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."