La MaMa, the East Village theatre that nurtures experimentation and began almost 52 years ago, marked another milestone in its storied legacy by celebrating the restoration of 74 E. 4th St.
La MaMa was based in various E. Village locations since its 1971 beginnings when founder Ellen Stewart purchased a building at 74 East 4th Street in 1969. Roofless with no flooring or back wall, Stewart had a vision for her theatre and the woebegone structure.
Currently part of a 90,000 square-foot complex of nearby theater, gallery and rehearsal spaces, this building underwent a facelift and renovation and its February 9 ribbon-cutting brought out La Mama fans and theatre lovers furthering Stewart’s legacy to theatre and the community.
Stewart passed away in January 2011; six months later, the stretch of E. 4th street was co-named Ellen Stewart Way. Now a state-of-the-art building is part of La MaMa.
The building, known as Aschenbroedel Verein building and named for a German-American professional orchestral musician’s social and benevolent association was designed by German-born architect August H. Blankenstein and built in the late 1860s. Imagine that a hundred years later, Stewart saved the building from almost certain demolition, and from that created an artistic environment that sustains a lasting creative theatre community.
A slew of epic shape-shifter directors and actors who got their start or were nurtured at La MaMa include: Blue Man Group, Ping Chong, Tisa Chang, André De Shields, Olympia Dukakis, Tom Eyen, Harvey Fierstein, Richard Foreman, Philip Glass, Diane Lane, Taylor Mac, Bette Midler, Meredith Monk, Tom O’Horgan, Estelle Parsons, David and Amy Sedaris, Sam Shepard, Elizabeth Swados, Julie Taymor, Robert Wilson, and others.
From bottom to top the entire structure has been completely renovated, the facade restored to its original look.
An elevator has been added with ADA accessibility to all floors. An enlarged lobby area, a cabaret theater space, a dedicated community space, and an outdoor terrace make up the 24-million-dollar project.
A building-wide data network will allow La MaMa to maintain two sound-separated theater spaces that host performances and art experiences. The data network also offers exchange beyond the theater’s walls; it offers the capacity to interact with national and international communities.
Neighborhood denizens, La Mama alumni with others from the theatre community gathered for the joyous opening of this theatrical space.
A ringing of bells musical tribute began the outdoor celebratory event remembering Stewart who commenced every performance by robustly ringing a school bell; her person touched every production.
Along with the local pols who all came out, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laura Cumbo presented a proclamation from Mayor Adams.
The crowd was entertained by the Praying Mantis Martial Arts Institute. Three generations of indigenous women with roots with Spiderwoman Theater brought feelings of great depth to the proceedings.
Andre DeShields (Hadestown, Death of A Salesman) spoke at the building’s inauguration. Ritually channeling Stewart, he rang the LaMama bell before joining others for the ribbon cutting. DeShields got his start with LaMama in the 70s.
“Ellen Stewart would be turning over in her grave if she knew we’d spent $25 million on this building,” La MaMa’s treasurer Donald Capoccia said to the crowd during the outdoor proceeding, adding how she would think of other things to spend money on.
Long-time Lower East Side resident, Robert Reiss lamented, “The space has been defunkified,” further commenting on how the pristine building is a far cry from its previous self and many of its satellite sites. Not to be a nay-saying he added, “However, I hope thousands of shows will flourish in this space.”