Theatre: La Mama ETC

La MaMa ETC, an experimental theatre club was founded by Ellen Stewart and Paul Foster in 1961 as Cafe LaMaMa and became one of the most successful off-off broadway theatre companies in New York. Born in Chicago on November 7, 1919 she moved to New York 1950 and worked as a trimmer and dress designer at Saks Fifth Avenue and later Bergdorf Goodman, Lord &Taylor and Henri Bendel.

Stewart continued to work as a fashion designer throughout the 1960s and 1970s, notably for a manufacturer called Victor Bijou, where she designed "sport dresses and beach wraps.”  Her foster brother, Frederick Lights wanted to be a playwright and because he was having great difficulty getting his work staged, although she was entirely without theatrical experience, she began the theatre and ended up becoming a leading “theatre pioneer”.  Because she had an incredible work ethic in the early days of the theatre, she continued designing clothing so she could support the theatre.

Stewart was often referred to as "Mama" so the theatre was named La MaMa after her.  Stewart was known to come out before a performance, ring a cowbell and announce La MaMa’s dedication to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre. It  was a place for playwrights to work and experiment with their new work without any external interference.

In 1969 La MaMa moved to 74A East Fourth Street, which was transformed into a 99-seat theatre with the help of the W. MacNeil Lowry and the Ford Foundation. In 1974, Stewart converted a television studio into a 295 seat theatre called the Annex. It was renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre in 2009. La MaMa also has an art gallery and a six-story rehearsal space. La MaMa puts up about 70 productions a year.

Stewart started directing much later in her life. In the next decades she became famous around the world, writing and directing an enormous body of pieces, exclusively based on music and dance, with international artists.

In 1992, Stewart was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and she was the first Off-Off- Broadway Producer to receive this honor.  In 2007 Stewart was awarded the Praemium Imperiale in the field of Film and Theater and the Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz Award granted annually by the Polish Centre of the International Theatre Institute for "outstanding achievements in the promotion of Polish theatre throughout the world".

In 2005 Tom O'Horgan presented Stewart with the Stewardship Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. This honor was bestowed to Stewart on behalf of her peers and fellow artists of the Off-Off-Broadway community "in recognition of her significant contributions to the Off-Off-Broadway community through service, support and leadership.”

Ellen Stewart died on January 13, 2011, aged 91 at Beth Israel Hospital, New York City, after a long illness.Her memorial service was held at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.