by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
December 14, 2005This is the time of year for awards, for remembrance of things past, for honoring those who have accomplished important things, for acknowledging hard work and for giving those who contributed to our understanding of theater and all its creative attributes, a nod of recognition and, more than that, by throwing a party, with ample food and drink and celebrating the good things in life. And so it was that on December 5, 2005 the The League of Professional Theater Women, of which I have been long time member, had their annual Christmas party where they gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Ellen Stewart, La MaMa herself.
The ceremony took place at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park and I had the honor of introducing Ellen, whom I have known for thirty years. Here is my introduction:
To speak of my dear friend Ellen Stewart the famous La MaMa is difficult because her accomplishments are enormous. It is so fitting that our League of Professional Theater Women should give Ellen the Lifetime Achievement Award. More than any other woman in the theater, Ellen has had an astonishing and remarkable fifty-year career. Every theatrical company in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East central Europe knows La MaMa. Her name, her reputation, her image is almost mythic. Here is this woman of color operating virtually by herself who founded a theater in a cellar on third street, almost went to jail to keep it going, was ostracized in the neighborhood at the beginning because she was black and through the years, has produced, directed and sponsored endless productions and various artists from all over the world. And despite age, sickness and the vicissitudes of life she has kept to her vision of a theater. Only yesterday, she told me she would expand her repertory of Greek myths that she has been directing all over the world and she would keep it going no matter what.
I met Ellen in the 1960's when she was instrumental in bringing over from communist Poland that remarkable theater genius Jerzy Grotowski. It was a amazing time, the sixties were in full swing and the counter culture was on the rise. Ellen was part of that. So was I incidentally. My own journalistic career began, when Grotowski arrived in New York and I wrote the lead piece about him for the "New York Times." From that time on, I was, in fact, a carrier of the avant-garde. But Ellen was the leader. Through the years when I was in Europe traveling with Ellen, Martha Coigney and the ITI I learned why she was revered. Ellen is a woman of enormous inner strength, unparalleled energy and determination. Nothing has ever stopped her from bringing her troupes to Africa, Asia, India, --you name the country, she was there not only with her own work but setting up La MaMa companies.
And in the past years she has directed almost the entire cannon of the Greek myths herself. Let us remember that Stewart established La MaMa in a tiny basement on East Fourth st (which is still there) and later turned into three theater spaces and an art gallery. La MaMa practiced multiculturalism before it became fashionable establishing workshops in Africa Asia and the Middle East and Central Europe. She discovered the talents of young artists like Sam Sheppard, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Joe Chaikin, Harvey Feirstein, Tom O'Horgan Andrei Serban and Liz Swados. She helped Philip Glass, the Mabou Mines, Joanne Akalitis, not to speak of her season with Peter Brook's African work and Tadeusz Kantor's stunning pieces from Poland.
Ellen was the first to back gay plays, put nudity on stage, sponsor cross dressing, break down the third wall by arranging a different kind of space; her mixture of sound, lights, movement was her signature as she favored a non-verbal approach to theater. In a word, she was one of the first experimental producers on or off-Broadway. In 1985 when she received the MacArthur genius award, she promptly used it to set up La MaMa Umbria International in Italy . She purchased an old monastery outside of Spoleto, redesigned, reconstructed and modernized it into a center for international artists and students, where thy could live and work. The center includes bedrooms, a communal kitchen, rehearsal rooms and a spectacular view of the Umbian hills. All of which she designed and supervised. Every year international artists do workshops with students and there is a mini festival at the end. She has spent decades supporting people in the arts and never limited herself either creatively or geographically. She told me once that "without people, without all these people who think I made a contribution, I would be a zero. I see myself as fortunate. I have a very rich life. I have no money. I have had hardships. But I have so many people in the world, literally, who are thinking about La MaMa. And when you have that kind of energy coming out from every corner of the earth, how, much more blessed could you be?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you La MaMa--The Mother of Us All.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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