* Blue Man Group: a performance company formed in 1987 by three good friends, Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink. With their faces and bodies painted in blue, these three men present creative performances consisting of music, mime, and visual components. They initially started as street performers, but became a blockbuster hit after presenting Tubes at La MaMa in 1991. That same year, they presented a full performance at the Astor Place Theatre, which is still their home today. Blue Man Group has toured around the globe.
|La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club was founded in 1961 by the New York theater legend Ellen Stewart. The initial space was so small that it accommodated only around twenty-five people, but it has expanded to become an organization today with four buildings in the East Village. After Ellen passed away in 2011, Mia Yoo became her successor as artistic director; and in this interview with Yoo we learn about the La MaMa spirit and the richly diverse range of programs it engages in today.
Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki [journalist]
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club was founded in 1961 by the New York theatre legend Ellen Stewart. The company’s initial space at 321 East Ninth Street was very small, accommodating only around twenty-five people.
At this time non-traditional, not-commercial artists did not have a platform. Ellen saw this need and created a space for artists to express themselves.
It's quite extraordinary that La MaMa is now, half a century later, an organization with four buildings, all located in the East Village. First of all, can you explain the trajectory of La MaMa in terms of the different theatre venues?
The first La MaMa location was in the basement of a building at 321 East Ninth Street. Most of the tenants there were white and didn’t like the fact that Ellen was renting out the basement space. At one point, one of the residents contacted the Health Department because they thought she was running a brothel. The city was constantly following Ellen as she moved from place to place. In one instance, though, an inspector who came to check in on La MaMa happened to be performer, and advised Ellen that if she served a cup of coffee, she could run the facility as a café. And so, we became Café La MaMa.
La MaMa moved to several different locations, and along the way, we became La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. In 1968, the first permanent building of La MaMa was 74A East Fourth Street, which Ellen purchased with funding from institutions such as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
On the first floor, we opened what is now The First Floor Theatre, and on the second floor, a space called The Club. In smaller rooms throughout the building, Ellen created artist studios. On the top floor was Ellen’s apartment. The building at 66 East Fourth Street, where we are in right now, has the Ellen Stewart Theatre, the Archives, The Downstairs Theatre, our administrative office, and a visiting artists’ dormitory.
Just one block south, on Great Jones Street, we have a six-floor building equipped with rehearsal spaces, exhibition space, and an art and technology studio. On First Street, we have an art gallery that we rent out to a non-profit arts organization called Howl! Arts. The basement floor of that building is used as a dance studio with HT Chen and Dancers. All in all, we have 88,000 square feet (8,175㎡) of space. All our buildings are in need of significant repairs, as most were built in the late 19th century. That is why we are embarking on a major capital renovations project right now.
Ellen was a visionary, a force of nature. She lived so intensely in the present. For her, the creative impulse was of the utmost importance. However, it was hard to invest in facilities with a limited budget, so the way Ellen dealt with the facilities was through “band-aid solutions.” She was always focused on making the art on the stages possible. While Ellen was alive, La MaMa was Ellen, and Ellen was La MaMa. She would never have done this, but I believe that if she wanted to, she had the right to burn down the venue. After Ellen’s passing , La MaMa now belongs to everyone, and we all have the responsibility to make sure that La MaMa continues into the future.
During the 1960s, many small theatres opened in New York City, which became the impetus for what is now known as the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement. La MaMa was one of the core theatres of this movement, alongside Caffe Cino, Judson Poets Theatre, and Theatre Genesis. Among these theatres, why do you think only La MaMa survived until today?
I think that one of the reasons why La MaMa has survived is our strong artistic mission combined with our adaptability to the needs of the community. Ellen was always aware of what was happening around town and across the globe, and she wasn’t afraid to move with the times. That is how La MaMa has continued to maintain collaborative relationships with artists in New York City and abroad.
Another reason why we continue to grow is the bond with our artistic community. La MaMa survived by becoming a home for artists in need of a platform, and thrives today because of the people in theatre who support us. Ellen always said that there was a global La MaMa family, and with that kind of community, we wouldn’t sink. This theatre was always supported by family. Whenever La MaMa moved to a new building, our artistic community followed. Today, nearly 70% of our audience identify themselves as artists. We believe that it was this kind of community-oriented approach that was recognized when we won the Regional Theatre Tony Award at this year’s Tony Awards.
We are also part of a wider arts community in the East Village. East Fourth Street is now populated with over 15 art-related organizations. Our building at 66 East Fourth Street used to belong to the city, but in 2005, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, designated this block on East Fourth Street as Manhattan’s only naturally occurring cultural district. The block’s arts tenants were then able to buy their spaces for $1, which La MaMa did. Being liberated from paying rent was huge, but because the buildings were no longer owned by the city, we became responsible for paying for all maintenance costs, and that has become a big financial burden.
Around 60 to 70 performances are presented annually at La MaMa. Most of them are world premieres. Your vision seems completely different from theatres that only invite productions that were successful elsewhere.
I always like to say, “La MaMa is the place where you jump off the cliff.” We take risks together with the artist. Most of the work produced here has never been seen before – we often don’t even know how long a show will run until opening night. Whether an artist is young with no experience, or a mid to late career artist, we’re here to support them when they want to try something new. Ellen did not know that the talented young people she nurtured at La MaMa would become Philip Glass, Sam Shepard, and Harvey Fierstein. At La MaMa’s 45th Anniversary Event, Richard S. Lanier, the President of the Asian Arts Council
and a huge supporter of our cross-cultural programs, joked: “In La MaMa, I’ve seen the most ground-breaking and beautiful productions, but I’ve also seen the worst possible productions.” [Laughs] I think that encapsulates the nature of experimental theatre.
La MaMa started off as a “theatre for playwrights,” and nurtured brilliant writers such as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Adrienne Kennedy, among others. However, Ellen became intrigued by non-verbal theatre early on and, as early as in 1962, she invited a Korean puppet company to perform at La MaMa. Tubes by Blue Man Group (*) in 1991 could be considered as one of the apexes of these non-verbal theatre works in the history of La MaMa.
Ellen was always mesmerized by performances that communicated through visual and sonic elements. She believed that theatre should transcend language, and saw puppet theatre as a way to connect across cultural barriers. Ellen instinctively understood how much could be said through these inanimate objects, and, being drawn to that magic, she started inviting puppet companies from around the globe. Today, we carry on the tradition with our biannual La MaMa Puppet Series festival. As for Japanese puppet artists, in 2015, for example, Nishikawa-Koryū Hachiōji Kuruma Puppet Company (led by Nishikawa Koryū V) presented their work at La MaMa.
La MaMa has always welcomed Japanese artists. For instance, in 1970, Yutaka Higashi and his Tokyo Kid Brothers presented Golden Bat, and Shūji Terayama and his Tenjo Sajiki presented La Marie Vision. In autumn of that same year, Tokyo Kid Brothers’ Coney Island Play was also presented. Can you explain how the creative rapport between Japanese artists and La MaMa has continued from the 1970s until today?
Artistic dialogue between La MaMa and over seventy Japanese artists has been a continuous and important part of our theatre for the past fifty years. The first Japanese artist to work with La MaMa was the painter and scenic designer Kikuo Saito. That was back when we were still Café La MaMa – Kikuo made instant coffee and Sam Shepard served as a waiter.
If Ellen were here for this interview, she would probably tell this story about the Tokyo Kid Brothers. She always championed the Tokyo Kid Brothers’ accomplishments in the U.S. and thought that they deserved greater recognition within the Japanese theatre world. In 1970, they created the play Golden Bat
at La MaMa. These young performers from Japan brought artists and audiences together at a time when there was still prejudice against Asians here in the U.S. Golden Bat
later moved Off-Broadway, where it had a long and successful run.
In 1978, director and scenic designer Setsu Asakura mesmerized the audience with a production called Ningyō Shimai
(The Doll Sisters
), which used the aesthetics of Edo string puppet theatre and was performed by two actresses (Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Nobuko Miyamoto). In 1979, we invited Kōbō Abe’s The Little Elephant is Dead
. In 1980, Shūji Terayama returned to present the world premiere of Directions to Servants
, and the Tokyo Kid Brothers performed their play Shiro. The next year, Kazuo Ohno came and danced two legendary pieces here: Admiring l’Argentina and My Mother
. In 1983 and 1985, Min Tanaka presented work at La MaMa. In 1987, Yoshi Oida visited New York to direct a French-Japanese production. Entering the 1990s, Japanese artists came almost every year, including playwright Sō Kuramoto and Buto artist Yoshito Ohno. These exchanges with Japanese artists have continued today. Just last week, Takeshi Kawamura presented a piece that he created in collaboration with John Jesurun titled Distant Observer
(Mar. 16- April 1, 2018).
La MaMa is known for inviting legendary international artists such as Peter Brook, Tadeusz Kantor, and Jerzy Grotowski to the U.S. for the first time. Would you say that La MaMa is equally passionate about inviting international artists today?
We are very passionate about international projects; in fact, thirty to forty percent of our productions are from abroad. Having said that, however, since so many other theatres are now presenting big productions from abroad, we concentrate more on artists who are doing significant work but are still unknown in the U.S. Owing to more than half a century of continuous international collaborations, we now have a wealth of connections with local people I like to call “La MaMa ambassadors.” We try to seek out and develop new international projects by connecting with these ambassadors, understanding what could be happening underground by the people who live there. We also discover new exchanges when our resident theatre ensemble (the Great Jones Repertory Company) or works created at La MaMa are invited to perform overseas. That leads to opportunities to work with local artists in different countries.
The 1960s were a revolutionary time for American society, with the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement. Ellen was so ahead of her time because she was already pushing for equal opportunities for people of every color, race, nationality, and gender.
Yes, absolutely. Ellen was way beyond her time; we have barely caught up in the last few decades. She was so much a citizen of the world. Even during the pre-Internet era, she strove for equitable communication with everyone. Yet, that was precisely the reason why she was criticized by the African-American community. Many people thought that Ellen was not black enough, as she wasn’t focusing only on works involving African-American and diaspora narratives. Other people denounced her for not being “American” enough. She welcomed experimental works from all corners of the world, rather than focusing only on American playwrights and directors.
One of the testaments to her passion for supporting people from all backgrounds is La MaMa’s early presentation of work by the Native American Theatre Ensemble. In 1972, La MaMa became one of the first theatres to invite a contemporary theatre ensemble all of Native American artists (founded by Hanay Geiogamah), who then became one of our resident companies. Another example is a resident company called La MaMa Chinatown, which was founded by Wu Jing-Jyi, a Taiwanese playwright, and Ching Yeh, a former biochemist. In New York today, identity-based performances that deal with race, gender and nationality are extremely popular. La MaMa has been the platform for expressing those voices since the 1960s.
La MaMa is still a passionate proponent of Native American theatre productions. Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective, focusing on Native American narratives, is one of La MaMa’s resident companies.
Safe Harbors is a theatre collective that was formed five or six years ago by artist and activist Muriel Borst-Tarrant. Since she is an urban Native American woman herself, the collective has focused on artistic expressions coming from Native Americans living in cities. Native American companies such as Spiderwoman Theatre and Thunderbird Theatre Company can be seen as the extension of numerous activities Ellen supported in the 1970s. Safe Harbors represents a younger generation of artists that continues this lineage. La MaMa’s support extends to other forms of Indigenous performance, such as Hula (Hawaiian dance) and traditional Filipino dance forms.
There are currently around thirty resident artists at La MaMa. Among them are, the Chinese-American artist Ping Chong; Japanese choreographer/dancer Yoshiko Chuma and School of Hard Knocks; Split Britches, the forerunner of LGBTQ performances in New York; and set designer Jun Maeda, among others. The artists I have mentioned have all made their names by working with La MaMa for decades. Do you ever feel that you have to let go of some of these successful artists and lend more of a hand to new emerging talent?
No, I don’t feel that way. By saying “No,” I don’t mean that we don’t support younger artists. That is not the case at all. At La MaMa we are interested in supporting artists of all generations who are trying new things, regardless of where they are in their individual careers. For instance, SEAGULLMACHINE
, showing right now at our theatre, is a production by a young artist called Nick Benacerraf and his company. Nick came to one of our Meet-Ups, which are held three times a year and give anyone the opportunity to meet with one of our curators. From that conversation, his production materialized.
American culture and many others tend to be obsessed with “the new,” “the young generation,” or “youth.” Because of that, there are not many opportunities for those mid-career artists. More so than young people today, the older generation of artists often struggles to find opportunities to show their work. For instance, I think of people like performance artist John Kelly and playwright-director John Jesurun, who co-presented Distant Observer
together with Takeshi Kawamura last week. To me, both artists are pioneers in terms of the work they did and continue to do – and yet, they don’t get enough funding. That is why La MaMa is dedicated to supporting not only “new talents,” but also “new experiments” by artists of all generations. Through long-term support, we have built true relationships with our resident artists, beyond just providing rehearsal space and theatre equipment. La MaMa needs to be a home for artists that they can absolutely rely on at any point in their careers. And it is this intergenerational dialogue that we believe is so important here at La MaMa.
Countering the American culture obsessed with newness, La MaMa has a free educational program called “Coffeehouse Chronicles,” where legendary artists from the past are invited to talk about their work.
Coffeehouse Chronicles started in 2005. The program consists of a series of talks – an informal oral history event – where we invite artists who worked with us through the decades to talk about their art and what was happening at that time. When Michal Gamily became the Series Director, she wanted the series to serve as more than a history session; the talks are designed to provide a narrative explanation that helps everyone understand the context of where these performances and movements came from and how they connect to today. Coffeehouses have become not only an opportunity for older artists to get together, but also a platform for young artists and students to learn from their predecessors. Like young artists learning about the experiments of the past, we also have a responsibility to know our own history. If you think about what experimentation is, it is a chance to learn about something. By talking together and sharing our experiences of the past, we hope that theatre-makers of the next generation can learn from the lessons of original artists.
If you know a bit about performance history in New York, you probably understand that “immersive theatre,” which is so popular now, was already occurring in the “happenings” of the 50’s and 60’s, and in 1974 by The Great Jones Repertory Company, led by Elizabeth Swados and Andrei Şerban. In their production of The Trojan Women
, people did not passively sit in the auditorium. They sat amidst the performance with happenings popping up everywhere; you were in the action, and you became the Trojans or the Greeks in the play.
Shifting the subject, can you tell me how you first met Ellen Stewart?
I come from a family of three generations of theatre. My grandfather, Chi-Jin Yoo, was a playwright and later founded Seoul Institute of the Arts, one of the first modern art school institutions in Korea. My father, Duk-Hyung Yoo, was a theatre director. He visited the U.S. on a Rockefeller Grant, and at some point, he met Ellen and formed a bond. While my father was in the States, he met my mother, a Russian Jewish American, and married her. So, my relationship with Ellen goes back to my parents’ generation.
As a student, I never thought that I would do theatre. When I was in high school, at an international school in Korea, I went through stages of dreaming of very conventional scenarios of becoming a doctor, a lawyer or a social worker. However, when I came to the States to go to college, I don’t know why — maybe it was in the blood, or it was my destiny — but I decided to major in theatre. Being a very shy person, it was almost painful for me to go on stage. I always asked myself what the hell I was doing [laughs]. I guess it was something I felt I had to overcome.
After I graduated from college, Ellen invited me to Umbria, where La MaMa hosts an artist residency every summer. She probably figured that I was confused coming out of school and didn’t know where to go. We worked on Ellen’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet
. It was a completely different experience from what I had done in college. The theatre department at my school was very cliquish, and Ellen was totally inclusive and wonderfully unpredictable and crazy [laughs]. Including myself, there were only two non-Italian performers, but I didn’t feel like an outsider at all. It was this magical space for a transformation. It literally changed my life, and I saw what could be possible in the theatre.
At that point, I became more proactive. I was studying traditional performance arts in Korea, and in the summers I worked with Ellen in Umbria. At some point I was exploring options of working at the Grotowski Center, but in 1995 I came to NYC to go to graduate school for acting. Upon graduation, I started working on projects regionally as well as internationally. But, somewhere inside me, I always felt that I could come back to La MaMa. Probably starting in the late 1990s, I started doing administrative work more officially at La MaMa. In 2005, I received the Future Leaders Mentorship Program
grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and that kind of formalized my mentorship with Ellen. In 2009, Ellen and I shared the Co-Artistic Director title, and then two years later, Ellen passed away.
What was your initial response when Ellen announced that you would become the next Ellen Stewart?
It was at the end-of-season dinner party at La MaMa where everyone gathered when Ellen made the announcement. I ran out of the room. (Laugh) I was overwhelmed. I could not imagine a world without Ellen. But Ellen, had thought through the process, and so, as her health deteriorated, the work was being done by others collaboratively. So, when she ultimately passed, the emotional hole was of course there. But organizationally, we could keep on going.
Can you tell me how many staff members currently work at La MaMa?
First, neither Ellen nor I like the word “staff”; we prefer using “team” or even “family.” Currently, there are eighteen full-time workers. And if you add the part-time workers, although it depends on the time of the season, we consist of 35-45 workers. But, this is not enough. People are wearing many different hats to take care of the theatre facilities, programming, finance, marketing and other miscellaneous things. A lot of people are working extensive hours out of love and passion towards the organization and the arts. People are not being paid what they should be paid. So, bringing up staff wages is what we are striving to do.
Can you give me a general overview of the annual budget?
The operating budget shifts anywhere from $2.8 to 3.2 million. When Ellen passed away, the budget was around 1.6 or 1.7, so in the years since her passing, we’ve been able to almost double the budget. Of that, about 55% percent is contributed income from individuals, foundations and government. The remaining approximately 45% is basically from earned income like rentals including some subsidized rentals for arts organizations, and ticket sales.
American politics have changed drastically since you took the helm of this organization. In 2011, it was only three years into the Obama administration. Six years later, Trump’s Republican Party took over the country and now you are bogged down in political turmoil. In tandem with the political shift, do you see a thematic transformation in works of La MaMa’s younger artists?
The political changes do affect the work we see now. I think that so much of the work that we are presenting explores and interrogates where we are right now. I am obsessed and frustrated these days because the work stays within the confines of the four walls of the theatre where it feels as though we are preaching to the choir. Many theatre-goers are liberal-minded and it would be significant if the work could travel to other communities to share and create dialogue. In 2009, together with the Seoul Institute of the Arts, we co-founded a digital technology platform called CultureHub. In this program, via the internet and digital technologies, we connect and communicate with artists from around the world; we have already connected five hundred artists from thirty countries. For example, in one of our projects we have done with CultureHub, we invited artists from New York and Seoul to work together from their remote locations simultaneously, projecting the other side onto scrims in the two different theatre spaces. From thousands of miles away, audiences in both New York and Seoul could concurrently experience the engagement and create an artistic work together.
Ellen was always in search of communication tools going beyond borders. Despite differences in nationality, age, or language, digital tools allow us to expand our means of communication with someone across the globe.
Owing to the current political climate, do you ever feel unsure or unsafe about the future of La MaMa?
I think that is the situation for many theatres right now, not only La MaMa. Having said that, I am hopeful for the future. In stark contrast to a government that propagates the politics of division, people from all walks of life come to La MaMa. Through art and performance people can see and understand communities unlike their own. That is why I hold up the belief that culture is vital to all societies. Culture is a tool to help us understand who we are and what it means to be human. And for more than half a century, La MaMa has functioned as one of those cultural venues changing society from within. La MaMa is not only a theatre. It is a worldview.
Within CultureHub’s annual programming, you organize a technology performance event once a year called Festival Reflect 2.0. Many other festivals are also initiated at La MaMa: La MaMa Squirts, a festival focusing on LGBTQ performances; La MaMa Moves!, your annual dance festival; and La MaMa Puppet Series, a festival for experimental puppet theatres, among others. Do you oversee every single one of the productions presented at these festivals?
No, I don’t. Since I put a lot of trust in the curators who run the series, I let them take care of the programming. Of course, I meet all the artists they have selected. And, I might have more to do with how the program is shaped based on what the curator needs. Most of our curators are artists themselves based in New York, and by letting them lead the programs, I think the curatorial vision of La MaMa diversifies. Trusting others and expanding the vision is one of the things I have learned from Ellen.
Last question. It’s been seven years since you became the Artistic Director of La MaMa. In your view, what are the necessary attributes for running this visionary theatre? Is it an artistic vision, financial dexterity, communication skills, negotiation capacity, or just sheer perseverance?
Well, I think all of it. I think you need all those skills to run any theatre. And beyond that I think the task requires you to be extremely flexible, so that you can adapt to the day-to-day changes occurring around you. Yes, most of all, you have to be open. If you are open, you can listen to innovative and unexpected ideas, give chances to new artists and work when they need the opportunity, and provide help to communities who are struggling. So, to answer your question, I think all those attributes are necessary from a place of openness. Everything starts from that place.