A few weeks ago, I was sad to read about the passing of Ellen Stewart, founder of New York’s groundbreaking La MaMa experimental theatre and one of the central figures in the creation of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement.
Since founding La MaMa in 1961, she had, over the years, nurtured the early work of playwrights like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Jean Claude Van Itallie; directors like Robert Wilson, Julie Bovasso, Tom O'Horgan, Richard Foreman, Wilford Leach and Meredith Monk; performance artists like Blue Man Group; and actors like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. In more recent years, La MaMa was the home of the plays of Amy and David Sedaris, as well as countless foreign productions hailing from everywhere from Lebanon to Croatia. The musical Godspell began at La MaMa, and Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy was developed there. But unlike Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, another downtown institution which sent many shows to Broadway, La MaMa remained firmly dedicated to the world occupied by struggling performance artists and playwrights below 14th Street.
Ms. Stewart, a striking African-American woman with a wild mane of blonde hair, was a familiar sight on East 4th Street and could often be seen sweeping the sidewalk in front of the theatre before shows. She personally introduced each performance, and endlessly hounded her audiences to shell out a few extra bucks to keep the perpetually cash-strapped theatre afloat. Ms. Stewart's tenacity was legendary having managed to keep her theatre going despite two evictions and a couple of arrests for violating the fire codes. Ever the resourceful producer, Ms. Stewart once cashed an unemployment check, then produced a play with the money.
By the time I arrived in New York in the 80’s, La MaMa was a well-established breeding ground for hip, edgy experimental work. Anything done at La MaMa had instant “coolness” attached to it. I was a naïve young acting student when I saw my first show at La MaMa. It was a kick-ass revival of Sam Shepard’s “Tooth of the Crime” that remains to this day one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen on a stage. A hybrid of stage play and rock concert, it's about a lethal showdown between two intergalactic rock stars. The language and lyrics are vintage Shepard – hip, pissed off, heroic, poetic, smart-mouthed and other-worldly. All of it was thrilling to a young aspiring artist like myself.
Adding to the show’s sense of danger, it was performed on a steeply raked stage that constantly threatened to dump the actors (one of whom was on roller skates!) into our laps. It was heart-stoppingly exciting. I remember coming home that night and writing feverishly in my journal about how inspired, yet intimidated I felt by the performance I’d witnessed. Could I ever be that fearless? Could I ever generate that kind of electricity? To these artists, only the moment mattered. It was theatre as “experience.” It was art like I’ve never seen it before. It was perfection.
So imagine how excited I was when my laidback, “downtown” friend, Marty called and said “Hey, you want to be in this show at La MaMa? They’re looking for people.” Marty told me where to be and when. I showed up early and waited. After an hour, I called Marty. “Oh yeah. That rehearsal was cancelled. It’s tomorrow at four. I think. Can you make it?” This was the beginning of my short adventure with a show that (I think) was called “Dark Angel.”
The reason I’m a little fuzzy on that detail is that (like every other aspect of the show) the title tended to change from day to day.
“Dark Angel” was actually just a workshop. The plan was for us to "develop” the material and when we felt it was ready, perform it for Ms. Stewart. If she liked us, we would then get a shot at doing a full production on one of La MaMa’s three stages. I played one of a pack of crazed “street angels” that swooped across the stage every once in a while, singing or chanting or screaming while the main angel contemplated the best way to save mankind. If that sounds a little vague, so was the show.
In the three weeks I worked on it, I never quite understood what we were doing. Our cast members (many of whom seemed to be just people pulled off the street) came and went daily. No one ever seemed to have a current copy of the script and we spent a lot of time talking about how we felt. Our leading man would suffer at least one big weepy meltdown per rehearsal that required a big group hug from the rest of the cast. Never having done this sort of work before, it was hard for me to measure my progress as an angel. I felt my singing was as good as the other Seraphim, but sensed that my writhing and hair-pulling lacked conviction. Then one morning, I got the call. “Ellen is ready to see the show” I was told. I raced down to East 4th Street, wondering if we were ready to do the show for Ellen. When I arrived at the rehearsal studio, she was already there. Enveloping us in her warm, regal presence, she gathered us together and expressed her great excitement about the work we were about to do.
With Ms. Stewart's blessing upon us, we dove headlong into our performance; leaping, lunging, rolling, singing and screaming our way through what could best be described as a loose-knit presentation. I couldn’t stop myself from occasionally stealing little glances at Ms. Stewart, who was giving us her utmost attention. The expression on her face seemed to suggest that every moment of "Dark Angel" was rich, beautiful and positively stank with meaning.
At the conclusion of our performance, we all sat cross-legged at Ms. Stewart’s feet where she praised our courage and passion as artists and said a few other vague, but encouraging things. We were then dismissed while she gave her more specific notes to the creators of the show. Stepping out into the sunshine, I lit a cigarette. I felt exhilarated. I sort of doubted that this particular show would ever come together, but I had screamed and rolled across the stage of La MaMa. I was an artist. Nobody could ever take that away from me.
Although my plan to become one of the leading lights of the New York theatre took a slight detour when I moved to Los Angeles, my respect for those who made art out of life (and a life out of art) has never ebbed. Ms. Stewart’s achievement was even more remarkable when you consider that she was both black and a woman when there were few leaders in the theatre who were either. Her influence was so far-ranging that, in 1993, she was inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame, the first Off-Off-Broadway Producer to be so honored. She also was given a special Tony Award in 2006. To date, La MaMa has been honored with over 30 Obie Awards.
There are some people who seem sent here just to inspire us; to remind us that if you’ve got the guts, life can be lived like a poem. In 1985, the MacArthur Foundation gave Ms. Stewart one of their $300,000 "Genius" Awards with no strict stipulations attached. Ellen could have used the money to remodel her apartment (which was upstairs from her theatre). She could have bought a BMW, a house in the country or an extremely long vacation. Instead, she used it to buy a former monastery in Umbria, Italy, and turn it into an international theatre center. I absolutely love her for that. Rest in peace, Ms. Stewart. It was a job well done.
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/
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