Ellen Stewart, who nurtured several generations of writers, and directors from around the world at the off-off-Broadway theater La MaMa E.T.C., died on January 13 at Beth Israel Hospital after an extended heart-related illness. She was 91.
Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on November 7, 1919, Stewart began her career as a fashion designer before opening a basement coffeehouse in the East Village in 1961. Dubbed Café La MaMa, the space quickly became an artistic home to experimental artists including playwrights Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and, in later years, Harvey Fierstein, as well as directors such as Tom O’Horgan and Andrei Serban.
According to an American Theatre Wing biographical sketch, Stewart staged, composed, directed and wrote librettos for original folk-opera/spectacles presented in Uruguay, Argentina, Austria, Italy, Turkey, the Philippines, the Cameroon, Zaire, Central African Republic, Senegal, Nigeria, Brazil, Haiti, Morocco, Israel, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. In return, La MaMa having hosted artists from more than 70 countries at the company’s home on East Fourth Street, which includes a theater named for Stewart in 2009.
Stewart was the recipient of many honorary doctorates and awards, including the prestigious MacArthur «genius» grant. She was the first off-off-Broadway producer inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.