*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, according to a theater spokesman. She was 91.
A fashion diva turned creature of the theater, Ellen Stewart founded the award-winning avant garde theater landmark in downtown Manhattan in 1961. During Stewart’s 49-year tenure, La MaMa presented 3,000 productions and earned countless cultural awards.
She started La MaMa for $55 a month to provide her brother and his playwright friends a space to showcase their plays. Already nicknamed Mama, an actor suggested La MaMa as the name for her theater.
Harvey Fierstein’s Tony Award-winning “Torch Song Trilogy” was first presented at La MaMa, as was the internationally famous performance art piece known as Blue Man Group.
La MaMa historian and archives director Ozzie Rodriguez says that the work Stewart chose to present at La MaMa was often an international product of its time.
“You had the civil rights movements, you had feminism rearing its head, you had the gay movement, you also had the Vietnam war. There were no real commercial places where you could voice the concerns of the artists and playwrights who were involved with these causes,” Rodriguez told NY 1. “And so suddenly La MaMa became a haven for all these unpublished and unrecognized, very talented, unsupported artists.”
Stewart was the first off-off-Broadway producer to be inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame in 1993. She was also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1985 and nurtured works in dozens of countries.