Ellen Stewart gave me a life in the theater.
It all began in the early 1980s when I walked into her home (on the 5th Floor of the main theater) and she told me a bunch of incredible things about myself. The rest is History.
You can watch one of our many conversations on
She was adorable, harsh, crazy (in the craziest sense), beautiful, adorable and very critical. AND she gave me a life in the theater. Without her I would never have been what I am (if anything).
A few notes:
In 1950 Stewart moved to New York City, where she worked as a trimmer in the brassiere-and-corset department at Saks Fifth Avenue and, later as a dress designer, under the direction of Edith Lances, head of the department store’s custom-corset department. Stewart continued to work as a fashion designer throughout the 1960s and 1970s, notably for a manufacturer called Victor Bijou, where she designed “sport dresses and beach wraps”.
In 1961 Stewart founded Café La MaMa, which became one of the most successful Off Off Brodway theatrical companies –In the next decades she became famous around the world, writing and directing an enormous body of pieces, exclusively based on music and dance, with international artists.
Ellen Stewart died on January 13, 2011, aged 91. Stewart had a history of heart trouble and died at Beth Israel Hospital, New York City, after a long illness. Her memorial service was held at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on Monday, January 17, 2011
Ellen my adorable mother: I love you and I’m writing this with a broken heart ( a tenth of the size of yours), in tears, longing for the phone to ring and hear your voice. But you’re up there with another Ellen (my biological mother). You two angels must be having a ball.
(a knot stuck in my throat) (cannot say HOW MUCH I MISS YOU)
WHAT I WROTE A YEAR AGO
London – January 20, 2011
It would have been our 30th anniversary next year, of pure love, of holding hands, and an enormous admiration and, well, some domestic scuffles. In my relationship with Ellen Stewart, my mama, La MaMa, there was a mash puree of just about everything. It was back in 1982 when she told me to go over to the Great Jones Street rehearsal building (one block south of where her actual theaters were) and do a series of workshops for actors in order to improve the quality of their acting. I wondered why, but went. I completed two years of crowded, excited and dynamic workshops.
“Too much text”, she’d scream off the top of her lungs. “But it’s Beckett, Ellen. This is a text by Beckett”, I’d reply. “I don’t care: too much text, too many words”. I’d insist: “do you want me to cut Beckett?” Without an answer, she would disappear from the last row of the 1st floor theater (where my career began) or even from the Annex (the biggest of them all). She’d disappear without a single word.
She really hated verbal theater, no matter who the author was. And, precisely at my world premiere opening of Beckett’s “All Strange Away” in 1984, she took advantage of the fact that we had (almost), seventy critics in the audience (from S Korea to Greece: they had all come!) in order to announce and advertize the show that was on right above ours, in the 2nd Floor theater: a wordless play by John Jessurun.
Yes , I was furious. But between fights, caresses, words of praise and harsh criticism, these last 30 years were punctuated by some funny routines. “Welcome home baby and sit your ass right here”, she’d say whenever I’d return from some foreign theatrical adventure at some major venue in Europe.
Sitting on a bunk bed (I never understood why) in an overcrowded room, television always at its loudest and a tray of pills, dozens of them, she’d always say to me: “Honey, please go to the fridge and get me the coldest 7UP there is.” Getting out of her room and into the kitchen wasn’t easy. It meant maneuvering past tens of Asian and African drums and sculptures, a harp, a harpsichord, instruments one has never seen and puppets. Hundreds of puppets from Bali and other countries. Enough to scare any child. Her apartment on the 5th floor of the main theater was a museum and its collection included a straw duck that I said I’d brought her from China but in fact I’d gotten it on Canal Street, 1 mile south of there.
“Beautiful duck”, she’d say, holding the little monster on her lap and looking right through me knowing full well that it had not come from China but from Chinatown.
What exactly was wrong with Ellen? What was the diagnosis? Her heart was too big. Yes, her heart was far too big and ever growing. No, what I’m describing isn’t a metaphor. It was real. Ellen Stewart, the mama with a huge heart ended up dead from the disease of the growing heart. I’d come running home to New York, from some opera or play I had staged in some major venue somewhere in Europe, but all she wanted to know was if her name and La MaMa’s logo were on the programe and on the poster.
Soon, she’d always find comfort in seeing it there, right in the very opening sentence or paragraph. In fact, it was me who always wanted to make sure to let people know that I was an offspring of hers and that she had invented me. And taking the high self esteem that she had imprinted on me I went out and sailed the high seas of the world theater.
Yet, the odd side of life was always there: never a day without a break. Ellen faked a French accent. Whenever she’d come down from her apartment to ring the bell and announce a show, it would always sound French: “Velcume to La MaMá. Zis play…” “Ellen, why do you put on a fake French accent?” I asked one day. “Well, they call me crazy, so I might as well be the crazy woman who speaks French. See…I don’t really like the USA. I feel closer to Korea than to Wisconsin, but if you spread this around with your big mouth, I’ll get you. I’ll kill you.”
Yes, five flights of stairs. No elevator, no nothing, just a harsh mountain climbing saga. It was inhumane, yet, self imposed. In the last few years, we insisted on installing one of those single chair lifts, but only for the last flight. There were still 4 other floors and she seemed all over them at all times. That is, when she wasn’t on the sidewalk broom in hand, moaning something in “LaMaMayddish”.
The first play of mine that traveled overseas was The “Beckett Trilogy”, featuring Julian Beck). We left an extended run, successful like none other (at the Annex), and took us straight onto a very sophisticated European experimental stage: The Theater am Turm in Frankfurt. It was Peter Iden, the theater critic for the Frankfurter Rundschau who invited us, giving us a huge and intriguing spread: “Wie Wirklich ist die Wirklichkeit?” Meaning, “how truthful is the truth”, making reference to my having cast a dying actor, Julian, playing the role of a dying character. I guess I owe Peter what I now call “my metalinguistic theater”.
Ellen, sitting in the first rows in the audience during preparation for dress rehearsal, started counting and paying us in Deutsch Mark. She could not understand one single word of German and wouldn’t get along with the theater’s accountant. Yet, I was fluent in German and so was Julian. Judith Malina and George Bartenieff had actually been born in Germany. No matter.
“Shut up everyone. I know what I’m doing”. Nobody said a word, though the accounting was all wrong. But our silence had a meaning: we just loved looking at her dominating the scene and had that proud sense of admiration and gratitude for the fact that she was our captain.
The standing ovation Julian received on this occasion would have been his last. He died a month later.
Some of my plays (originating elsewhere rather than NY) ended up in other venues. Of course, that made Ellen mad. Mad would actually be a tame word to be used here. This would be reason enough for me to be considered a traitor. And a Wotan like fight between mother and son would ensue. It seemed like hell and beneath.
“Flash and Crash Days”, with Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres ended up at Lincoln Center. “so, I’m not going: don’t even try taking me there. You’ve betrayed me”. In fact, I hadn’t betrayed anyone. The play had been invited by the Serious Fun festival (1992) and it wasn’t even a matter of choice. A friend of mine ended up picking her up at the last moment and managed to sit her in the 2nd row. Needless to say, I was nervous.
“What a horrible scene, Gerald. That masturbation scene between mother and daughter..I mean…what’s happening to your head?” That was her comment. She was furious. Although in terms of nudity or sexuality I, myself had gone quite a lot farther with my plays at la MaMa. She was just being possessive, proud and jealous, all at once. Bitter sweet. Ellen and I had a relationship made in heaven.
Other plays, such as the Heiner Mueller premieres of Quartett ended up being done at the Theater for the New City (1985) for a very simple reason: George Bartenieff was one of the owners of TNC and the principal actor of the duet. Plus, Ellen had made a point with the Beckett plays that “verbal theater..well, no verbal theater!!”. Yet, when she found out about my directing at TNC or the Harold Clurman theater on Theater Row (42nd Street), Ellen and I walked a few times around the block. And her voice, in a deep, serious tone was almost unimaginable. “Why, Gerald, why?” “You don’t like the theater of words, Mama. Quartett is nothing but one long monologue after another. “. “But if you must do it, then do it at La MaMa”, she’d reply taking a deep breath and a loud cough. Mueller was in town, staying with me in Brooklyn and – fate would have it – she wanted no part of it. The two of them would only meet face to face at a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1988 and Ellen gave him the shoulder.
Oh, Ellen. How I miss you! I must remember with a huge smile on my face when I drove once from Graz all the way down to Spoletto, Italy, just having disembarked from a flight from NY, no sleep…and a jet lag that made history. There were 3 of us in the car and we had about 650 miles to cover in a deep, deep European summer heat.
After the engine almost blew up, we made it to the gas station (a meeting point), so that we would be guided up to her castle. And there she appeared, riding on the back of a motorcycle wearing shorts, wasting no time at all: “You’re late. There’s no time for a shower or a rest: there are 60 people waiting for you. Get going!”
Furious, as always, I did my workshop and thought that, perhaps, my reward would be an air conditioned room with a bed in it where I could go into profound sleep. No such luck. Since all the other directors had not shown up, I was to cover for their absence. “I can’t. Ellen, I can’t.” I need to return to Austria because the rehearsals of Moses und Aron would start within a day. Moses would end up being the “largest” opera I ever directed. “I’ll call them up and make up something.”, she said with a slightly satanic smile. She called and managed to have me stay down in Spoletto for an extra three days.
It has been nearly thirty years of taking her to hospitals (Cabrini and Beth Israel) and holding her hand in the back of an ambulance while she was hanging on. Yet another heart attack.
It has been nearly thirty years of an indescribable love and encouragement. This was the woman who coined the term “experimental theater” and brought to life people such as Grotowski (who she, literally, kidnapped from Jaruselski’s Poland and Andrei Serban, who’s family were all at the brink of extinction by the Ciaucescu regime. We were all adopted by her, her children whom she spread around the world to “make theater”. From De Niro to Pacino, Bob Wilson, Swados , Philip Glass and Charles Ludlam (or, even, Harvey Firestein, who is known for saying that 80 per cent of American Theater comes from La MaMa, we were all adopted by her.
I know that after my opening here in London at the Pleasance next month. I won’t be going back to the 5th Floor to ask for her blessing or to show her the reviews and all printed matter. I am surrounded by a profound sadness which can really not be described. Yet, I know that these 30 years have taught me amazing lessons. A huge one would be never to feel sorry for myself, never fall into lament, never get into the bullshit of self pity because, in spite of the enormous physical pain she felt in these decades past, she’d always display a huge smile, a beautifully contagious smile on those adorable lips of hers.