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Wed, 10.18.1961

LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club Opens

*La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club opened on this date in 1961. Also known as La MaMa ETC, they are an Off-Off-Broadway theatre founded by Ellen Stewart, theatre director, producer, and fashion designer.

Located in Manhattan's East Village, the theatre began in the basement boutique where Stewart sold her fashion designs. Stewart turned the space into a theatre at night, focusing on the work of young playwrights. La MaMa has evolved during its fifty-year history into a world-renowned cultural institution. Stewart was the spirit of La MaMa; she was its guardian, janitor, fundraiser, press agent, tour manager, and conceptual leader—the guts of the place. To understand this theatre, one must first know Ellen Stewart. The first La Mama theatre opened in a basement at 321 East 9th Street in Manhattan.

For the first few months, La Mama did only play readings. The space was 20' X 30' deep X 10' high. It had a hole on the left, a small john in the rear, a fireplace on the right, and a coffee bar next to it which faced the small stage. The stage was not raised and was approximately 12' X 12'. No admission was charged; they sold coffee and cake. No actors were paid; instead, they passed a basket around and shared. It seated about 30 people." The first official play (according to the playlist) was ONE ARM by Tennessee Williams, which opened on July 27, 1962. It was an adaptation of a short story written and directed by Andy Milligan.

La MaMa began as a theatre dedicated to the playwright and primarily producing new plays, including works by Paul Foster, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy, Harvey Fierstein, and Rochelle Owens. La MaMa also became an international ambassador for Off-Off-Broadway theatre by touring downtown theatre abroad during the 1960s. They are the only theatre of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movement's four core theatres that continue to thrive today. More than any other Off-Off-Broadway producer, Stewart reached out beyond the East Village, impelling rather than following new trends in theatre and performance.

To the present, La MaMa's mission is dedicated to "the people who make art, and it is to them that we give our support with free theatre and rehearsal space, lights, sound, props, platforms, and whatever else we have that they can use to create their work. We want them to feel free to explore their ideas and translate them into a theatrical language that can communicate to any person in any part of the world." In 2005, the theatre was among 406 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation.

Today, over one hundred productions with over four hundred performances are staged at La MaMa each season. Stewart continued to be the artistic director and "mother" at La MaMa until her death on January 13, 2011. Before her death, Stewart chose to be succeeded by Mia Yoo, who continues to serve as artistic director. Altogether, La MaMa puts up approximately 70 productions a year.

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