Ellen Stewart: Rocking the Cradle of Experimental Theater

Another paean for a giant – carlos

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By BEN BRANTLEY, Published: January 13, 2011, Ellen Stewart rocks culture cradle…

Ellen Stewart

It was almost exactly 16 years ago that I made my first visit to La MaMa in a professional capacity, as a new theater critic for The New York Times. I’d been there before as a civilian, usually under the influence. (I believe it was where I first saw a foghorn-throated drag queen namedHarvey Fierstein.) But even then La MaMa had for me the whiff of another time, the patchouli scent of the 1960s, when downtown theater was longhaired, renegade and rude.

I wasn’t around for that heady heyday of La MaMa, the willful, playful brainchild of Ellen Stewart, who died on Thursday. Yet what I saw in the East Village theater that January night in 1994 turned out to be not only absolutely of the moment but also of the future. It was a rough-hewn, rowdy, dirty little play called“Stitches,” put on by a brother-and-sister team that presumptuously called itself the Talent Family. Their real names? David and Amy Sedaris.

David Sedaris, who was already somewhat known for his comic pieces on NPR, was pointed out to me as he schmoozed among the crowd by the guy I was with, who said that David also happened to be his house-cleaner. (That was Mr. Sedaris’s part-time vocation in those days.) The crowd was downtown cool, but nerdy cool, not annoyingly cool, with nary a designer label in sight.

It was at La MaMa that I saw the Italian performance artist Dario D’Ambrosi re-enact the prenatal life of Richard III — that’s right, the old Crookback in a birth canal — and essentially make love to a bloody side of beef. (I think he was playing a homicidal butcher.)

I never met Ms. Stewart. But sometimes I would see her leonine head across a crowded lobby. For many of us the image of that radiant head is as linked with the spirit of the East Village — as the cradle of experimental theater in New York — as the pencil silhouette of Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, is with Seventh Avenue.

I can see Ms. Stewart quite vividly still. (Once seen, she was not forgotten.) That vision will remain for me as an emblem of the importance of staying raw, open and engaged in an increasingly synthetic city.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 15, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition.

About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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