Thursday, January 13, 2011

Remembering Ellen Stewart

I was never a patron of the original Café La MaMa at 321 East Ninth Street in Manhattan, which Ellen Stewart opened in 1961.  By the time I became a “regular,” Stewart’s organization had become the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (La MaMa E.T.C.);  and I was voraciously devouring performances at the facility on East Fourth Street, often satisfying my appetite for food and drink a short walk away at Max’s Kansas City.  I cannot begin to enumerate all the events I attended, let alone choose any favorites.  However, given my subsequent move into multimedia research, I suspect that my most salient memory was of a solo drum recital given by Max Roach during which an artist improvised images on a computer, which were projected behind Roach sitting at his drum set.

This was all at a time when I also saw Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway.  I mention this in particular because Patrick Healy just posted an obituary for Ellen Stewart on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, reporting that she died in Beth Israel Hospital this morning at the age of 91.  Healy echoed the observation in the extended obituary that Torch Song Trilogy was created at La MaMa;  but neither account mentions the background story in the Broadway program book, which claimed that Stewart’s first reaction to the first play in this set was to tell Fierstein that he was out of his mind (or words to that effect) if he expected her to let him perform under her banner.  This was, of course, just her way of saying that the play still needed work.  Fierstein went back to the drawing board (for those who know the second play, it might be more appropriate to say “went back to his knitting”);  and the rest, as they say, is history.

I suppose that what this anecdote says is that Stewart was never afraid of anything that was outrageously different.  However, she was only interested in those who could be different without being boring.  This would make her a model of that kind of connoisseurship that Fran Lebowitz valued so much in Martin Scorsese’s documentary Public Speaking.  It is because it is increasingly hard to find people with that sense of value that Stewart will be missed.

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