- Ringing the Bell for Ellen Stewart:1919-2011
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. [...] Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.—John Donne (from Meditation 17, 1624)
Ellen Stewart had more children than anyone I ever heard of. From Al Pacino to Joe Chaikin, Jerzy Grotowski to Tom O'Horgan, Ping Chong to Meredith Monk, Theodora Skipitares to Tadeusz Kantor, Andre Serban to Sam Shepard... and hundreds more, myself included. She was mama, and no father for any of us. No choice of whether or not we are one of Ellen's kids. If your work was at La Mama, that settled the matter. In one of our meetings, Ellen recalled that in the early '60s she advised me to move to New York from New Orleans. I don't remember, but Ellen's history of theatre is—I dare not yet say "was"—her domain, just as the glorious venues in/near 74A East 4th Street, Manhattan, are, and always will be, her world. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, raised in Chicago and Detroit, Ellen came to New York in 1960 and opened her first theatre in 1961. In 1967, with help from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, she bought La Mama's present main building and, after extensive renovations, began showing works there in 1969. The Annex—now the Ellen Stewart Theatre—the Galleria, the rehearsal space on Great Jones, La Mama Umbria, Italy...all came later, evidence of Ellen's enormous energy and creativity. Because Cindy Rosenthal's richly detailed article about Stewart appeared in TDR in 2006, I won't rehearse the details of La Mama's history and works.
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I do want to locate the unique quality of Ellen Stewart's enormous contribution to American and world theatre. She was a great woman whose likes we will not see again. She combined strong opinions with incredible breadth of vision. She had no ideological or aesthetic axes to grind. She liked what she liked, and that was that—except to note that, sooner or later, what she liked turned out to be the best of world theatre. Her tastes were broad, personal, and exceptionally prescient. She wasn't American in the jingoist sense, but as welcoming as the Statue of [End Page 9] Liberty used to be. La Mama lifted its own golden lamp to works and artists from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Oceania—literally everywhere. Ellen, certain in her judgments, didn't need or wait for critical or festival confirmation—as BAM, Lincoln Center, and even Under the Radar often do.
Ellen Stewart came, saw, and invited (or not). She didn't theorize about being intercultural, international, global, avantgarde, experimental, alternative, postcolonial, post-anything. Her theory was 100 percent embodied in her selection of artists and works. She enacted her embrace of the world. At La Mama, Ellen was imperious and generous, irritable and loving, definite and expansive. She gave to both beginning and world-class artists the most important kind of support—rehearsal and performance spaces, advice but not interference, administrative and box office staff, and unlimited enthusiasm. If she designated you as one of her kids, she didn't put you through hoops—no applications to fill out, no committees to please. Ellen made her own decisions. She lived in an apartment over her theatres, she presided over her theatres, she was her theatres.
In the evening of Thursday 13 January 2011, the day Ellen died, I arrived at La Mama and saw a throng on the sidewalk and packed into the lobby. For a moment I thought it was a vigil for Ellen. I should have known better. As she would have wanted it, the crowd was there for theatre. As long as she was able, before every performance Ellen would step in front of the audience and ring a cowbell to...