A Standing Ovation for Ellen Stewart 

Shay Gines 

     "We can all start loving each other any time we want."

                                                                   - Ellen Stewart

Ellen Stewart passed away on January 13, 2011. Her memorial service was held at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Monday, January 17. It is a wondrous location that inspires reverence, and much like the lady herself, is theatrical, grand, and demands respect. The opulent hall was filled with friends, family and many of the artists whose lives Ellen had touched. “there is a full house here today," said La MaMa Board President, Frank Carucci, "which would have made Ellen very happy.”

Director Reverend George Drance served as the Principal Celebrant of the services and began by assuring us that “everyone has a story about Ellen. She was a story teller and a story maker.” Those stories have been in turn inspiring, jaw dropping, shocking, unbelievable, astonishing, motivating, infuriating and moving.

She was infamously outspoken and opinionated. She was fearless and passionate. Through her tenacious determination, she built one of the most revered and enduring independent theatres in the world.

Ellen moved from Louisiana to New York in 1950 and worked as a dressmaker and designer. In 1961 she founded the Café La MaMa in a basement on East 9th Street as a place where her brother and his friends could present theatre. From the beginning, La MaMa was committed to the artist, and for over 40 years Ellen greeted audiences with her now famous words, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and to all aspects of the theater."

While artists were delighted to have a space in which to create and a stage on which to present their work, neighbors were less than happy about the number of men coming and going at all hours of the day and night. Accusing Ellen of being a lady of the evening, police were called numerous times to investigate. These troubles eventually lead to eviction. At one performance Ellen asked all of the audience members to please stand up, pick up their chair and follow her down the street. She then led the parade of slightly confused but game audience members as they marched a couple of blocks to the new La MaMa location.

Despite her protestations she was an artist herself. She was an accomplished director, playwright and composer. In 2007 she was nominated for Outstanding Original Music for Herakles Via Phaedra from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. In 2009, even though she was in failing health, she conceived, wrote and directed her final production, Asclepius from a hospital bed that was placed in La MaMa’s Annex Theatre. On November 1, 2009 the La MaMa Board of Directors dedicated the space to Ellen and renamed it in her honor.

Ellen was a visionary who not only helped to develop American theatre artists, but who toured the globe bringing Off-Off-Broadway to the world and the world to Off-Off-Broadway. La MaMa became a destination not only for local NYC companies, but for international artists as well.

During her 49 years as Artistic Director, La MaMa grew from the tiny basement cabaret to a two-building arts complex on East 4th Street; from a modest company presenting the work of friends and relatives to an iconic, groundbreaking theatre that is known around the world.

A generation of artists, emerging and established alike, have called La MaMa home. Artists such as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Tom O’Horgan, Philip Glass, Elizabeth Swados, Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Tan Dun, Joel Zwick, Mike Figgis, Jackie Curtis, Blue Man Group, John Kelly, David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris, Ping Chong, Bette Midler, Peter Brook, and Charles Ludlam to name a very few of the thousands of artists who have tread the boards of this iconic institution.

La MaMa is currently home to more than 30 resident theatre companies and continues to nurture artists of all races, cultures, languages and backgrounds. Each of these artists have become a part of Ellen’s extended family and she became their MaMa.

As the recessional moved slowly down the aisle of the cathedral, members of the Great Jones Repertory Company sang a song from Trojan Women written by Ellen Stewart and Michael Sirotta. As her casket passed, the congregation honored Ellen in a fashion befitting a theatrical legend. St. Patricks was filled with applause and cheers as she was sent off with a standing ovation.

Broadway will dim its lights on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 8pm in honor of Ellen Stewart.


Clip of Tom O'Horgan presenting 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."

Robert Patrick's thoughts on Ellen Stewart and her legacy

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


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