On stage and off, La MaMa knows how to break ground

A rendering of the revamped La MaMa lobby.  | Courtesy of La MaMa

BY TRAV S.D. | There’s never a dull moment at La MaMa, the seminal Off-Off-Broadway theatre company founded by the late Ellen Stewart in 1961. We profiled them in this space last year, but much has happened since that time. In June, the company was given a special Regional Theatre Tony Award for over a half-century of excellence, which was accepted by artistic director Mia Yoo. In September, a special groundbreaking ceremony was held to mark the official start of renovations on their landmark 1873 building at 74 E. Fourth St. (btw. Bowery & Second Ave.), attended by local dignitaries including NYC Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl.

Said Yoo of the three-part, $50 million capital plan, “These renovations are about the future of La MaMa, the future of our artistic community, and our neighborhood. The future of our city and the necessity of spaces like La MaMa in the world of the future where there is creativity and experimentation, diverse perspectives, inclusivity and access, and pushing the limits of human potential — all of this is essential.” On October 25, La MaMa honors Tony Award-winning playwright Lisa Kron at their annual gala, with guest performances by Taylor Mac, Erin Markey, Gunnar Montana, and Olympia Dukakis.

Next on the horizon is the 2018 edition of the biannual La MaMa Puppet Festival — touted as their biggest yet — running Nov. 1-25. The director and curator of the festival since the beginning has been Denise Greber, a Downtown actress who has been with La MaMa since 1999. “I started working with Ellen [Stewart] on a puppet series in 2004,”Greber noted. “Ellen always loved puppetry. It’s always been at least 20 percent of the programming at La MaMa. It was a small series at first. But it’s continued to grow.”

This year’s festival features 11 separate events, some of them full-length puppet works, some bills of shorter pieces or excerpts, and one afternoon panel program. “Each show runs 55-65 minutes, and we try to schedule two to three in an evening so you can come at seven o’clock, have some cocktails, see a couple of very diverse puppet shows, and then be back home by 10:30.”

A marionette work from Germany, “Wunderkammer: Cabinet of Curiosities” (Nov. 1-3) is part of La MaMa’s Puppet Festival. | Photo by Klaus Kühn

A very special offering this year will be a crossover event between two ongoing La MaMa programs: the Puppet Festival, and Coffeehouse Chronicles, the theatre’s long-running panel series, curated by Michal Gamily, that explores Off-Off Broadway theatre history, usually by paying tribute to notable artists or other arts professionals. On Nov. 10, the invited guest will be Ralph Lee of the Mettawee River Theatre Company, whose credits in NYC stretch back over half a century, ranging from co-founding the annual Village Halloween Parade to large scale pageants at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to designing the famous “Land Shark” from the first season of “Saturday Night Live.” Said Gerber, “I’ve long wanted to have the opportunity to incorporate puppetry into Coffeehouse Chronicles. I thought Ralph’s long years of community service through his mask work and puppetry deserved to be celebrated and honored.”

Aside from this event, however, most of this year’s work showcases females as lead artists. “We made a special effort this year to highlight the perspectives of women,” Greber noted. “That’s not always the case in the puppetry world.” Offerings include “Wunderkammer: Cabinet of Curiosities” (Nov. 1-3), a marionette work from Germany; “Blind” (Nov. 8-11), a collaboration between Duda Paiva and Black Hole Theatre that incorporates Yoruba ritual to tell a true story of illness and healing; “Everything Starts from a Dot” (Nov. 8-10), a work by Sachiyo Takahashi and Nekaa Lab that magnifies minuscule moving shapes and projects them through a live video feed; “Food for the Gods” (Nov. 15-18), a multimedia work by Nehprii Amenii which talks about the killings of African American men; and a family-oriented work called “Don Quixote Takes New York” (Nov. 10-11), co-directed by Greber herself and Federico Restrepo.

And there’s more. “With each festival we tend to add at least one more feature,” Greber said. “This year we’ve added a new program called ‘Jump Start,’ where we present a weekend of sections from late stage works-in-progress.” The Jump Start programs will be Nov. 23-25, each one containing four works of about 20 minutes in length. Another multi-work evening is the Puppet Slam (Nov. 5), curated by Jane Catherine Shaw. At this event, 10-13 artists present self-contained works (not excerpts) of three to seven minutes. These tend to be geared toward mature audiences, i.e., not suitable for young children.

As with La MaMa itself, the general trend of the Puppet Festival is in the direction of growth. “We’re still small by comparison to many international puppet festivals,” Greber said. “But we’re getting bigger.”

For more information, visit lamama.org.

The late Ellen Stewart with Andrei Serban, who will be the topic of Sept. 29’s Coffeehouse Chronicles series. | Photo courtesy of the La MaMa Archives

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