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Fri, 11.07.1919

Ellen Stewart, Theater Director and Producer born

Ellen Stewart

*Ellen Stewart was born on this date in 1919. She was a Black theatre director, producer, and theater owner.

From Alexandria, Louisiana, Stewart said that her father was a tailor from Louisiana, her mother was a teacher, and they divorced during her youth. Her family then moved to Chicago, Illinois. She 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 Edith Lances, head of the custom-corset department of the store. 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." 

She became a crucial figure in the beginnings of the Off-Off-Broadway movement. In 1961, Stewart founded Café La MaMa with Paul Foster and others. 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 a space for playwrights to experiment with their new work without the influence of critics or commercial interests. These young playwrights included Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Robert Patrick, and Harvey Fierstein, and actors like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Bette Midler. In the early days of La MaMa, Stewart continued designing clothing to support the theatre. She also created many of the early productions.

Stewart started directing theatre later in her life. In 1985, at La MaMa, she led a show entitled Mythos Oedipus. 1989, she directed the Great Jones Repertory Company in Mythos Oedipus and Dionysus Filius Dei. In 1992, Stewart was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. She was the first Off-Off-Broadway Producer to receive this honor.  Some of her work was produced internationally. 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 on a visit to the United States with support from New York University.

She was appointed an officer in the Ordre de Arts et des Lettres of France and received a Distinguished Services to Art and Culture Award in Ukraine. She also received an award from Japan and a human rights award from the Philippines. The Ellen Stewart International Award is 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 and then awards 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 La MaMa.

In 2005, Stewart received the Stewardship Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. In 2007, she was awarded the Premium Imperiale in the field of Film and Theater 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." Ellen Stewart died on January 13, 2011, at 91. She had a history of heart trouble and died at Mount Sinai Beth Israel after a long illness. A book about Stewart and La MaMa, Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre, by Cindy Rosenthal, was published in 2017.

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