La MaMa

Art & Culture | History

Off-Off-Broadway Theater for Emerging Playwrights, Avant Garde Drama and Performance Art

La Mama Experimental Theater 4th Street

About La MaMa

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • This area is called the East 4th Street Cultural District or the Fourth Arts Blockand is a must-know for any theater aficionado.
  • The block is very discreet. Upon first glance, you would not know it’s a cultural mecca with fourteen different arts organizations and twenty theater & rehearsal spaces.
  • Founded in 1961, La Mama Experimental Theater, at #74 & #66 E. 4th St, was the pioneer of this district, with its envelope-pushing Off-Off Broadway productions.
  • Ellen Stewart, a legend in avant-garde theater, started La Mama in the basement of her dressmaker shop and grew the organization to become one of the most important in the history of American theater. (More about Ellen below!)
  • The theater includes rehearsal studios, four performance spaces, an art gallery, living quarters for visiting performers, and the La MaMa Archives, a one-of-a-kind record of the history of theater in downtown Manhattan.
  • La MaMa’s Artistic Director, Mia Yoo, says of the theater: “Artists are welcomed at La MaMa and lovingly encouraged to experiment…As we’ve grown over the years, risk-taking and diversity have remained key cultural values.”
  • In 2018, La MaMa received a Regional Theatre Tony Award, which recognized it as an essential player in the Off-Off Broadway movement.
  • To date, the theater has put on more than 5,000 productions and featured over 150,000 performers!
  • The building has an interesting history.  Built in 1873 as a musician’s club called the Cinderella Society, it’s one of the few remaining buildings from the Kleindeutschland or “Little Germany” era in the East Village.  Note the three busts of composers.  Here’s an excellent article with a detailed history of the building on one of our favorite history blogs, Daytonian in Manhattan.

Carpe City Trivia

Which famous artists worked with La MaMa Experimental Theater?

The theater has had many well-known performers and playwrights pass through such as Steve Buscemi, Julie Taymor, Bette Midler, Philip Glass, the Blue Man Group, Ed Bullins, Diane Lane, Harvey Fierstein, Al Pacino, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Dreyfus, Robert DeNiro, and Sam Shepard. Author David Sedaris said: “Were it not for La MaMa, Amy [Sedaris] and I would never have written a single play, much less five.”

Who was Ellen Stewart?

Ellen Stewart was born in Chicago in 1919. In the 1950s, she moved to New York City and became a fashion designer and dressmaker.  Ellen first worked as an alterationist at Saks Fifth Avenue and then as a designer at Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel. She founded the theater in 1961 despite having no theater or performance background.

Because it was easier to get a license for a café than a theater, Café La Mama was its original name. She would charge for café items and pass a hat to pay the performers.  According to The New York Times, neighbors originally wanted to shut the space down.  In interviews Stewart said, “The neighbors thought I was running a brothel. Otherwise, why would so many white men be visiting a black woman in a basement?”

Soon La Mama became known as the place where up-and-coming artists with cutting-edge ideas could get their start.  The theater outgrew its space and moved a couple of times before landing on East 4th Street, and the rest is history.  In 1993, Stewart was inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame.  She passed away in 2011 at the age of 91.

Ellen Stewart Presents
Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre on Amazon

By: Cyd Sacks

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