For the past year and a half, I have had the joy of cataloging many of the programs, flyers, letters, brochures, clippings, contracts, receipts, photographs, and the occasional Frisbee residing in the La MaMa Archives. From 1962-1985, La MaMa’s “pushcart” years, Ellen Stewart’s vision propelled a generation of theatre artists to launch the off-off-Broadway movement. Starting from a basement in the East Village, by 1985 La MaMa had grown to a campus of several theatres in the neighborhood and sent many of its productions and artists well beyond it, to Broadway, to the silver screen, and around the world.
My journey through the material treasures saved from this era has followed a similar trajectory. In the early days, I cataloged documents from the very first year of La MaMa’s existence. Some of these shows had only a single program or flyer remaining to mark their place in theatre history. As time went on, the files became more complex. La MaMa and its personalities garnered more press clippings, business and personal correspondence piled up, and productions extended their runs or went on tour, leaving behind an extensive trail of administrative and artistic documents.
I have had the cataloger’s privilege of deep engagement with these documents: I have felt the texture of the papers upon which La MaMa’s history is printed, I have come to recognize Ellen Stewart’s scrawled handwriting upon any blank space in any kind of document, and I have glimpsed the nature of the relationships between some of La MaMa’s most beloved and influential figures. At the same time, these materials cannot fully capture the essence of witnessing an early La MaMa production or, behind the scenes, the countless telephone calls exchanged in the course of artistic creation.
The purpose of this project is to reveal what has been hidden. Through our Collective Access catalog, which will be accessible through a public website in the next few months, our cataloging team has striven to bring La MaMa’s history in an accessible manner to anyone who seeks it. While much of La MaMa’s story lies in the people who lived it, this project has, for the first time, given thousands of archival materials unique classification and description, and it has linked La MaMa people, productions, and objects to one another in clearly denoted relationships. In my time with the project, I was able to contribute over 2,000 object records to the catalog.
This month, I embark on a new stage of my professional journey as a staff member at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. My time at La MaMa has immersed me invaluably in theatre history, the off-off-Broadway community, and the triumphs and tribulations of archiving and cataloging. I am immensely grateful for this experience, and I look forward to continuing to bring theatre history of all kinds to the researchers, artists, and enthusiasts who pursue it.