A Poster History of La MaMa

2017.12.04 Poster Panel Discussion photo by Maya Bitan 22 copy

Panelists listen to a question from the audience at “La MaMa’s History Through Posters.” Left to right: Alisa Solomon, Theodora Skipitares, Cindy Rosenthal, John Jesurun,  Susan Haskins. Photo: Maya Bitan.

From October-December 2017, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club hosted a temporary exhibit— “A Poster History of La MaMa’s Downtown Community”—in the lobby of its Ellen Stewart Theater. Featuring a selection of original posters from La MaMa’s Archives, the exhibition explored the history of downtown theater, the changing aesthetic vernaculars of theatrical posters, and the transformation of print technologies over the past 55 years.

The exhibit was designed to overlap with the publication of Cindy Rosenthal’s new book, Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La Mama Experimental Theatre (University of Michigan Press, 2017), which tells the history of La MaMa through its posters—and included many of the posters featured there. And while the exhibition was up, La MaMa also hosted a series of related public programs—a panel discussion (featuring John Jesurun, Theodora Skipitares, Alisa Solomon, Susan Haskins, and moderated by Rosenthal); a book celebration; and two guided exhibit tours.

Poster Book Launch Party photo by Theo Cote 2

Photo: Theo Cote.

Why the focus on La MaMa’s posters? In her introduction to Ellen Stewart Presents, Rosenthal argues that La MaMa’s posters offer both a sweeping overview of La MaMa’s history and an poetic index of the creative practices deployed by its contributors; the posters offer, she writes, “a mirror” of the “politics and aesthetics” that shaped La MaMa’s communities. By way of explanation, Rosenthal quotes Meredith Monk, who believes that posters have the power to convey the idea and feel of a performance better, even, than documentary photographs. “Its hard to show in one photo what a play is about,” Monk observed. “A photograph taken during the course of a performance is capturing a specific moment in time—its not a distillation of the gestalt of the experience of a performance. But…a visual artist can distill one powerful image in a poster”—and that image “can represent a production” (Ellen Stewart Presents, p. 19).

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Poster for ‘One Arm’ (1962). This poster (made of cardboard & house paint) advertised the July 1962 La MaMa production of an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “One Arm.”

The history of La MaMa’s posters begins with the oldest artifact held in its Archives—a hand-painted poster created to announce the July 1962 production of Tennessee Williams’ “One Arm.” This black, white, and red poster—made of house-paint and cardboard, and containing only a few words of text—uses a visual style that echoes mid-century abstract painting, and doesn’t look much like the theater posters we’re used to seeing today. This design was both an aesthetic and a strategic choice: because La MaMa was, in its earliest years, an unofficial body in constant evasion of zoning regulations, artists worked to camouflage the advertising purpose of their posters. To the uninitiated, these posters were often indecipherable. But La MaMa’s communities quickly learned how to read these cryptic advertisements.

Poster for ‘Miss Nefertiti Regrets’ (1965).

Poster for ‘Miss Nefertiti Regrets’ (1965). This poster (made of magic marker, paint, and collage on paper) advertised the July 1965 La MaMa production of Tom Eyen’s “Miss Nefertiti Regrets,” which featured a young Bette Midler in the starring role.

For the first few decades of its existence, La MaMa’s posters were also generally crafted at a moment’s notice with scrap materials and little money, using the cheapest, most available modes of reproduction. La MaMa had (in Rosenthal’s words) “no funds designated for publicity and no one hired to design a poster or embark on a marketing campaign” (Ellen Stewart Presents, p. 10-11). Presenting artists—who, for many years, were responsible for designing and fabricating their own posters—used an ever-evolving set of design strategies and reprographic technologies. In the 1960s, La MaMa’s artists often created one-of-a-kind, hand-made posters, using house-paint, magic marker and/or photo-collage on cardboard. By the 1970s, artists were more likely to create multiples, using silkscreen, letterpress, and other printing techniques. The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion in the use of Letraset and the photocopy. And finally, in the 2000s, La MaMa took over the work of crafting all of its posters with computer-assisted design and digital reproduction technologies.

Poster for 'Vain Victory' (1971).

Poster for ‘Vain Victory’ (1971). This two-color silkscreen advertised the 1971 La MaMa production of Jackie Curtis’s “Vain Victory; or, The Vicissitudes of the Damned.” The production featured performances by Holly Woodlawn, Mario Montez, Agosto Machado, and Tally Brown, among others.

Perhaps most important among these technologies was the photocopy. Ozzie Rodriguez (Director of La MaMa’s Archives) calls the Xerox “the most important machine” of the mid-to-late-20th century, because it enabled theater artists to reach their audiences in entirely new ways. As early as the 1960s, Rodriguez recalls, ambitious directors “would get all the actors together,” then pair them up, give them buckets of “wallpaper paste,” and send them off to “put flyers up everywhere.” That, Rodriguez recalls, “was the underground communication that we had…That was how you got your audience.”

Poster "Kazuo Ohno" (1981).

Poster “Kazuo Ohno” (1981). This poster (a photocopy on plain white paper) advertised Kazuo Ohno’s landmark dance performances at La MaMa in 1981.

Artist John Jesurun believes that the photocopy also shaped the aesthetic character of La MaMa’s late-20th century posters. “We would spend time in a Xerox shop, just printing and reprinting. Blowing things up, cutting things up…It was all rulers and X-Acto knives…letters and pieces of paper cut up all over.” But in Jesurun’s view, it wasn’t just the machine that was important; it was also the subculture that grew up around the photocopy shop. “There was a whole aesthetic that came into being at the Xerox shops…a deliberate effort on our parts not to look professional,” Jesurun remembers. The photocopy, he concludes, was especially essential tool in “an age” like the late 1980s/early 1990s—which was marked by “a sense of urgency.” (For more on the history and significance of xerography, see Kate Eichorn’s Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the 20th Century [MIT Press, 2016])

Poster for 'Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women' (1992).

Poster for ‘Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women’ (1992). This poster (photocopy on white paper) advertised La MaMa’s 1992 production of Rhodessa Jones’s one-woman show about the lives of incarcerated women.

Today, perhaps because tools for creating posters are available to anyone with access to a laptop, it is easy to overlook the abundance of information that posters, as artifacts, carry. Indeed, as Rosenthal notes, “with the digital age and the impact of social media, artists and their presenters” place “less emphasis on the poster” in marketing efforts.  But La MaMa’s historical posters invite close investigation, and they reveal a great deal about the worlds from which they emerged. They tell an overlapping set of stories about artistic experimentation, the development of a pioneering theater organization, and the practice of visual communication across the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They suggest the ways in which changing reprographic technologies helped to shape the development of a collective visual style and supported the establishment new creative communities. And they offer a great deal of information about the ebb and flow of the artistic and political currents that shaped the East Village and NYC’s theatrical avant garde over the course of the past 50-plus years.

Poster for 'Springtime in Nickyland' (2015).

Poster for ‘Springtime in Nickyland’ (2015). This poster (a born-digital image) advertised the 2015 iteration of Nicky Paraiso’s annual springtime cabaret.

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Below: Watch video of the panel discussion held at La MaMa on December 4, 2017 about the history of La MaMa’s posters. Featuring John Jesurun, Theodora Skipitares, Alisa Solomon, Susan Haskins, and Cindy Rosenthal. Videography by Theo Cote. (This event was made possible in part by a grant from Humanities New York.)


Programming related to “A Poster History of La MaMa’s Downtown Community” was funded in part by a grant from Humanities New York. Special thanks to Scarlett Rebman and Laura Kushnick at Humanities New York for their assistance, and, at La MaMa, to Poorna Swami, Ozzie Rodriguez, Cindy Rosenthal, Joyce Isabel, Laura Indick, Theo Cote, and Alejandra Rivera Flaviá for their work on this project.

For more about La MaMa’s archival collections, please visit our ever-evolving digital collections portal.

 

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New additions to our team

I’m thrilled to be able to introduce, now, several new additions to the La MaMa Archives cataloging team. This great crew is helping us successfully complete the final quarter of our CLIR-funded Hidden Collections cataloging project.

Michael Grant joined the team as a part-time Cataloger back in September. Michael graduated from New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Masters program last spring. In addition to contributing to La MaMa’s cataloging projects, he works at NYU Libraries reformatting and preserving critically out of print VHS and audiocassette titles, ensuring their accessibility for use and study in the future. He is also a member of XFR Collective. At La MaMa, Michael has been working on a describing video materials from our Pushcart Collection.

September was also the month that Deborah Shapiro began what is becoming a yearlong archives internship here at La MaMa. Deborah is in her final year of the master’s program in Archives/Public History at New York University. As an intern at the La MaMa Archives, she is currently working on a digital exhibit about xerographic reproductions in La MaMa’s holdings. This exhibit will investigate questions about archival practices related to photocopied materials, and will offer (she hopes) a few ideas about what kind of information and evidence photocopied materials might provide to researchers.

In November, we welcomed two additional part-time Catalogers to the team. Jameson Creager  is a recent graduate of Princeton University where he studied East Asian Studies and worked at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. In addition to cataloging at La MaMa, he currently works in the archive department of the news program Democracy Now!  Amilca Palmer comes to La MaMa with 10+ years of experience in the world of documentary filmmaking. She has worked as a researcher and producer on a wide range of documentaries, including Koch (2012), African American Lives II with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2008), and Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice (2004).  At the moment, Jameson and Amilca are working to catalog materials from La MaMa’s Director’s Files.

For more about each of these (amazing) folks, see About the Team.

La MaMa Archives: Not An Island

Here at the La MaMa Archives, we have a trove of items telling our history. The Archives houses a rich collection of posters, programs, flyers, reviews, photographs, audiovisual materials, puppets, costumes, props, and set pieces documenting the history of La MaMa and offering a glimpse into the work that the theatre has made possible over five decades.

But no archival collection is an island – La MaMa’s local and global influence means that its objects, like its experiences, are dispersed. As we’ve begun to create a catalog to describe the collection we house on-site, we’ve also been tracking the existence of La MaMa materials off-site. I recently took a dive down the rabbit hole of Google and WorldCat (a resource linking the catalogs of libraries and archives around the world) to track down collections at other institutions that have materials related to La MaMa, especially during its pushcart years (1962-1985), the time period of our cataloging project.

What I found was that La MaMa materials tend to be held in certain types of collections. One type is in the personal papers of individual playwrights and theatre artists who were connected to La MaMa in its early years, often located at their alma maters or universities in their home states. These materials typically include correspondence with Ellen Stewart, manuscripts for plays produced here, promotional materials, and sometimes photographs. Rutgers University in particular holds the collections of two people at the center of La MaMa’s early history: playwright Paul Foster and director Tom O’Horgan, who went on to bring his production of Hair to Broadway.

Unsurprisingly, institutions in and around NYC also hold a great deal of La MaMa-related materials. Outside of our building, the New York Public Library holds the largest collection of materials about La MaMa. Two of its research branches, the Library for the Performing Arts and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture together have nearly ten collections documenting the experiences of board members, playwrights, educational program directors, and photographers involved with La MaMa.

Fales Library. Photo: lea simpson, artlibrarycrawl.com

Fales Library. Photo: lea simpson, artlibrarycrawl.com

And then there’s the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. This collection offers a unique set of materials for researchers interested in La MaMa. The Downtown Collection includes the archive of Mabou Mines, a company in residency at La MaMa in the early years, and several collections of mailings and promotional materials sent to La MaMa supporters, including the letter that Ellen Stewart wrote immediately following 9/11. For my final project for my master’s degree in library science at Pratt Institute, I created an online exhibit of materials related to La MaMa found at Fales. You can take a look at the full exhibit here.

Finally, a number of institutions and theatres in France hold copies of typescripts of plays produced at La MaMa.

Here you will find the full list of repositories where we have found materials related to La MaMa outside of our own archive. This list will be continually updated as new collections are identified. If you know of any more, please contact us and we’ll include your findings in the list.

–Suzanne Lipkin