“Eighty percent of what is now considered American theater originated at La MaMa,” playwright Harvey Fierstein asserts. It’s a claim Ellen Stewart, the octogenarian founder and resident doyenne of La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theater Club) in the East Village, would be the last to dispute. And that’s why she saved virtually all the artifacts from the company’s 40-year history, stashing everything from manuscripts to props in files, drawers, boxes – even shopping bags.
“Baby, Mother saved it all,” Stewart says, her eyes flashing. The archive is crammed with masks, ticket stubs, 4,500 black-and-white prints by photographers like Martha Swope and Irving Penn, thousands of videos, and 700 original manuscripts – all attesting to the birth and flowering of avant-garde theater in America (and, to a certain extent, its decline). The trove includes scores scribbled by Hair composers Gerome Ragni and James Rado alongside a receipt for Sam Shepard’s rent, which Stewart paid so he could keep writing. Here are photographs of a young and game Bette Midler in Tom Eyen’s 1965 play Miss Nefertiti Regrets; Robert De Niro, with Prince Valiant haircut, in Julie Bovasso’s Gloria and Esperanza; a hand-drawn poster for one of Harvey Keitel’s first plays, in 1967. “Ellen was a supportive, motivating spirit,” Keitel remembers. “Aside from being a dish.”
A fortieth-anniversary committee has been formed to raise funds to help preserve the collection. Architect Martin Kapell, himself a La MaMa “baby,” is donating the design for a new archival space. De Niro and TriBeCa Film have contributed funds. The motivating force behind all this activity is, of course, Stewart herself. It rankles her that after four decades of hosting the American premieres of some of the world’s most provocative theater companies, La MaMa has been overshadowed by bam’s Next Wave Festival and the Lincoln Center Festival. “I am not giving my archives to Lincoln Center or the Fales Collection,” she says. “You know, baby, I’m not gonna give in. History will judge bam or Robert Wilson or Philip Glass – but I know where people began.”