Tuesday, January 25, 2011

La Mamabits

These folks are not household names, but in the world of the stage, they had significant impact.

Theoni Aldredge


She was born and raised in Greece, and immigrated to the States in the late 40s, to study theatre at the Goodman in Chicago. She discovered the focus of her studies, and of her career, when she stopped off in New York and attended a screening of Caesar and Cleopatra; she was mesmerized by the flowing gowns worn by Vivien Leigh. She spent the 50s in Chicago, designing costumes and teaching at the Goodman, where she met an up-and-coming actor/director, Tom Aldredge. They married and headed to New York. (DIGRESSION ALERT: Tom is one of my favorite character actors, equally at home on screen and on stage. In recent years, he has carved a niche for himself playing paternal figures to Edie Falco [The Sopranos], Glenn Close [Damages], and Chip Zien [the original Into the Woods]; he was currently playing Steve Buscemi's father on Boardwalk Empire, until his death, go here).

Now back to his wife. Theoni's design career took off immediately. Geraldine Page had seen her work in Chicago, and recommended her for the original production of Sweet Bird of Youth.

She dressed Streisand in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Bacall in Woman of the Year, and the Burtons in Private Lives. Her designs for Joe Papp's 1960 production of Measure for Measure led to her appointment as resident costume designer for the Public Theatre. She remained in that position for 20 years, during which her designs for Sticks and Bones, Threepenny Opera (the one starring Raul Julia), and Hair all reached Broadway. As did her 1975 production of A Chorus Line, for which she received one of her 14 Tony nominations. She did not win the award that year, as her work was deceptively simple: throughout most of the show, the actors wore disheveled rehearsal togs. Aldredge had attended many rehearsals of the landmark musical, and designed these costumes based on the clothes the actors themselves were wearing. That memorable finale was another story. She persuaded director Michael Bennett that the clothes should not be red, as he wanted, but champagne colored. She won that battle, but lost the Tony (to Florence Klotz's designs for Pacific Overtures).

The next year, Aldredge prevailed, winning one of her three Tonys for the original Annie (she was competing against herself, among others, that year, as Threepenny Opera's costumes had also been nominated).

She also took home the Tony for Barnum and the original La Cage Aux Folles. The New York Times reports that, during the 1984 Broadway season, more than 1000 of Leoni's costumes could be seen onstage, as she had five musicals running simultaneously: A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, La Cage Aux Folles, 42nd Street, and The Rink.

She designed for film as well, contributing to Moonstruck, Ghostbusters, and Network, among many others. She won the Oscar in 1974 for The Great Gatsby, and during her acceptance speech, she pointedly ignored the young Ralph Loren, who had dressed the men in the film to her specifications but was taking credit for the designs in the press. Who says only actors are divas? Theoni Aldredge died last week from cardiac arrest at the age of 88.

Michael Langham


His name is totally unknown to the general public, but he was one of the premiere stage directors of classical works. He placed John Gielgud in Julius Caesar, Paul Scofield in Love's Labor's Lost, Peter O'Toole in Merchant of Venice, and Julie Harris in Romeo and Juliet. He had a long working relationship with Christopher Plummer, directing him in Henry V, Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Antony and Cleopatra, among others. He was an artistic advisor for the National Actors Theatre, the admirable, but ill-fated, attempt by Tony Randall to create a repertory theatre company along the lines of Britain's National Theatre. He directed Brian Bedford to a Tony nomination in Timon of Athens, the one and only production of that Shakespearean chestnut to ever reach Broadway, and he guided Randall himself in The Government Inspector for the company. His direction of the original production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie provided a starmaking vehicle for Zoe Caldwell.

But Langham will be most admired for his work in regional theater. He got the bug in Nazi Germany, of all places, when he was a prisoner of war for 5 years. During that time, he studied the classics and directed plays with the other inmates.

After WWII, he began a professional directing career which took him all over the world; he landed at the Stratford Festival in Canada, where he succeeded founder Tyrone Guthrie as artistic director. Under his guidance, the theatre grew from summer stock to year-round programming, with the NY Times calling it the finest classical theater in North America.

He left Stratford to head the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and he was also chair of the drama school at Julliard for many years. He died a few weeks ago, at the age of 91.

Ellen Stewart


Long before there was a Mama Cass or a Matron Mama Morton, there was Mama Stewart. There are those who would call this lady a pioneer, and who am I to quibble? Her early life is sketchy, as she told conflicting stories about her upbringing and her early common-law marriage. She landed in New York City in the 50s, and worked for a time at Macy's, either as a dress maker or an elevator operator. She had no particular training in theatre, and in fact maintained throughout her career that she did not read plays, she read people. In the early 60s, she rented a tenement apartment in lower Manhattan, and began offering the space to struggling playwrights. The neighbors called the cops: a place where white men visited a black woman in her basement apartment was sure to be a whorehouse.

She was evicted several times by various city code authorities; she picked up the habit of sitting on her front steps during her shows, to prevent inspectors from interrupting actual performances. She was advised that it was easier to get a permit to run a coffee house than a theater, and Cafe LaMama was born.

Throughout the 60s, she provided a stepping stone for playwrights such as Sam Shepherd and Jean Claude van Itallie, and in their early careers, actors such as Pacino, DeNiro, Dreyfuss, Dukakis, Midler, Keitel, and Nolte performed at LaMama. As her organization grew, she clashed with the unions (nobody made any money, they passed the hat after performances), but she afforded artists a place to experiment. Landford Wilson's first major play, Balm in Gilead, with a cast of several dozen, premiered under her tutelage, and Godspell, Hair, and Torch Song Trilogy all began their development at Cafe LaMama.
"LaMama" is now an international brand name for experimental, avant garde, cutting edge performance art. LaMama Experimental Theatre Club (or "LaMama ETC") now boasts three theaters, rehearsal space, and for a time, an apartment uptop where Stewart herself lived. When she received the MacArthur Grant in 1985, she bought a monastery in Umbria, Italy, and converted it into an international arts center. Andrei Serban, Peter Brook, and Robert Wilson are just a few of the international figures who credit LaMama with part of their artistic development.

LaMama's growth in its first decade came at a time when Off-Broadway theaters were becoming more traditional and more commercial; Ellen Stewart is commonly credited with creating, and sustaining, the Off-Off-Broadway movement. She died January 13, at the age of 91.