Forty years ago, Ellen Stewart was working as a successful clothing designer at Saks Fifth Avenue. Her brother wanted to direct a play but couldn't find a space, so Stewart, in a move that would change not only her life but also the fabric of theater in New York, rented a basement on Second Avenue.
Stewart became quickly attuned to the restrictions of real estate improvements, and decided that the theater space would also be a café, since places that served food needed fewer permits. Work began, and so did gossip in the neighborhood; to the consternation of neighbors, a steady stream of handsome male models from Saks arrived to help with the renovation. After the police were summoned, Stewart explained just exactly what was happening, and the legend of LaMama was launched.
LaMama would eventually have four performing spaces, mounting 60 productions a year with artists from New York, around the country, and around the world. Ten years ago, as a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, Stewart purchased a dilapidated, 700-year-old convent in the hills of Umbria. Eventually, it was restored and became a summer haven for artists.
LaMama Umbria International combines the spirits of Italy, New York and, most significantly, Ellen Stewart. Tucked away in the hills, surrounded by lush olive groves and vineyards, it personifies a European retreat: calm, casual, with a warm sense of community and a serious artistic atmosphere that will nurture creativity.
For two weeks this July, 22 theater artists will be housed, fed, nurtured, challenged--and removed from the usual atmosphere of competition--during a Directors' Symposium at LaMama Umbria. David Diamond, a coordinator for the Symposium, described the residence and program in the same terms he described Stewart: extraordinary.
"Ellen is undaunted, charismatic, sensitive, intensely creative and fearless," Diamond says. "She has a great sense of humor, a terrific sense of talent, and an amazing circle of people around her. Ellen is also one of the most non-discriminatory people I've ever known; she judges people as they are, without concern of gender, race or nationality."
Diamond, who grew up in Chicago, has an eclectic theatrical background. Having arrived in New York to attend graduate school at NYU, he has worked as a stage manager, designer, and in theatrical management services. He was also a founding member of The Barrow Group.
"The structure was designed for ease of use and simplicity," Diamond adds, "like a country home. But it's decorated with Ellen's artifacts from all over the world, which she collected during her travels." The main building, which sleeps up to 30 guests, has three kitchens, six bathrooms, and a music room. There will be two three-hour work sessions daily, with communal meals for lunch and dinner. There is also an annex ("the Italian version of a 700-year-old barn") that serves as a rehearsal room, and an outdoor clearing that is used as performance space.
Diamond continues. "Initially, Ellen created an atmosphere for artists which allowed actors, directors, and writers to work and to learn from guest instructors. Meanwhile, Larry Sacharow, who won the Lucille Lortel Award for his direction of Three Tall Women, started the Orvieto Institute. Larry, who chairs the theater department at Fordham University, hosted a month-long symposium for actors. After I attended his program last summer, I wanted to do the same thing for directors: a two-week package, with a core of international teachers."
Stewart offered to house the symposium, and Diamond assembled a wish list of guest artists, many of whom Stewart personally invited. "We came up with six directors, who also teach," Diamond says, "and we sold it around the country. But students will share their own working process, so it won't be just teacher with students, but students with students."
Some of the teaching artists include George Ferencz (Actors Theatre of Louisville, Yale, Pittsburgh Public Theatre), Jean-Guy Lecat (technical director and designer with Peter Brooks since 1976, who has also worked with Andre Sergan and Samuel Beckett) and Sacharow. There are excursions planned, too: to Orvieto, to Pontedera, and to Spoleto. Diamond notes that in the summer, Italy is a treasure trove of festivals and artistic activities.
Diamond is enthusiastic and committed to this year's symposium, and has hope for its future. "I want it to exist and to thrive," he says, "so that the people who take advantage of it will be transformed, and will become better artists in the theater."
For additional information on the Symposium, please call (212) 254-6468.