The founder of the La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theater Club) has died. Ellen Stewart passed away early this morning, according to the theater company that she founded in 1961.
La MaMa has historically been an important center for experimental downtown theater in New York, and has supported the work of actors and playwrights from Robert de Niro to Sam Shepard to Andy Warhol. Theater Critic and Columbia Journalism School Professor Alisa Solomon says Stewart always had a special welcome for people who came to La MaMa: "She'd ring the bell and she'd look at everyone, and, you know, she was always dressed with lots of layers and bracelets and with her frizzy long hair, which was increasingly grey over the years, and she'd ring the bell and she'd say 'Good evening! And welcome to La MaMa!'"
Solomon adds that there's no way to measure the impact La MaMa had on New York or even on worldwide theater. "La MaMa was...just an incredible explosion of the rethinking of how theater could speak to audiences and how actors, directors, writers, designers could conceive of the stage and its relationship to the world," Solomon said.
As an African American woman, Stewart also broke through race and gender barriers in the '50s and '60s, directing and composing librettos for stages around the world. She was the first Off-Off Broadway producer to be inducted into the Broadway Theater Hall of Fame in 1993, and got a prestigious MacArthur "Genius" Award in 1985.
In a story about Manhattan's East 4th Street Cultural District where La MaMa theater lies, Stewart told WNYC's Bob Hennelly in 2006: "There is where Broadway started in 1881 from a group of Jews from Romania who did theater in Yiddish. And this was your first Broadway. This was your first Broadway."
Stewart was 91 years old of. According to The New York Times, Stewart had a history of heart trouble and died after a long illness. Funeral services for Stewart will be held at the Church of the Nativity on 2nd Avenue on Saturday and at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home on Bleecker Street on Sunday.