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La MaMa Theater Founder Ellen Stewart Dead at 91

By Patrick Hedlund | January 13, 2011 5:44pm | Updated on January 14, 2011 5:57am
Ellen Stewart passed away Thursday at the age of 91.
Ellen Stewart passed away Thursday at the age of 91.
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La MaMa

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo NEws Editor

EAST VILLAGE — The mother of what is considered one of the most influential experimental theaters in New York City history died Thursday after devoting herself to a life of championing performance art that transcended the conventional.

Ellen Stewart, who in 1961 founded the Off-Off-Broadway La MaMa Theater on a then-gritty stretch of East Fourth Street, passed away at 91 years of age in her East Village home, a friend said.

Stewart, who was originally from Louisiana, became a pioneer in the theater world for taking chances on performance pieces that refused to adhere to the norm, said Wickham Boyle, former executive director of La MaMa.

"She approached it as if there were no boundaries — no boundaries between races, cultures and disciplines," said Boyle, a longtime friend of Stewart's and also her partner at La MaMa from 1983 to 1992. "She saw that before anyone else could even dream it."

Spoken-word performances incorporating dance, the juxtaposition of disparate cultural traditions, and mixed media (well before it was a trend), helped Stewart and La MaMa earn a reputation for innovation, Boyle explained.

"She'll be best remembered for the fact that all the theater and television and music that we look at and think of as normal is what she birthed as experimental," she said.

Stewart began her career as a fashion designer for Saks Fifth Avenue before buying the rundown East Village building that eventually helped transform the area into a thriving arts community.

"When you look at the block on Fourth Street, you can see perfectly what the arts can do to transform and create an arts district," Boyle said. "And it was all anchored to La MaMa."

The theater featured nearly 2,000 productions under Stewart and helped sprout La MaMa satellites from Tehran to Bogota.

In 1985, she was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and used the grant money to establish more theaters, a gallery, maintain her archives, and buy an old monastery in Italy that she converted into an international theater center.

Even during her final days, Stewart remained actively involved in La MaMa from her home on the same stretch of East Fourth Street she blazed a trail along five decades prior.

"That's what mavericks do," Boyle added, "they take something to the next level seamlessly, making it seem as if it had always been there."