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La MaMa’s Archive of Experimental Theater

For more than half a century, La MaMa E.T.C. has brought amazing off-off-Broadway theater to the East Village. 74 East Fourth Street, designated a New York City landmark on November 17, 2009, was built in 1873 for the Aschenbrödel Verein (“Cinderella Society”), a musicians’ club formed in Kleindeutschland in 1860. In 1969, it became Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. And “Experimental” is not just its name, it’s the theater’s philosophy, from the very beginning when it was founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart. The theater specializes in the wilder kinds of theater, from plays in multiple languages to horror stories that take place entirely on a single love seat, La MaMa’s archive holds at least one piece of paper from every performance ever held at La MaMa — sometimes up to 90 per year. Dive in with us! 

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

First, La Mama’s Story

The 2014 Village Award Winner was first housed at 321 East Ninth Street, which Ellen Stewart leased. Her clothing boutique was on the first floor, and the theater in the basement. As was explained by La MaMa Archivist Sophie Glidden-Lyon, a theater license was very difficult to obtain, but a cafe licesnce was not, and so in the early days, performances were presented as floor shows for the cafe, and snacks were served. Fittingly, the theater’s first name was Café La MaMa.

La MaMa Cafe goers at their tables

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.

Claims to Fame

La Mama has staged more than three thousand productions in New York, and won more than sixty Obie Awards. Ellen Stewart received a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1985. La MaMa built connections all over the world, touring productions in Europe and bringing international productions to the East Village.  

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

La MaMa has been home to such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, and Terrence McNally; directors including Tom O’Horgan, Joseph Chaikin, Robert Wilson, and Richard Foreman; and such actors as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Irwin, and Danny DeVito. The Native American Theater Ensemble (NATE), founded 1971 by Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa and Delaware nations), made its debut performance at La Mama Theater of its first piece, Body Indian, in 1972. 

MaMa’s production of The Golden Bat, courtesy of the La MaMa Archive

La MaMa, which is still going strong and anchors the Fourth Arts Block, best epitomizes the Off-Off-Broadway theaters that from the 1960s to today have been a defining part of the theatrical culture of New York City.

La MaMa is home to eighteen repertory companies and generally 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. 

La Mama’s Archive

The La MaMa Archive, overflowing

Established in the early 1970s, La MaMa Archives collects, preserves, and exhibits records of permanent historical value relating to La MaMa and the Off-Off-Broadway movement. In doing so, it draws on a deep vein of in-house institutional memory, the passionate community of artists whose work has found a home on La MaMa stages, and a diversity of scholars, educators, and international artists with whom they regularly collaborate.

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

All of the productions, the sets, wild and marvelous masks, puppets, playbills, furniture, posters, and more can be found in La MaMa’s archive, which is on the mezzanine of the theater building (and is 100% accessible). Each room is full of ephemera, and archivist Sophie Glidden-Lyon gave Village Preservation a virtual tour of the space, which also includes such special stories as how, exactly, La MaMa came to be called La MaMa — you can watch here, and decide whether or not the story sounds true or apocryphal: 

La MaMa’s collections offer an intimate perspective on major social, aesthetic, and political movements of the 20th and 21st centuries that resonate with histories of peoples across the globe. Where else would you find original plays by Vietnam War veterans alongside video of performances about the AIDS crisis; unpublished scripts by Japanese filmmaker Shuji Terayama alongside photos and correspondence by Polish revolutionary director Tadeusz Kantor? A portion of these materials are available for viewing on our new Digital Collections website, catalog.lamama.org.

While Ellen Stewart passed away in 2011, her legacy lives on at La Mama, and much of that is housed in the Archive. From photos to documents, Ellen’s visage watches over the archive, and the community that she envisioned and built as a beacon of culture, along with her countless collaborators. 

More Resources, and Accessing the Archive

La MaMa’s Archive is open to visitors by appointment. For more information please contact Archives Director, Ozzie Rodriguez at 212-260-2471 or email archives@lamama.org. 

To explore La MaMa’s building, and the other amazing theaters of the East Village, check out our Theater Tour on our East Village Building Blocks website — here.

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