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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 31 No.3

Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre

Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre. Cindy Rosenthal. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017; Pp. 198.

Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre is the first book-length study to chronicle Ellen Stewart’s exceptional contributions to twentieth and twenty-first century theatre. Written by expert in U.S. theatre Cindy Rosenthal, the book is ambitious in scope and stays true to the idiosyncratic tenets of avant-garde theatre that made Ellen Stewart famous. Rosenthal began research for the project in 2006 when TDR commissioned her to write a comprehensive article about La MaMa. Until this point, Ellen Stewart had been fiercely guarded about her privacy and determined that no book would be written about her or La MaMa. However, Rosenthal’s article pleased Stewart, so she agreed to a manuscript with the caveat that Rosenthal approach the book through the lens of La MaMa’s vast poster collection and through the words of the artists who had passed through La MaMa’s doors since its inception in 1961. The result is a historical narrative of colorful anecdotes, archival photographs, and rare posters that examine La MaMa’s longevity as the foremost Off-Off-Broadway venue.

Ellen Stewart Presents is primarily an archival and ethnographic study that is organized into five chronological chapters beginning with the 1960s and ending in 2011, shortly after Stewart’s death at the age of ninety-one. Over the course of a decade, Rosenthal interviewed numerous artists and spent countless hours engaged with La MaMa’s vast collection of show business ephemera. Rosenthal tells the story of La MaMa’s early years, when the theatre was tucked away in a little basement in the East Village. She tells the story of playwrights like Lanford Wilson and Harvey Fierstein who began their careers at La MaMa and went on to achieve commercial success while other artists like Split Britches and Yara Arts Group remained committed to their downtown roots. She tells the story of the birth of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, which was instrumental in the development of avant-garde theatre in the United States. And she tells the story of print posters and how the medium arose, particularly in relation to La MaMa. But where Rosenthal excels is in the telling of the stories about Stewart’s theatre “babies,” artists who were nurtured with love and affection and enjoyed Stewart’s hands-off approach to producing (9).

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