La Mama: a lively Off Off Broadway theater for the world

La Mama is a place and a person.

The place is La Mama Experimental Theater Club, nestled on East Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. If theater's advance guard has a world headquarters, this is probably it.

The person is Ellen Stewart - founder, instigator, and inspiration for La Mama since it began, and a key figure in experimental drama around the globe.

This is a big year for La Mama ETC, which is celebrating its 20th birthday. That's a long run for any kind of theater, and in the volatile world of Off Off Broadway, it's the equivalent of several lifetimes.

Better yet, La Mama is still going strong. Its multiple stages in lower Manhattan remain a lively arena for American experimenters, as well as a constant stream of international visitors.

Since opening their doors in the early 1960s with an adaptation of Tennessee Williams's story ''One Arm,'' La Mama and Miss Stewart have presented well over 1,000 plays. In 1965, Miss Stewart founded the American Center for Students and Artists in Paris, and La Mama companies began touring Europe about the same time.

Since then, La Mama productions have appeared in countries from Western Europe to Southeast Asia, while La Mama's home base in New York has received performing visitors from Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and the Caribbean.

And it's all happened under the nurturing wing of one woman, whose hard work and perseverance have brushed away obstacles that would have cowed a theater-lover of less determination.

In terms of style, La Mama's main contribution to world theater has been a stress on total communication - bringing images and gestures to the same level of importance as words. This idea goes back to the original La Mama philosophy, and has exerted great influence through the work of such La Mama alumni as director Tom O'Horgan and the Mabou Mines group.

In an interview during the most hectic days of the anniversary celebration, Miss Stewart recalled the ideas that started her on the road to La Mama.

''I didn't like much theater then,'' she says, referring to the Broadway and Off Broadway scene of the early '60s. ''I was concerned that among the audience there were people who didn't understand a word of English,'' she recalls. ''And I wanted to use plays as a means of communicating with them.

''After all, the most important thing in theater is love, expressed through communication. You shouldn't have boundaries of language to proscribe that communication. Ways should be found to use language expressively, and to show what you mean.''

She searched for such ways, working with writers and directors and actors. ''I'd select plays that tended in this direction,'' she says, ''so anybody could find something to identify with and feel comfortable with. It wasn't easy, and playwrights often took a dim view. But I didn't feel words should be eliminated. I just felt they should be enhanced by movement, dance, and visuals. The emphasis should be on those elements, as much as on the text.''

Miss Stewart herself has never written or directed a play. Rather, she has made collaboration into a high art - assembling kindred talents around her, encouraging and nourishing their work. ''I found other people who believed in this universal philosophy,'' she says, ''and shared this universal love, and welcomed the challenge of expressing it.'' Soon the effort began to pay off. Today, Miss Stewart says, ''our audience is everybody. It's international, and comes from every echelon of American life.''

Over the years, La Mama has moved through many different quarters in search of a spacious and secure home. The first La Mama was a tiny basement. ''We'd go into the street to get our audience,'' Miss Stewart recalls, ''by approaching people and inviting them. Sometimes they'd agree to come, but would change their minds when they saw those rickety stairs leading down into the dark. . . .''

Some moves were forced by city licensing laws, others by the need for more space. ''Each time we moved,'' says Miss Stewart, ''we 'just happened' to find a bigger place.'' And the La Mama dramatists would write to fill whatever space was available. ''One place was just big enough to hold a bed, so every play revolved around that: People sat on the bed, hid under the bed, tripped over the bed. Later, when we got bigger areas to work with, the aim was to write a play longer than 30 minutes that would fill the amount of space we had at the moment. It wasn't always easy!''

La Mama has gone through similar adventures with its constantly shifting personnel. The original team consisted of Miss Stewart - formerly an executive designer for Saks Fifth Avenue - and two playwrights: her brother, veteran of one failure on the commercial theater circuit, and Paul Foster, an aspiring dramatist who hadn't written anything yet. The idea was simple, Miss Stewart says. ''They'd write the plays, and friends would be in them.'' Hence the La Mama commitment to ''totally new works'' that would be far more exploratory than the Off Broadway scene of the time. ''Professionals weren't much involved,'' Miss Stewart recalls. ''Whoever we could get to participate, that was our people.''

Tomorrow: Stewart looks at today's theater.

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