Remembering Ellen Stewart

by Randy Gener

in Interviews

Post image for Remembering Ellen Stewart

American Theatre magazine’s conversation with the great La Mama, Ellen Stewart, which I pulled from the archive and posted below, took place in her Lower East Side apartment. It was February 2003, and she was preparing to direct the vampire opera, Carmilla, one of La Mama’s signature pieces, with Wilford Leach’s ETC Company and her beloved Great Jones Repertory. Ellen made a habit of re-staging the repertoire of the Great Jones Repertory so that new and younger audiences could be exposed to classic avant-garde works.

The conversation printed below was not our first interview. We had spoken many, many times. She’s allowed me to sit in on her rehearsals, for example. I spend time with her as a playwright in her artist’s residency in Spoleto, Italy. In fact, I got my start as a theater artist at La MaMa E.T.C., and she always encouraged me to create a new piece, especially during those years when I was not doing a show. But I had to work to survive in New York City and did not always possess the means to create and produce my own shows. Her frequent advice to aspiring artists was “Do it yourself.”

I was a devoted fan of Ellen’s theater, and La MaMa E.T.C. is the center of my world. So I always made a point of placing a story about Ellen in every publication that I have worked for. And so I did soon after joining American Theatre magazine, where this interview first appeared under the “20 Questions” department in April 2003. Imagine both our surprise when in June of that same year Ellen won a 2003 TCG Theatre Practitioner Award at Theatre Communication Group’s National Conference in Milwaukee. I was her escort at that conference, where she said, memorably, “I believe theater is a world effort.”
—RANDY GENER

A CONVERSATION WITH ELLEN STEWART

RANDY GENER:  Where did you grow up?
ELLEN STEWART:
I don’t want to go into my personal life. I really don’t.

Do you have any pets?
Yes. He’s not here. Billy Boy is a mean little dog. He bites. Billy Boy adopted me in Italy. Now he must be nine years old. He’s not here. He is with the people that keep him since I’ve been sick.

What is your first theatre memory?
I came to New York in May of 1950. I arrived here and Fred Light [a playwright]—he was like my brother, he wasn’t my brother, but he was one of the persons I started La Mama for—he saved money for us to go see a Broadway show. I saw Marlon Brando playing in A Streetcar Named Desire. And I hated it. (Laughs.) Why? It was just talking, the whole time just talking. I found it boring. It was my first theatre memory, but it was not my first theatrical memory.

Your first theatrical memory was something different?
Yes. People who were in the circus, people who played in vaudeville shows, people who tapped dance, people who wore makeup and had big white lips, people who played the wild man. I had an aunt who was a very beautiful little woman, and her thing was that when she stood in front of you her body became a snake starting from the ankles and coiled all the way around, and the head was here (she points to her neck). She had a few different husbands. One of the Jacks was a wild man. You threw him raw meat and stuff down into a pit.

At the beginning of every show at La Mama, you ring a bell. How did that start?
When I started, I didn’t know how to come in. I didn’t know what to do, so somebody suggested, “Why don’t you ring a bell?” So they give me a bell. I was just trying to help other people to do theatre. I had no idea that it would involve me. But then when it came time to do it, somebody had to start the show. I was petrified.

Someone told me you had been a seamstress. Is that true?
I wasn’t a seamstress. I wasn’t particularly interested in anything, but I could sew. The reason I came to New York in 1950 was to go to design school. Colored people were not allowed to go to school in Chicago. Someone said that they took colored people in New York and San Francisco. And I had always wanted to go to Asia. So I became an executive designer—a high-end couturier for Edith Marksen in Saks Fifth Avenue—so I started at the top. Why did I do that? Because I had a stroke. My face was all twisted. My mother found this doctor from Austria—he got me better. He told me that the brain requires nourishment. If you got a brain and you don’t use it, then the brain stops using you. For many years I had a lump in the base of my skull, a blood clot. Now it’s gone. He said I must use my brain, or I would be sick again.

What is your idea of spiritual bliss?
I don’t know about bliss. But I believe with all my heart there is nothing that happens without God. Whoever your god is, he allows you to do it. I do what I do only because God allows me and shows me how to do it. I really believe it. I don’t know if this is bliss. But I think bliss is to stage a show like Draupadi in two weeks time. That’s only because he says, “Look, girl, you can do this.” Either we lose all the money we had spent for roundtrip tickets for dancers and musicians from India, or they lose face and not come.

How long does it take to get your hair braided?
Four hours.

Do you have a favorite place or city you like to visit?
Every place. I’ve worked every place in the world almost. There was none that I’ve not been welcomed. I’ve been traveling since before you were born. You know, honey, few people realize that all this thing about multiculturalism was never a part of La Mama, because in 1962, I had original plays from South Korea. In 1963, the Colombians and Venezuelans were here in La Mama. In 1964, people came from Peru. Now why did they come here? I don’t know, but they came.

What’s your favorite time of the day?
Mornings. I seem to be more energetic in the morning.

Do you have a favorite place to sit?
Here. I sit here. (She refers to the dining table.)

Your apartment is filled with stuff: costumes, pictures, postcards, mementos, masks, necklace. Where did all of these things come from?
I’ve been fortunate that people give me a lot of things from every place in the world. So I have all these different things. All of them have great stories. See that picture? That’s my son; he’s dead now. This is my great-granddaughter, Zoe. The white lady is my mother. I got so many things.

What do you keep under your bed?
Not anything. But what used to be under my bed would be interesting. We made videos of the shows that played at La Mama. I have to say, Thank God I made them, because now they are a big deal for research. But there was this woman at Lincoln Center; she tried to force Actors’ Equity to come here. I was supposed to turn all these videos in. I refused. They said they would come here with a search warrant. So I had the videos in a big box under my bed for years. Until they stopped.

If your house was burning (God forbid), what three things would you take with you?
You see those up there? (She points to yellow photographs above a door arch.) Well, the white-looking one is my mama. My mama was not white—if you got a drop of black blood in you, you’re not white—but she looks white. Beneath her, the small one, is her mother. The middle one is her mother. That one over there is me. I would take those with me. I don’t think I could reach up there, but I would try.

Is there a character or physical trait you inherited from your mother?
My mother always taught me that I must never be prejudiced against anybody—to remember that all of me didn’t come from one source, that I must honor all those sources. She really drilled that into me. Second thing: the world was an island. Nobody was on the island but myself; and therefore I will live or die on that island. She really expressed that. In fact, when I was growing up, I used to think my mother was mean, because she would make me do something that that she could have done much better. She could have helped me to do it. I had to do it myself. I thought she was cruel. But that’s been my philosophy: I’m on an island, and I know God is there, but I can’t expect him to do everything. I have to help myself. Many theatre artists got their start at La Mama. Some have stayed with you over the years, but others have not come back.

Are there any artists who have left and moved on that you would like to come back?
They don’t come back, they don’t come back.

What do you consider your proudest moment?
Honey, I remember the happiest moment, but it didn’t mean the proudest. It was a happy time when we got this building. MacNeill Lowry, through the Ford Foundation, gave me the money to make this building possible. See those three windows over there. Well, there was no wall there, and no wall below. As you know the theatre extends beyond the wall of this apartment. And this building had no floors: You can stand at the bottom, which is now our basement, and look straight up into the heavens. There was no roof. There were no stairs. There was a freight elevator that didn’t work. To get up here to the apartment, I put spikes in the side of the wall and hung ropes and planks. I had to walk up the planks. I would never have the nerve, as you can imagine, to look down at the basement from here.

Do you think about succession—who would succeed you at La Mama?
I haven’t done that. I would hope that La Mama goes forward. I can’t really do anything about it, because the board of directors can do what they want with it.

What’s your most important goal at this moment?
To wake up in the morning. For God to give me another day.

What do you want next for La Mama?
We hope somebody to be able to own our part of the building. And next year I want to put Great Jones back in rep. I want to try. We don’t have the money, so I have to bite off a big wallop. We will start with Medea, Electra and The Trojan Women. Then we will have Oedipus, Dionysos, and the new piece will be Antigone. I have to raise a lot of money, but I really want to do them, because I think the members of Great Jones are an unusual group as an ensemble. I don’t think there’s anybody that can do what we can do.

Do you have any advice for young artists who want to become part of the avant-garde theatre?
I don’t know about the avant-garde, but I never knew except the one way, and that was to do it yourself. Many people, not only the young, would never work four or five jobs to keep a theatre going. That’s what I did, and I did it not for me to do theatre but to be a part of the theatre. I certainly had no aspiration. I didn’t want to write plays. I didn’t want to do any of that.

But recently you have written and directed your own shows.
The plays that I’ve done…I did for the Great Jones Repertory Company: to keep that spirit alive. There is no other theatre company that do what we do.

What favorite words do you like to use often?
Hi, honey.

Any sounds that disturb you?
I love the sounds of the city—the noise in the streets—but the thing that disturbs me is when they break the street with jackhammer. Now that gets me.

If you didn’t have commitment for others, what else would you do?
Commitments? (She pauses.) I never look at it like that. I love it when you want to do something, and you try. I never go to anybody’s rehearsal. I never ask anybody how you’re gonna do it, either. Certainly if they talked to me artistically, I’ll say, “Please remember the human race does not all speak English. You can use English, but try to make your work go beyond, so that it becomes an embrace of the whole world.

It isn’t theatre if…
It isn’t theatre if it doesn’t embrace the whole world. I would prefer to have theatre that uses all the performing elements for its communication. That’s the theatre I prefer. The fact that somebody does the complete opposite does not mean that it’s not theatre.