Volume 76, Number 23 | October 25 - 31, 2006

Sam Shepard and dozens more fêted Ellen Stewart at the 45th Anniversary celebration of La MaMa E.T.C.

La MaMa, laboratory for experimental theater, turns 45

By Wickham Boyle

It takes quite a while for something that began in a basement as a wild experiment to achieve the status of venerable institution: 45 years, in the case of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. And the Doyenne, founder and vital force behind it all, Ellen Stewart, has been at the helm of La MaMa from the theater’s first performance on October 18, 1961 to October 18, 2006, when Stewart was on hand to ring her signature bell before last Wednesday’s performance.

During that time, La MaMa has produced thousands of plays, musical, dance and performance art pieces and launched the careers of countless theatrical stars — Sam Shepard, Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitle, Henry Simmons, Mary Alice and Harvey Fierstein — not to mention dozens of designers, technicians, producers and directors, like Joel Zwick. Ellen Stewart led La MaMa into the forefront of producing work that, as she says in her ubiquitous opening speeches, “Is dedicated to the playwright and ALL aspects of the theater.” It was this dedication that drew the crowd of theatrical and artistic luminaries to La MaMa’s Annex Theater last Wednesday night.

The celebration began with cocktails in the lobby and continued with a production of Sam Shepard’s 1983 work “Tooth of Crime,” with an encore performance directed by George Ferencz. The play explores modern culture through an almost science fiction-like landscape where the future is populated by gangs and the metaphors for violence are scanned and scatted in musical terms. The performance was a reminder of La MaMa’s role in making experimentation on Broadway and in film, from the non-linear plot to the multi-racial cast, commonplace.

The audience was filled with artists and also a slew of people from the funding world who supported Ms Stewart on her four and a half decade quest to provide space and energy to experimentation. The New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Kate Levin opened the presentation by announcing that October 18, 2006 was La MaMa day and that Ms. Stewart should enjoy her day as much as we have enjoyed all that she has accomplished. Also present from the Department of Cultural Affairs were Kathy Hughes and Susan Chin, both longtime supporters.

After the show, the audience filed downstairs to the newly renovated archive space that will house the extensive theatrical memorabilia collected by La MaMa. Before the dinner and dancing began, Stewart gave awards to funders Natsu Ifill, Gigi Bolt, Ralph Samuelson and Richard Lanier. Also given awards were Noriko Sengoku and the members of Blue Man Group, who premiered their iconoclastic work at La MaMa’s fledgling space, The Club.

Andre Serbian, one of the most respected directors of our time, made a speech saluting Stewart for her dedication and bravery in plucking him from his native Romania and bringing him to America. Serban said that when someone was dispatched from La MaMa to meet him at the airport they were told, “The man resembles Sam Shepard, I think they were very disappointed when they saw it was me.”

The self-deprecating remark was the perfect segue for the real-life and normally reclusive Sam Shepard to make a speech thanking his mama Ellen Stewart for all the opportunities she gave him, and so many theatrical generations. The tenderness of Shepard’s touch to the top of Stewart’s silver locks, and the kisses he planted on her cheeks left few dry eyes in the midst of a festive evening.

In fact, every anniversary that celebrates this artistic think tank, thought up by a young, hopeful Ms. Stewart as a vehicle for her brother, then an aspiring playwright, and many of her friends from the fashion world, then her day job, is an occasion for all of us to be in awe of her incredible vision.

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