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Ellen Stewart

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Ellen Stewart
Born(1919-11-07)November 7, 1919
DiedJanuary 13, 2011(2011-01-13) (aged 91)
Occupation(s)Theatre director, impresario

Ellen Stewart (November 7, 1919 – January 13, 2011)[1] was an American theatre director and producer and the founder of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.[2] During the 1950s, she worked as a fashion designer for Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and Henri Bendel.[3]

The La MaMa Annex at 66 East Fourth Street

Early life[edit]

Ellen Stewart was born in either Chicago, Illinois or Alexandria, Louisiana.[4] This uncertainty stems from Stewart's reticence to reveal details of her early life. As an observer wrote, "Her history is somewhat difficult to sort out—indeed it takes on a legendary quality—since on different occasions she gives different versions of the same stories."[5] Stewart said that her father was a tailor from Louisiana and her mother was a teacher, and that they divorced during her youth.[6]

Billboard and entrance to La MaMa Theater

Around 1939, Stewart may have become the second wife of Larry Lebanus Hovell (August 10, 1910 – October 1963), a Chicago waiter who was a native of Alexandria, Louisiana, though it is possible they never wed legally. They had one child, a son, Larry Lebanus Hovell, II (1940–1998).[7]


Stewart moved to New York City in 1950, where she worked as a trimmer in the brassiere-and-corset department at Saks Fifth Avenue and later as a dress designer under the direction of Edith Lances, head of the custom-corset department of the store.[8] Stewart continued to work as a fashion designer throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Most notably, she worked for a manufacturer named Victor Bijou, designing "sport dresses and beach wraps".[9]

Stewart had no background in theatre, yet she became a key figure in the beginnings of the Off-Off-Broadway movement. In 1961, Stewart founded Café La MaMa together with Paul Foster and others. A major reason she began the theatre was because her foster brother, Frederick Lights, wanted to be a playwright and he was having difficulty getting his work produced. Café La MaMa eventually became La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. The theatre was named, La MaMa, after Stewart because she was referred to by many as "Mama". La MaMa was created as a space for playwrights to experiment with their new work without the influence of critics or commercial interests.[1]

In the early days of La MaMa, Stewart continued designing clothing in order to support the theatre. She had an incredible work ethic and dedication, and her influence on experimental theatre was enormous. Stewart was known to come out before a performance to “ring a cowbell and announce La MaMa’s dedication to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre.”[1] She also contributed as a designer to many of the early productions, including Tom Eyen's Miss Nefertiti Regrets (1965)[10] and Andrei Serban's production of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (1978).[11]

In 1969, La MaMa moved to 74-A East Fourth Street, which was built into a 99-seat theatre with the financial support of W. MacNeil Lowry and the Ford Foundation. In 1974, Stewart converted a former television studio at 66 East Fourth Street into a 295-seat theatre entitled, La MaMa Annex.[citation needed] In 2009, the annex was renamed as, the Ellen Stewart Theatre. La MaMa also has an art gallery and a six-story rehearsal space in the East Village. Altogether, La MaMa puts up approximately 70 productions a year.[citation needed]

In 1992, Stewart was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[12] She was the first Off-Off-Broadway Producer to receive this honor. In 2007, she was awarded the Praemium Imperiale in the field of Film and Theater[13] and the Witkacy Prize, granted annually by the Polish Centre of the International Theatre Institute for "outstanding achievements in the promotion of Polish theatre throughout the world".[14] In 2005, Tom O'Horgan presented Stewart with the Stewardship Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. This honor was bestowed to Stewart on behalf of her peers and fellow artists of the Off-Off-Broadway community "in recognition of her significant contributions to the Off-Off-Broadway community through service, support and leadership".[15]

Stewart started directing theatre later in her life. In 1985 at La MaMa, she directed a production entitled, Mythos Oedipus, which featured music by Sheila Dabney.[16] Stewart also directed the Great Jones Repertory Company in Mythos Oedipus [17] at the Delphi Stadium during their 1985 tour of Greece.[18] That same year, she directed Cotton Club Gala, which featured music by Aaron Bell.[19] In 1989, she directed the Great Jones Repertory Company in Mythos Oedipus and Dionysus Filius Dei.[20]

Her work was produced internationally in Uruguay, Argentina, Austria, Italy, Turkey, the Philippines, Cameroon, Central Africa, Republic, Senegal, Nigeria, Brazil, Haiti, Morocco, Israel, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. She both presented theatre and taught in many of these nations. She was a visiting professor at the Institute of Drama in South Korea and was a member of the Seoul International Theatre Institute. The New Eastern European Theatre was introduced to La MaMa when Stewart brought Jerzy Grotowski, Ryszard Cieslak, and Ludwig Flaszen to visit the United States with support from Ted Hoffman of New York University.[21]

She was appointed an officer in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France and received a Distinguished Services to Art and Culture Award in Ukraine[citation needed]. She also received an award from Japan and a human rights award from the Philippines.[citation needed]

More recently, the Ellen Stewart International Award was created to be given to ”an individual theatre artist or theatre company whose work promotes social change and community participation with a particular focus on the engagement of young people”. The International Executive Committee chooses ten artists or companies, then gives the award to one of the ten chosen. The awardee receives a trip to attend the International Theatre Institute’s World Congress and a residency at La MaMa Umbria to create a new work to be produced at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds and at La MaMa.[22]

A book about Stewart and La MaMa, Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre, by Cindy Rosenthal, was published in 2017.[23]


Ellen Stewart died on January 13, 2011, at the age of 91. She had a history of heart trouble and died at Mount Sinai Beth Israel after a long illness.[2]

Her memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Monday, January 17, 2011.[24]


  1. ^ a b c Gussow, Mel; Weber, Bruce (January 13, 2011). "Ellen Stewart, 91, Off Off Broadway Pioneer, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  2. ^ a b Bacalzo, Dan (January 13, 2011). "Ellen Stewart, Founder of La MaMa E.T.C., Dies at 91". TheaterMania. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  3. ^ "Ellen Stewart: Still pushing that pushcart". www.thevillager.com. Archived from the original on December 30, 2012. Retrieved June 12, 2018.
  4. ^ Jessie Carney Smith, Notable Black American Women. Gale Research, 2006, p. 618.
  5. ^ Sally Banes, Greenwich Village, 1963. Duke University Press, 1993, p. 49.
  6. ^ "Ellen Stewart: Still pushing that pushcart". www.thevillager.com. Archived from the original on December 30, 2012. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  7. ^ "Paid Notice: Deaths HOVELL, LARRY LEBANUS". The New York Times. November 28, 1998 – via NYTimes.com.
  8. ^ Joan Cook, "Figure Faults Hidden by Masterly Corsetiere", The New York Times, July 6, 1960.
  9. ^ Bernadine Morris, "Ellen Stewart's Two Scenes", The New York Times, February 13, 1968.
  10. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Miss Nefertiti Regrets (1975)". Accessed June 12, 2018.
  11. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: The Good Woman of Setzuan (1978)". Accessed June 12, 2018.
  12. ^ "La MaMa » Ellen Stewart". Retrieved March 9, 2014.
  13. ^ Praemium Imperiale - Ellen Stewart Archived January 6, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ "Polskie Radio Esperanto - La MaMa theatre founder gets Polish award". www2.polskieradio.pl.
  15. ^ "2005 Nominees and Recipients - New York Innovative Theatre Awards". www.nyitawards.com.
  16. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Mythos Oedipus (1985)". Accessed June 12, 2018.
  17. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Mythos Oedipus in Greece: Great Jones Repertory Tour (1985)". Accessed June 12, 2018.
  18. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Tour: Great Jones Repertory Company Greece Tour (1985)". Accessed June 12, 2018.
  19. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Cotton Club Gala (1985)". Accessed June 12, 2018.
  20. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Mythos Oedipus and Dionysus Filius Dei (1989)". Accessed June 12, 2018.
  21. ^ "International Theatre Institute ITI". www.iti-worldwide.org. Archived from the original on April 26, 2016. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  22. ^ "The Award". ellenstewartaward.net. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  23. ^ "Ellen Stewart Presents". University of Michigan Press. 2017. ISBN 9780472117420.
  24. ^ A Standing Ovation for Ellen Stewart Shay Gines, Innovative Theatre Foundation, January 19, 2011.

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