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Off-Broadway Producer Ellen Stewart and the La MaMa Theater

a large brick buildingWhen the risk was high and the funding was non-exist, who made space for experimental art in New York City? How did a young black woman, designing clothes at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Lord & Taylor become the first off-off Broadway producer to be inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame? How did La MaMa forever change theatre history?

Ellen Stewart rented a dirt-floor basement on East 9th Street in 1961. Her goal was to help her brother Frederick Lights, an aspiring playwright, platform his work in front of an audience. He’d been struggling to get his work produced in New York City.

About 25 people could fit into Stewart’s makeshift space, and the first audiences were primarily white men, but it was a start. However, it wasn’t long before neighbors and nearby residents complained to the police about the quantity of white people going to a black woman’s basement, and Stewart’s theater was shutdown.

The seamstresses at Saks Fifth Avenue referred to Stewart as “Mama” and the name stuck, even when she left her work in fashion to pursue theater production full time. Mama’s life’s work became about providing space for playwrights, and she soon opened another space in the East Village.

But Mama’s second theater was also shut down and this time, she was arrested. These obstacles moved her to seek another solution: by applying for nonprofit status, she was able to get arts-based grants from Foundations and obtain a legal, permanent operating space in 1968. The building–a converted meatpacking planet on 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenues (74-A E 4th St)–is where La MaMa stands today. It’s a 100-seat theater with several performances almost every day.

And La MaMa is widely credited for creating off-off Broadway. Ellen Stewart, the creator and producer of the space for decades, was heavily involved in every performance. She provided workspace–and occasionally residential space–for playwrights to write plays on any subject, in any genre. Throughout turbulent political times, New Yorkers and visitors found comfort, entertainment, and safety at La MaMa.

Throughout the 70s, La MaMa welcomed high-profile performers–Sam Shepard, Bette Middler, Robert De Niro, The Blue Man Group, Diane Lane, and others–and expanded its reach to theater in foreign languages. In 1985, Ellen Stewart won the MacArthur Genius award for the organization she created and its impact on culture in New York City and beyond.

Since its founding in 1961, La MaMa has hosted work from more than 150,000 artists. The theater receives 34,000 visitors each year. Ellen Stewart died at age 91, in 2011. But her legacy shaped New York Theater history. How do spaces like MaMa get created and maintained in big cities? How can one organization shift an entire subculture? In what other industries have long-lasting organizations arisen from a community need?