Ellen Stewart, a Force in Avant-Garde Theater, Dead at 91

She launched a theater in the basement of her coffeehouse in 1961 and became a powerful influence.

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Ellen Stewart (Getty Images)

Ellen Stewart, who started out as a dress designer, launched a theater, LaMaMa, in the basement of an East Village coffeehouse in 1961 because a friend couldn't get a play produced. Over the next half century, Stewart became a powerful influence in experimental and avant-garde theater. She was recognized with a MacArthur "genius" award in 1985. She died on Jan. 13 in New York after a long illness.

Playwrights from Harold Pinter to Sam Shepard brought their manuscripts to Stewart, and actors from Al Pacino to Bette Midler to Nick Nolte performed at LaMaMa. The musical Godspell got its start at LaMaMa. So did Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy.

Stewart's success was remarkable on at least two counts. She plunged into the theater business with no dramatic background or training. Second, she was an African-American woman in a world that was almost all white. Yet her influence was widespread.

The New York Times noted:

Few producers could match her energy, perseverance and fortitude. In the decades after World War II her influence on American theater was comparable to that of Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, though the two approached the stage from different wings. Papp straddled the commercial and noncommercial worlds, while Ms. Stewart’s terrain was international and decidedly noncommercial. Her theater became a remarkable springboard for an impressive roster of promising playwrights, directors and actors who went on to accomplished careers both in mainstream entertainment and in push-the-envelope theater.

Read more about this remarkable woman here.

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