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Theater In Conversation

Myth and La MaMa: Ellen Stewart

Since founding La MaMa in 1961, Ellen Stewart has been far and away the most prolific (and arguably most influential) producer of experimental theater in New York and throughout the world. Last year, Stewart celebrated the work of the company most closely associated with her theater, Great Jones Repertory, with Seven, featuring the revival of their seminal production from the 1970s, Fragments of a Greek Trilogy (Trojan Women, Electra and Medea), along with four plays (perhaps best described as “dance-opera”) written and directed by Stewart. Dionysus: Filius Dei, and the trilogy of Mythos Oedipus, Seven Against Thebes and Antigone shed new or, more accurately, rediscovered light on otherwise familiar myths, Stewart’s intensive research in antiquity serving as the basis for the company’s material.

This month, Great Jones continues its exploration of the myth and language of ancient Greece with the debut of Perseus, another work by Mama herself, who took time during the final week of rehearsal to discuss the new play and the legacy it furthers.

David Kilpatrick (Rail): So Perseus continues the great tradition of…

Ellen Stewart: Great Jones! We hope.

Rail: Tell me how you turned to the material of the Perseus myth. 

Stewart: I just said Perseus for this time. No particular reason.

Rail: But it continues your exploration of Greek myth.

Stewart: It’s just to keep our tradition, the Great Jones tradition. We’ve done other plays that were not Greek, but since this is something nobody else does, something that we started, I thought we should try to keep it up.

Rail: Some people accuse theater that engages with myth as not being politically engaged, and insist that these times require political engagement.

Stewart: I wasn’t trying. If you think about it—and you saw the Seven plays—every one of them was political. Every one. Think about it.

Rail: I was wondering how you see that, politics.

Stewart: I’m not trying to be politically engaging. I’m not seeking to be political. But we are seeking to continue our exploration of the myths. And it just so happens the myths are political. And we’ve been doing them now thirty-two years. So it would mean that we were being political with the myths for thirty-two years!

Rail: How do you see your company’s diversity as in some way embracing a global consciousness?

Stewart: Well dear, when you think about La MaMa embracing the global consciousness, we have been doing that since our first tour to Europe in 1965. We’ve just always been global. Hasn’t been any different. Can you imagine in ’66 we were playing in Yugoslavia? In ’68 we brought Grotowski to this country.

Rail: Thinking of Grotowski, especially in terms of the Great Jones repertoire…

Stewart: We’re not doing his techniques at all.

Rail: Yeah, but it seems to me that the work of Great Jones in many ways brings a very sacred dimension to theater, that there is something sacred going on, and that this something sacred—while with these particular plays you’re dealing with the myths of Greece—it’s some kind of a new mythology, a new ritual consciousness that’s conjured by these plays.

Stewart: Well, we feel very fortunate. Every year it will be one or two persons coming in, and some of the other persons go, but the traditions we keep. I founded the troupe for [director] Andrei Serban and [composer] Elizabeth Swados, and Andrei used to tell the actors that when you are playing, you have to first honor the gods, with whatever you’re doing and with your mind. When you come on to begin, whatever arena you are playing, your thing is, your consciousness is with the gods. And then to all of the people that have come to see you. And you must never forget that. So you offer yourself up to the gods, and you pray that you will be pleasing to the gods, and that you strive to do this. So that’s been our policy. He set that theme. He’s half-Greek. Half-Greek, half-Romanian. So we have—to the best of our abilities—that’s what we do, and we attempt to honor the gods by trying to be as close to that essence as possible. So it becomes for us a holy thing.

Rail: And even the new ones coming in, they…

Stewart: They’re surprised, they are, really surprised, but they get in there.

Rail: And they show that respect for the gods, as you say?

Stewart: They do, and they tell me they become different.

Rail: So it’s transformative for the actors?

Stewart: I think so.

Rail: And for the audience as well?

Stewart: We try.

Perseus, written and directed by Ellen Stewart and featuring the Great Jones Repertory Company, runs from April 29 through May 15 (Thursday-Sunday at 7:30pm and Sunday 3:00pm) at La MaMa e.t.c. Annex, 66 East 4th St.

Tickets: $25; reserve by calling (212) 475-7710. For more info:


David Kilpatrick


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2005

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