Nearly 50 years after founding La MaMa E.T.C., the experimental theater that has become synonymous with the avant-garde, Ellen Stewart will be honored on Nov. 1 with a gala benefit to rename La MaMa’s Annex Theater the Ellen Stewart Theatre.
Founded by Stewart in 1961, La MaMa has long been world famous as a haven for risk takers, with the list of artists who launched their careers there reading like a who’s who of theater and film: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Elizabeth Swados, Mike Figgis, Patti Smith, Lanford Wilson and many others. But if nothing else, La MaMa sealed its place in theater history by being both the first company to produce the works of Harold Pinter in America and the first home for what would eventually become Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy.
Now the woman who has served as the company’s artistic director since its inception will be honored by the theater she created. Known simply as “Mama” to the scores of performers, composers and writers who have made names for themselves on her stages, Stewart will be justly immortalized for her contributions to Off-Off-Broadway by her namesake theater. The gala “was kind of Frank Carucci’s [president of La MaMa] idea,” says associate artistic director Mia Yoon. “It’s Ellen’s 90th birthday, and how we’ll celebrate is to name the Annex the Ellen Stewart Theater. We all know that the space is really special to her, and she’s made that space special herself.”
Located a few steps down the block from La MaMa’s main two-stage building, the Annex has been open since La MaMa’s production of The Trojan Women in 1974. The first event at the newly rechristened theater will be the Nov. 1 gala celebration celebrating both La MaMa’s storied past and Stewart’s unforgettable contributions to New York City theater, with a cocktail reception and a star-studded tribute from past performers, including Bill Irwin (currently co-starring on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie), Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver and a few surprise guests.
Just how does a theater legend react to the news that she’s becoming a theater? “She’ll be very modest about the whole thing,” Yoon predicts, “But I think she’s thrilled. This is her life, and her baby. And hopefully, it will be a fitting tribute to all her passion and the inspiration she’s been giving to so many artists all over the world.”