is another notable alum).

In its fiftieth year, La MaMa is the only theatre of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movement’s four core theatres that continues to thrive today. Its mission is now dedicated to the artist as opposed to the playwright. According to La Mama's website:

La MaMa is dedicated to the artist. Ever since Ellen Stewart founded La MaMa in 1961, our interest has been in the people who make art, and it is to them that we give our support with free theater and rehearsal space, lights, sound, props, platforms, and whatever else we have that they can use to create their work. We want them to feel free to explore their ideas, and translate them into a theatrical language that can communicate to any person in any part of the world.

In 2005 Tom O'Horgan presented Stewart with the Stewardship Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. "in recognition of her significant contributions to the Off-Off-Broadway community through service, support and leadership."

A funeral Mass for Ellen Stewart will be celebrated on Monday at St. Patrick's Cathedral at 10am. In lieu of flowers, donations to La MaMa ETC can be sent to 74A E. 4 St. NY NY 10003 or can be made online at www.lamama.org.

Photos by Sans Peur Photography and Laurie Meisel.  © New York Innovative Theatre Awards.


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