Impresario nurtured avant-garde at La MaMa

Off Off Broadway impresario Ellen Stewart died Thursday in Manhattan after a long illness. She was 91 and said to have had a history of heart problems.

The founder of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club brought influential avant-garde and foreign legit works to New York City during her decades-long tenure at the head of her East Village-based company, paving the way for such high-profile arts orgs as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and St. Ann’s Warehouse.

At La MaMa, Stewart worked with theater artists ranging from Sam Shepard, Robert Wilson and Harvey Fierstein, who premiered his “Torch Song Trilogy” at the theater, to Amy Sedaris and the Blue Man Group.

Staples of contemporary dramatic study such as Jerzy Grotowski were among the writers Stewart brought to the U.S. for the first time.

Though she was perhaps best known for championing influential avant-garde troupes like Mabou Mines, many of her charges achieved mainstream success.

“She wanted to provide opportunities for people who were young, not for people who were rich and famous and successful,” recalled Frank Carucci, chairman of the La MaMa board. “But if she gave you a chance and you became rich and famous, that was great. She wasn’t in it for the money.”

Shepard got his start at Stewart’s little East Village venue, first serving hot chocolate at one of the theater’s productions and then writing one-acts that Stewart agreed to stage.

“The great thing about Ellen was that she’d literally do anything for you,” Shepard said. “She was one of the one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. ”

Others also noted her generosity, including Mabou Mines performer and longtime Stewart friend Ruth Maleczech.

“In the early days, when Mabou Mines was a resident company at La MaMa, Ellen was working at a design place,” recalled Maleczech. “She was designing fabric — this would have been in ’71, ’72 — but the way she worked the money was that she got paid from her job, cashed her paycheck, and then she distributed the money among the companies she was supporting.”

Besides her generosity, Stewart was also famous for her offbeat play selection process — if she was impressed with an artist’s sales pitch, he got a spot in the season (by the end of Stewart’s life, La MaMa was doing 100 productions a year in three spaces).

“She’d do anything I wrote,” Shepard recalled.

The system served her well: Stewart was a Tony winner, MacArthur Foundation Genius grant recipient and an officer of France’s Order of Arts and Letters, among many other awards.Shepard recalled a hard-to-explain moment from their years together. “Me and Johnny Dodd — he was one of the genius lighting designers before computers — and the rest of us were all in a bus. I can’t for the life of me remember where we were going to or coming back from, but it was back in the day when we had flashbulbs for cameras, and someone dropped a flashbulb. Ellen picked it up,” Shepard recalled, “and it went off.” He paused. “She had that much magic.”

Her co-artistic director of the past two years, Mia Yoo, will take over the principal spot at the company.

Survivors include an adopted son and eight grandchildren.

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