Downtown Dramatics: La MaMa ETC

By Emma Gold, a Highlighter staff columnist

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La MaMa ETC isn’t your mother’s theatre organization — well, it might have been if she grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1960s. Founded by fashion designer-turned-renowned director Ellen Stewart in 1961, La MaMa has been a cultural institution for experimental and off-off-Broadway works since its founding. Originally created as a space for fostering playwrights, its first iteration was located in a basement on East 9th Street, doubling as a café while being subsidized by Stewart’s fashion career. Often facing legal tussles and arrests, Stewart and La MaMa bounced around the Lower East Side throughout the sixties, gaining the suffix of ETC (Experimental Theatre Club) along the way.

The fifth and permanent residency ultimately became 74 East Fourth Street in 1969. Expanding to an additional location two doors down at 66 East Fourth Street, La MaMa has created a comprehensive complex that houses rehearsal spaces and four performance spaces. Two of the performance spaces are located at 74 E Fourth Street: the First Floor Theatre, which resembles a blackbox with exposed brick walls, and the Experimental Club, an intimate cabaret space. At 66 East Fourth Street are the Ellen Stewart Theatre, which has a more formal, large-scale layout that can house a proscenium-style production, and the newly opened Downstairs, a convertible space that accommodates multidisciplinary works.

La MaMa is also known for its international relations; that is, relationships with companies and performance troupes from overseas. These have been fortified by in-house productions that have toured internationally, and subsequently by international shows that have found a home in one of La MaMa’s New York spaces. There is even a campus in Spoleto, Italy which holds residencies and workshops for artists.

It’s fairly impossible to delineate a single season at La MaMa, and performances tend to run a week or two at most. Due to this unpredictability, finding something worth seeing can at times be hit-or-miss, but it certainly doesn’t take much effort to strike gold.

I’ve seen two shows at La MaMa over the course of the past few months. The first was a one-man show titled “The Elephant In Every Room I Enter,” which played at the First Floor Theatre, a production I thoroughly enjoyed. Its creator and star, Gardiner Comfort, told the story of his personal experiences with Tourette’s. This show was incredibly inventive with its use of space, as the entire theater was transformed by projections that replicated its natural structure. When the projection mutated, it created a mind-altering effect and a window into Gardiner’s own thoughts.

The second production was an installation in a long-running, soap opera-esque series called “Shadowland,” which played in the Downstairs theater. Large projection screens created an X-shape in the space, with the audience sitting inside two of the X’s oppositional triangles. By using video footage and cleverly diverting the audience’s attention, it was a strange and confusing theatrical experience that felt singular to La MaMa.

La MaMa’s production history is predominantly theatrical, but has focused on visual arts, music, and multidisciplinary works as well. Just within the next month, La MaMa will host six separate theatrical productions, one visual art exhibition at La Galleria (its visual arts gallery on Great Jones Street), two arts workshops for children, and an installation in an artistic forum series called the “Coffeehouse Chronicles.” Thus, no matter when and where you show up at La MaMa, you’ll invariably come across experimental expression in one form or another — or, most likely, many forms at once.

Events at La MaMa will range from free to $25 tickets for students. Also, if you act fast, they hold ten tickets to each theatrical event for $10. (They do not have a rush policy.)

Bonus Fun Fact: Also at 66 East Fourth Street, La MaMa has its own archives which documents the development of the off-off-Broadway theatre scene, the history of La MaMa, and the history of various forms of experimental theatre.


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