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Ellen Stewart is Not Normal... Thank The Gods!

Christopher Carter Sanderson talks with the spiritual mother of downtown theater. logo

Ellen Stewart
I call Ellen Stewart "Mama," as the many artists whom she has helped fledge in the downtown theater scene have done before me. I interviewed her for TheaterMania on the set of the just-closed Seven Against Thebes at La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club), of which she is the founder.

Full disclosure: I love Ellen Stewart, and I think she is a national treasure. She speaks calmly, with a deep feeling of excitement and, occasionally, in a funny accent. To sit next to her is to feel a passion for the theater and a commitment to internationalism that has fueled her dynamic company for four decades.


THEATERMANIA: What led you to choose Seven Against Thebes to direct this time out?

ELLEN STEWART: Well, I did Mythos Edipus [1985], which starts Seven Against Thebes. And Seven Against Thebes starts Antigone. My dream would be to do Antigone. So that's where that is.

TM: How do you handle casting?

ELLEN: We don't have money to sustain anybody. I don't do casting--I just ask whoever is available in my troupe (Great Jones Repertory) and whoever wants to have a good time! There are 19 original works done by Great Jones now. I would like Antigone to be one.

TM: Would you start that production here or at your La MaMa center in Italy?

ELLEN: Elizabeth Swados and myself, we never start these Great Jones productions anywhere else but here. Then, if they get invited someplace then, you know... great! We've always been an international troupe and an international company. [The cast of Seven Against Thebes] is international; I have actors from the Philippines, Japan, Switzerland, Columbia, China, and Korea--plus people from here!

TM: What else are you working on?

ELLEN: We try to do these Great Jones productions once a year, at least. And then there's other things I'll be doing. There's a project in Yugoslavia with the Serbs, and not just the Serbs; there are 27 countries participating in "Joy Europe" in October, and I am doing a fairy tale that I have written. It's an honor that they chose me to do this. In November, I'm working in Lebanon. And of course, last but not least, we're celebrating our 40th anniversary here at La MaMa!

TM: Tell me about the Italian gig.

ELLEN: We do a summer program there. We don't have heat to heat the place! We're there in June, July, August, and September. Some of the work is in Italian.

Seven Against Thebes
TM: We all remember the article in the New York Times about funding for La MaMa. What has changed in that area?

Stewart: Not much. I don't want to be brutal about it, but BAM got millions and La MaMa got $80 thousand [from the NEA last year]. That's it. I think that doing what we do with what we've got is amazing. People are telling me that I should take the cigarette money, but I've lost too many people to cigarettes. My son was six-foot-four, and he was reduced to a bone. Too may people who helped me are gone. I think that you can understand.

TM: Will Antigone be next year's Great Jones project?

ELLEN: Next year is Dionysus.

TM: How long does it take you to get these shows together? How long was the rehearsal process for Seven Against Thebes?

ELLEN: In bits and pieces, three weeks. Because we lost Genji [Genji Ito, composer and musical director, passed away during the rehearsal process], things were hard. Everybody worked on themselves. I always have to do it in a hurry. I never have time. I don't do things like normal folks do. I'm not normal.

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