Drama Queen: An Interview with Ellen Stewart

Words Without Borders is proud to present the following interview conducted by Liesl Schillinger, speaking with Ellen Stewart in May, 2004. Ellen Stewart had just completed her epic Classical cycle Seven, with a wild new take on Antigone.

Ellen Stewart founded the LaMaMa Experimental Theater Company in 1961, and her groundbreaking vision helped establish the careers of Sam Shepard, Philip Glass, Harvey Fierstein, Robert Wilson, Mabou Mines, and many others. Now in her 80s, she is strikingly beautiful—a cross between handsome and pretty; august yet gentle, with a French inflection to her speech—her accent is sweetly, darkly scorched, like the sugar on a crème brûlée. I spoke with her at length twice. The first time was in May of 2004, right before the opening of her new production of Antigone, set during the ancient Olympic games, which used music by Elizabeth Swados (a longtime friend and collaborator).

The production was a highly original interpretation of the drama. Ms. Stewart consulted historical sources to make the play as authentic as possible. Her staging included war scenes between skirted Thebans and Argosans (fighting with yo-yo-garrottes) and actual high-jump and long jump competitions, performed by athlete-actors wearing nothing but shiny golden thongs. All of this went down on the uncushioned wooden floor of the LaMaMa Annex, on a spare set. It was part of Ms. Stewart's cycle Seven—seven Classical plays performed in Greek, the crowning achievement of her Great Jones Repertory. (It has since expanded to nine; the ninth installment, Hercules, opens this spring.)

Liesl Schillinger: Why this cycle, why now? Does it have to do with the war in Iraq?

Ellen Stewart: I planned to do it last year, with all this mess that we're in, but it couldn't happen until now. I got the idea because I thought our plays hopefully are entertaining. They are very political, I think, but being political is not our intent, they just happen to be that. As to the cycle, it is my dream. I always wanted to do repertory; and I'm very anxious to maintain our tradition of doing Greek plays with the Great Jones Rep. We started doing this work in 1972, so this is 32 years, and over these years we've done ten plays. We chose seven for this repertory season. I didn't do the plays to make a statement about the state of the world. I did them because they were seven of our Greek plays, and for as long as we've been doing them, we've been told they make statements about what is going on the world. We are certainly very aware of what is happening.

LS: Why did you dress the athlete-actors in thongs for this production?

ES: You know, for the Olympics, they wore nothing—this is over 2000 years ago—so this is as close as I could get. I did take one liberty: in the Olympics, they did not carry flags, but I added flags for a little theatrics on my part.

LS: You put the warriors in skirts, is that historically accurate?

ES: Yeah, they wore skirts, but for the Olympics nothing. Our little costumes are the best we could afford. I had a group in Turkey called "Mama's Boys," and a man named Selcuk made all the costumes for me in Turkey and brought them to America. He's the one who designed the silver and gold skirts. Mind you, the gold and silver ones arrived two years ago when I did Seven Against Thebes, but in Seven Against Thebes, I introduce you to Antigone, after that the boys kill one another, then we had Cathy Shaw design the costumes we used in 2002. We got those thongs over the internet from Florida, I had them custom-made.

LS: Which Olympic sports do you portray, and how did you train the actors?

ES: We do the high jump and the long jump, it lasts about ten minutes, and it's in the middle. I'm very fortunate—we had an Olympic trainer, Goran, you should see him, he's big—you know the Hulk? And he's the kindest, sweetest man but he can do the splits. I had to find his last name because he goes by Goran. I looked him up on the internet because I wanted to train my boys. He knew me from Yugoslavia in the 60s and 70s. He lives in Long Island now, but he's Serbian. LaMaMa and me are pretty loved in Serbia, for years and years, so when he found out who I was, he came to help us, we paid only his travel expenses from way out in Long Island someplace. It took him maybe two hours to get here, but he wanted to help me. So we started in January, training two times a week. At first, the actors couldn't do anything. We started out with ten people, then it got to eight, then it got to the seven that could last it out. It's the real McCoy. J.T. Netterville is the blond. Come to think about it, he really does look like Brad Pitt. I hope you come and see our Troy. Chris, who has curly hair, does the high jump; Federico Restrepo is the boyish, dark haired one. Stefan Kolbert hurt himself last night, hopefully his ankle's not broke, last night he landed very badly. But all the credit is to Goran, and they adore him.

LS: What enabled the seven to last it out?

ES: Their muscles, mainly their muscles, and their coordination. I think they are so pretty when they are running. This is not easy! My heart is in my mouth every time they jump. In training, Stefan jumped and busted his head and got fifteen stitches, but he came back.

LS: Why do you like to do Classical plays so much?

ES: The story is, I brought Andrei Serban here from Romania in 1969, and I was much more political then, I was very concerned with the state of the negro or black or whatever we were called—how we were shown culturally. In my heart, I wanted to do something that a black could play that was not with a needle in the arm, or in a jail cell, or cleaning house for a white woman, or being in the morgue—this was what you saw in the stage in the 60s or the 70s. I told Andrei Serban, and Elizabeth Swados, who is very political, that I wanted to know if we could make a play that we could be in, and not be that. Andrei told me he knew a play and it was called Medea, and there was this brilliant black actress, Betty Howard, and he said he would make Medea for Betty Howard. They went to Elizabeth, planning this show, and here again, even though Andrei had been in this country since '69, and we started this project in 1972, he still was away often. He spent six months with Peter Brooks in his laboratory when it started. Andrei went to Iran with him, and Elizabeth went to Africa with him.

LS: Why are the plays performed in Greek?

ES: The way the Americans speak English to Andrei and Elizabeth's ear didn't sound very nice. So they tried French, English, I think they even tried German, many different languages, to do this Medea. Andrei who is half Greek, said, let's try Greek. They tried Greek, and I got a tutor who taught the company the Medea they had in Greek. It was sounding pretty good but with the music Elizabeth had in her mind, they decided to translate the language further into what they called Ancient Greek, and the music went with that. Halfway through, Betty got called to Broadway, and Priscilla Smith who is now known for that role, stepped in.

LS: Was this Medea performed first at LaMaMa?

ES: No, first we played in other countries and in Paris. My friend Pierre Cardin gave us space for free in l'Espace Cardin in the off season, we had an enormous success in Paris, and we were playing much longer than we should have been. We were playing weeks to a sold-out house. Then I went to Beirut because Peter Brooks and myself had previously been chosen to be the judges of the first Arab playwriting contest. We gave the prize to somebody in Egypt. I stopped in Lebanon on the way to Egypt, and while I was there, my great friend Suad Naajar took me to Baalbek—through my being in the International Theatre Institute, I had friends all over the world. When I got to Baalbek, it made me just want to put on a play. So I went back to Paris, brought back Andrei and got him and Elizabeth to Baalbek. And we performed it there, amid those ruins. It changed everything for us, and the Greek was glorious! In the night, under the stars!

Americans don't know what is Baalbek, but Baalbek has some of the greatest Roman ruins in the world, all gathered in one place—spectacular. All the ruins of the so-called original palaces of Dionysus. While we were playing in l'Espace Cardin, our friends in Bordeaux gave us a commission to make a second piece: what did we want to make? Andrei wanted to make Elektra. Again, we did it in the Greek, and they were going to deconsecrate the Sainte Chapelle. So they asked Jerzy Grotowski and LaMaMa's group to be the two theatres to the Sainte Chapelle. This was Greek and again we came with our snakes and everything we do. For Elektra, this works very well. We always play with snakes. If you come to see us, I think you'll "get" our way of telling you about these kinds of things.

Then, Andrei and Liz wanted to do The Trojan Women, in Brazil, in Sao Paolo. And while they were there, Elizabeth's mother died. And of course she had to go home and that stopped the project. So then we wanted to do the project here. That's how I got the Annex space, in 1974—because, once you play in Baalbek and the Sainte Chapelle, how are you going to play in the first floor theatre of LaMaMa? So I was looking for a space. And then the city building where the LaMaMa Annex is, as they said at the time, went to one Jew, to one Black and one Puerto Rican. This was politically correct. And my part became the Annex—huge—where we could somehow play this work that Andrei and Elizabeth were visualizing. Mr. Lowry, the head of the Ford Foundation, he gave me the money to do the necessary renovations that we needed to play in this space that had been many years ago the ABC sound studios. It is said that it was the last place that Judy Garland recorded a song for a movie. A very famous detective story was filmed there, too. When we got it, it was filled with water and didn't have a roof and was filled with things. Mr. Lowry was our savior, he gave us the money so we could do it and we opened October 18 in '74 with The Trojan Women. We are celebrating our 30th anniversary of the annex. Both Andrei and Elizabeth were really going up the ladder for fame, and busy, and Andrew was very busy, so he really didn't have the time to continue this tradition that I wanted to keep, the Greek tradition, so I decided I would try to keep it myself, which is what I have been doing. And Elizabeth Swados has made the music and the language that we use for every one of these plays.

LS: Why did you make the athletic competition so important in this Antigone? It's emphasized more than I've seen in other productions.

ES: We do research. We do not show Euripides' version, or Aeschylus', or Seneca's. We search out all the different versions of the myth as they exist in the library of Greece. Euripides makes a story, Aeschylus makes a story, and WE make a story. In the version we found, Antigone does not stand lamenting and lamenting, saying, woe, woe, woe. Her husband, Haemon, the son of Creon, takes her out of her grave, restores her and she's given to her friends who take her to the mountains and there she gives birth to her son Maeon, and Maeon grows up wanting to go to Thebes—he knows his history you see—and participate in the games. And Creon recognizes Maeon because he has the mark of the Sparti, a dragon on his right shoulder, and we show how Maeon gets his mark. So Creon knows the boy could come only from Antigone. So he kills the boy and sends Haemon to kill Antigone. In Greek culture of the time, a son must be obedient. He goes to Antigone with the knife, Antigone tries to take the knife and kill herself, but inadvertently he kills her—and then he kills himself. Euripides says that Dionysus came and revived them and took them into his world. And this is not in any of the versions you might read in your books, but it's in the research. In the play, when Eurydice learns her son, Haemon, has killed himself, she kills herself, and the prophecy of Tiresias comes true; Creon brings doom upon his son. Later in the play, the Epigoni, the sons of the soldiers of Argos from the kingdom of Adrastus, come to avenge their father's deaths and they destroy Thebes, and that's the end of our show.

LS: Have you returned to the Middle East since that 1972 trip to Baalbek?

ES: We went back to Lebanon in 1976, but the war with Israel had begun, and when we got there, there was too much danger, and they wouldn't let us land, so we went to Iran, where Andrei was putting on The Trojan Women, in Persepolis, in Shiraz. We had the great honor of being the only ones from the West performing. You see, we had gotten a taste of playing in ruins, that's what we liked to do. Mr. Gassoud, part of the cultural ministry of Beirut, did an incredible thing. In Beirut, his mother had been killed in a drive-by shooting, and his sister terribly wounded. In the midst of this terrible sadness he came to Iran and gave us the money we would have been given had we played. Since then, I have been back to Beirut, we have a group there still, I was in Beirut a couple years ago, I was sent to go back and make a big play, but then all this stuff happened again—I call it stuff [alluding to 9/11 and the Iraq War]. I remind you, in 1970, I had LaMaMa Tel Aviv, then LaMaMa Morocco, and in 1972, we had LaMaMa in Lebanon, and we've played a lot in Israel, and we've done our Greek! In 1976, we played in Athens, and we got great praise from the Greek press, from philologists—it was a very touching thing. The first time we played in Athens, we were sponsored by Karolos Koun, a theater director, and Kati Myrivili—she was the head of the Greek cultural association here in New York until just a few months ago—but this was in ’76. We played in a big space in Athens, called Lykavittos—it means the Hills of the Wolves. This was at a time when the junta was on trial for all the terrible things they had done to the Greeks. And of course the United States had sponsored the junta and there was terrible anti-Americanism there. Karolas and Kati gathered us together and said, if we put on the play, we might be attacked, and if were attacked, we should not try to fight back; just try to run, but if they beat us because we were Americans, we should just accept it. And they said, if we didn't want to play under those circumstances, we shouldn't. But we did; and a beautiful thing happened. When the performance ended, the people gave a big yell. We started running for our bus, which was in a ravine below the stage—we thought we were going to get beaten, but it was a catharsis; the people were crying to hear their drama performed in their ancient language. The next day, a man wrote in the paper that he had seen our play on the same day that he had gone to court to testify about the junta. He had to show his genitals to show how he had been brutalized by the junta. He was a philologist, and he wrote, nobody knew how ancient Greek was spoken, no one—it was last spoken 2500-3000 years ago. But if it had been spoken, he said, it must have been the way we spoke it.