2014 Village Award Winner: La MaMa E.T.C.

La Mama's main building at 74A East 4th Street. Photo courtesy of the La MaMa Archive / Ellen Stewart Private Collection.

La Mama’s main building at 74A East 4th Street. Photo courtesy of the La MaMa Archive / Ellen Stewart Private Collection.

For fifty-three years, La MaMa E.T.C. has brought amazing theater off, off Broadway and into the East Village. GVSHP is proud to honor the theater with a 2014 Village Award at our Monday, June 16th ceremony. We hope you’ll join us (RSVP here) to celebrate La Mama and our six other wonderful awardees!

La Mama was founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, who wanted to provide rehearsal and performance space for her foster brother. She leased space at 321 East Ninth Street and housed her clothing boutique on the first floor and the theater in the basement. On a tip from a sympathetic inspector that was called in by complaining neighbors, Stewart obtained a license for a coffeehouse, which was easier to obtain than a theater license. Early performances sold cake and coffee and a hat was passed for the performers. Fittingly, the theater’s first name was Café La MaMa.

Ellen Stewart in the La MaMa Archive, 1989.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Ellen Stewart in the La MaMa Archive, 1989. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Early in its history, La Mama focused on the playwright, offering a space where aspiring writers could thrive. Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Harvey Fierstein were just some of the writers who saw their plays produced on stage at La Mama. Over time, the theater began to focus on the visual of the performance itself and began to concentrate on the role of the director. Stewart also toured several La MaMa productions in Europe, hoping that reviews would have a positive influence at home in New York City. These tours led Stewart to create many cross-cultural exchanges, which continue today.

Ross Alexander’s “Little Mother” at La Mama’s second home on Second Avenue. Photo via Caffe Cino Pictures courtesy of John Borske.

Ross Alexander’s “Little Mother” at La Mama’s second home on Second Avenue. Photo via Caffe Cino Pictures courtesy of John Borske.

When La MaMa moved to its second home, it officially became La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club). Stewart began to charge admission for plays and ran the theater as a private club. The theater became a nonprofit in 1967. It officially moved to its current home on East Fourth Street in 1969.

Today La MaMa is home to eighteen repertory companies and produces a new play every three weeks. La MaMa boasts three theaters on East Fourth Street as well as a rehearsal space on Great Jones Street. Most recently,  an art gallery was added on East 1st Street. While Stewart passed away in 2011, her legacy lives on at La Mama.

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Sheryl Woodruff was GVSHP's Senior Director of Operations until December 2014.