Ellen Stewart

Ellen Stewart
Born (1919-11-07)November 7, 1919
United States
Died January 13, 2011(2011-01-13) (aged 91)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Theatre director, impresario

Ellen Stewart (November 7, 1919 – January 13, 2011)[1] was an American theatre director and producer and the founder of La MaMa, E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club). In the 1950s she worked as a fashion designer for Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and Henri Bendel.[2]

La MaMa Annex 66 East 4th Street


Ellen Stewart was born either in Chicago, Illinois or possibly Alexandria, Louisiana.[3] This inexactitude stems from Stewart's reticence about revealing details of her early life. As an observer wrote, "Her history is somewhat difficult to sort out—indeed it takes on a legendary quality—since on different occasions she gives different versions of the same stories." [4] Of her parents, Stewart stated that her father was a tailor from Louisiana and her mother was a teacher and that they divorced during her youth.[5]

La Mama Theater by David Shankbone

Around 1939 Stewart may have become the second wife of Larry Lebanus Hovell (born August 10, 1910 — died October 1963, a Chicago waiter who was a native of Alexandria, Louisiana, although it is possible they never legally wed. They had one child, a son, Larry Lebanus Hovell, II (1940—1998).[6]


In 1950 Stewart moved to New York City, where she worked as a trimmer in the brassiere-and-corset department at Saks Fifth Avenue and, later as a dress designer, under the direction of Edith Lances, head of the department store's custom-corset department.[7] Stewart continued to work as a fashion designer throughout the 1960s and 1970s, notably for a manufacturer called Victor Bijou, where she designed "sport dresses and beach wraps".[8]

Stewart was a woman entirely without theatrical experience but she ended up being a leading “theatre pioneer”. In the early days of the theatre she continued designing clothing so she could support the theatre. She had an incredible work ethic, dedication and her influence in the theatre was simply groundbreaking. She created a space to foster young new playwrights. That includes but isn’t limited to Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and Harvey Fierstein and harvesting actors like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Bette Midler.

In 1961 Stewart together with Paul Foster and others founded Café La MaMa, which became one of the most successful Off-Off-Broadway theatrical companies - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. The theatre was named La MaMa after Stewart who was often referred to as "Mama". Before a performance Stewart was known to come out,“ring a cowbell and announce La MaMa’s dedication to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre.”[9] Her foster brother, Frederick Lights wanted to be a playwright and that was one of the major reasons she began the theatre because he was having a great difficulty getting his work staged. La MaMa was a place for playwrights to work and experiment with their new work with out any external interferences. In the next decades she became famous around the world, writing and directing an enormous body of pieces, exclusively based on music and dance, with international artists.[10]

In 1969 La MaMa moved to 74A East Fourth Street, which was created into a 99-seat theatre with the help of the W. MacNeil Lowry and the Ford Foundation. In 1974, Stewart converted a television studio into a 295- seat theatre called the Annex. It was renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre in 2009. La MaMa also has an art gallery and a six-story rehearsal space. La MaMa puts up about 70 productions a year.

Stewart started directing much later in her life. La MaMa became the magnet for many similar theatre’s and experimental theatre in Europe.

In 1992, Stewart was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame[11] and she was the first Off-Off- Broadway Producer to receive this honor.

In 2007 Stewart was awarded the Praemium Imperiale in the field of Film and Theater and the Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz Award granted annually by the Polish Centre of the International Theatre Institute for "outstanding achievements in the promotion of Polish theatre throughout the world".[12][13][14]

In 2005 Tom O'Horgan presented Stewart with the Stewardship Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. This honor was bestowed to Stewart on behalf of her peers and fellow artists of the Off-Off-Broadway community "in recognition of her significant contributions to the Off-Off-Broadway community through service, support and leadership".[15]

Stewart's work could be seen all around the world in America, Uruguay, Argentina, Austria, Italy, Turkey, the Phillippines, Cameroon, Central Africa, Republic, Senegal, Nigeria, Brazil, Haiti, Morocco, Israel, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. She not only presented theatre in these places but she also taught there. She was a visiting professor at the Institute of Drama in South Korea and is a member of the Seoul International Theatre Institute. The New Eastern European Theatre was introduced when Stewart brought Jerzy Grotowski, Ryszard Cieslak, and Ludwig Flaszen to America and she was aided by Ted Hoffman at New York University. [16]

She was appointed an officers in the Ordre de Arts et des lettres of France and received a “Distiguished Services to Art and Culture” Award in the Ukraine. She also received awards from Japan and a Human Rights award from the Phillippines.

Recently, there has also been the creation of the Ellen Stewart International Award which 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/companies then the recipient is one of those ten. The winner receives a trip to attend the International Theatre Institute’s World Congress, an artistic residency at La MaMa Umbria to create a new work that will then be financed and produced at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds and then at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.[17]


Ellen Stewart died on January 13, 2011, aged 91. Stewart had a history of heart trouble and died at Beth Israel Hospital, New York City, after a long illness.[1] Her memorial service was held at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on Monday, January 17, 2011.[18]


  1. 1 2 Bacalzo, Dan (13 January 2011). "Ellen Stewart, Founder of La MaMa E.T.C., Dies at 91". Theater Mania. Retrieved 13 January 2011.
  2. Ellen Stewart biodata at The Villager website
  3. Jessie Carney Smith, Notable Black American Women (Gale Research 2006), page 618
  4. Sally Banes, Greenwich Village, 1963 (Duke University Press, 1993), page 49
  5. The Villager, op. cit
  6. New York Times obituary for Stewart's son, Larry Lebanus Hovell II
  7. Joan Cook, "Figure Faults Hidden by Masterly Corsetiere", The New York Times, July 6, 1960
  8. Bernadine Morris, "Ellen Stewart's Two Scenes", The New York Times, February 13, 1968
  9. Gussow, Mel; Weber, Bruce (2011-01-13). "Ellen Stewart, 91, Off Off Broadway Pioneer, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-04-19.
  10. New York Times obituary for Ellen Stewart
  11. "La MaMa » Ellen Stewart". Retrieved March 9, 2014.
  12. Ellen Stewart Wins Prestigious Praemium Imperiale Arts Award
  13. Praemium Imperiale - Ellen Stewart
  14. http://www2.polskieradio.pl/eo/dokument.aspx?iid=80682
  15. 2005 Innovative Theatre Awards Recipients
  16. "International Theatre Institute ITI". www.iti-worldwide.org. Retrieved 2016-04-19.
  17. "The Award". www.ellenstewartaward.net. Retrieved 2016-04-19.
  18. A Standing Ovation for Ellen Stewart by Shay Gines, Innovative Theatre Foundation, January 19, 2011
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