Book Review, 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).

One such person is “Multidisciplinary artist, composer, filmmaker, and choreographer Meredith Monk” who, in 1976, created what John Killacky claims is “one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century,” the opera Quarry (67). A meditation on World War II, Quarry is characteristic of the avant-garde movement with its innovative narrative and “audience-as-set” convention. After a successful limited engagement, the opera was scheduled again a few months later, but La MaMa’s doors were closed for yet another building code violation (Stewart’s troubles with the city are chronicled in Hillary Miller’s Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York). Monk fondly remembers being with Stewart after La MaMa was shuttered, asking “What producer would be sitting there, crying with you?” (67) Quarry eventually moved to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and won an Obie Award, and Monk later brought the opera back to La MaMa in 1986. Ellen Stewart Presents features two of the posters from the original production of Quarry designed by Monk and Monica Moseley. Monk recalls that Stewart gave La MaMa artists complete freedom with poster designs, and she appreciates why Stewart finally approved a book about her life’s work: “Posters do it better than photographs. It’s hard to show in one photo what a play is about because a photograph capture[s]… a specific moment in time… a visual artist can distill one powerful image in a poster that can represent a production—and that is why she wanted to tell the story that way” (19). Indeed, Rosenthal selected more than one hundred posters from La MaMa’s archive of approximately twenty-five hundred posters (many now available online) to create a work that is as much a visual journey as it is an oral history.

Ellen Stewart Presents functions on multiple historical levels—perhaps too many for a single volume—with glowing reviews and few critical detractors. Rosenthal celebrates Ellen Stewart as a force of nature who was instrumental in shaping the course of the American stage. Perhaps Stewart’s greatest legacy is the freedom she gave to theatre artists from all over the world, the freedom to innovate and explore with less constraint than commercial theatre. Today, under the new artistic leadership of Mia Yoo, La MaMa is a thriving international arts institution that includes the Umbria International workshop that gathers each summer outside of Spoleto, Italy. With so much more to tell about its subject, Ellen Stewart Presents opens the door to further scholarship about one of the most important theatre visionaries of the twentieth century. Meredith Monk remembers that if Stewart liked an idea and said, “do it,” the artist had found a new home: “Ellen was totally about love… And that’s La MaMa” (71-72).

Derek Munson
University of Missouri

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 3 (Spring 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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