Artistic directors tend to be in the spotlight twice: When they are appointed and when they leave. But looking at what happens several years into a tenure — especially one that includes a global pandemic — can be a helpful exercise for anybody interested in arts management.
After a decade as the artistic director of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, in the East Village, Mia Yoo has somehow established continuity with the aesthetics and priorities established by her predecessor, Ellen Stewart, while also forging her own path.
With the theater’s 60th season nearing its end (it’s currently presenting “God’s Fool,” a new work about Saint Francis of Assisi by the dance-theater master Martha Clarke), Yoo sat down to chat about two things in constant conversation, or perhaps in a constant tug of war, at her institution: the past and the present.
The first still looms over La MaMa, which for decades was closely identified with Stewart, its gung-ho, charismatic founder. Over 50 years, she nurtured La MaMa into a performing arts incubator of international repute. And then, in 2011, she died.
“I always say Ellen could have burned this place down if she wanted to, because she built it,” said Yoo, who picked up the artistic-director baton when she was in her early 40s, about the same age Stewart was when she created LaMaMa in 1961. “I know she wouldn’t do that, but there’s a part of me that thought she could because she created it. Now it’s up to us as a community to make sure that it continues.”
On a recent afternoon, she guided me through a hard-hat tour of La MaMa’s flagship four-story home at 74A East Fourth Street. The 19th-century building, which the company purchased in 1967, is in the middle of a $24 million gut renovation — financed by the city and state of New York, as well as various foundations and donors — that will finally bring it up to modern standards. The performance spaces are being upgraded, an elevator is finally being installed to ensure accessibility, and a data network will support the latest in video and audio technology.
Throughout the seemingly never-ending construction — the reopening has been pushed several times and is now scheduled for this fall, or maybe spring 2023 — shows have continued to be made. That’s because Stewart had the forethought to invest in real estate: La MaMa owns 88,000 square feet spread over four buildings within walking distance of one another, as well as a property in Umbria, Italy, that is used for playwriting and directing workshops.
Yoo and I had moved on to 66 East Fourth Street, which houses the company archive and the mainstage Ellen Stewart Theater. Sitting in the first row, Yoo warmly greeted children from the Brooklyn United Music and Arts Program, an after-school project that has been working with La MaMa since 2015. The children were preparing for a performance of their show “B.U. Live” later that day.
Yoo herself has come of creative age at La MaMa. Starting in the early 2000s, she worked with Stewart — “there was something symbiotic and mutual in terms of what we were wanting to create,” she said — and eventually her mentor anointed her the new artistic director. No exploratory committee, no national search: Stewart decided that Yoo would be next, and that was that.
In the ensuing decade, Yoo has steered the ship very differently from the way Stewart did — and, as it turned out, more in sync with the behavior expected from artistic directors these days.
“They have almost polar opposite leadership styles,” Lois Weaver, a member of the long-running performance company Split Britches, said in a video chat. “Ellen was very, very much in charge: It was her theater, she had the last word, she made all the decisions. She loved her family very, very much, but it was a very, very tough love. Mia’s leadership style is a collaborative style, and her love is an extended-care kind of style. She looks after the well-being and the welfare of each of the artists and also the staff: They make collective and collaborative decisions rather than slightly autocratic decisions.”
This has led to management that is less top-down than Stewart’s reign — not easy when it would sometimes be more expedient to just tell someone to do something.
“I tried to create an environment where we get consensus from a lot of different people, and a lot of people then ultimately become invested in how we’re moving forward,” Yoo said. “We have a lot of different programs: a play-reading series, a puppet series, the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival, the Coffeehouse Chronicles series, and each of them has its own person running it,” she continued. “I try to give them as much freedom as possible.”
The programming director of the Club, one of the spaces at 74A, and the curator of La MaMa Moves!, Nicky Paraiso embodies both this collaborative approach and the institution’s constant negotiation between an awe-inspiring legacy — which nurtured the careers of Harvey Fierstein, Sam Shepard, Diane Lane, Al Pacino and even David and Amy Sedaris — and the future. He appeared in the Jeff Weiss show “Dark Twist” at La MaMa in 1979, but unlike others, he essentially never left. This has helped give him a bird’s-eye view of curating as he and Yoo try to figure out how to balance the needs and approaches of different generations.
“I’ll say, ‘Do we keep presenting such and such an artist? Are they doing the same work that they were doing 20 years ago?’” Paraiso said in a video conversation. “And Mia would say, ‘Ellen created this space for people to nurture their art and then they become part of the family of La MaMa.’”
As with every company, the programming can be uneven, though the ratio of hits to misses seems to have improved from where it was toward the end of Stewart’s tenure. And this has been accomplished by striking a delicate balance between older artists and newcomers.
In the first category is Split Britches, which has been presenting shows at La MaMa for much of its 40-year existence and in October will present “Last Gasp: A Recalibration,” an in-person production of its acclaimed pandemic video project “Last Gasp WFH.” And then you have someone like the 30-year-old multidisciplinary artist John Maria Gutierrez, who in May performed the solo show “Rockefeller and I Part 1,” contrasting his experience as the son of Dominican immigrants with the life of John D. Rockefeller Jr., on the sidewalk outside 66 East Fourth Street.
When he was still in high school, Gutierrez was mentored by the composer, writer and director Elizabeth Swados, a pillar of La MaMa. He graduated from New York University and he, too, found his artistic home in the East Village, joining La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company. “It was after Ellen had passed and I was the newest member,” he said in a video chat. “It was Mia who brought me in and checked up on me. She kept inviting me into her office and asking, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’”
Yoo also bet on the future when it came to exploring technology’s impact on the performing arts.
In a 2011 article introducing her as the new head of La MaMa, The New York Times noted that “Ms. Yoo is championing a high-tech project called CultureHub that allows theatermakers in different countries to work together by video conference. She calls this system, which allows for life-size images, ‘Skype on steroids.’” (When he was president of the Seoul Institute of the Arts, Yoo Duk-hyung — Yoo’s father, whom Stewart had adopted — spearheaded CultureHub as a joint project with La MaMa.)
Fast forward to March 2020, when the city’s live-performance venues shut down amid the pandemic. LaMaMa did, too, but it immediately pivoted to online programming that included everything from children’s shows to new work and chats with legacy and emerging artists. Unlike the majority of its New York brethren, La MaMa not only knew what livestreaming was but also had the infrastructure to implement it.
Just like Stewart had invested in physical assets, Yoo had staked a claim on the virtual world. “I believe that artists need to be a part of that conversation — it can’t be just technologists and corporations that are in that internet space,” she said. “It’s not going to just be about money or about power, but about how we explore our humanity.”
As La MaMa remained virtually busy — it’s worth noting that Yoo did all this while being paid about $65,000 in 2020, while some high-profile artistic directors making many times that salary essentially hibernated — the company also reinforced its commitment to what it calls a Radical Access Plan. According to its “envisioning statement,” a declaration of intent, that plan includes physical and economic accessibility, opportunity, representation and relevance.
The work itself has remained eclectic as ever, reflecting not so much on our world’s increasing fragmentation as the idea that art can still play a unifying role. “We want curation of art at this time to be about this multiplicity of perspectives and aesthetics and forms,” Yoo said. “We believe that if we create an environment and a platform for artists to explore and experiment in ways that they themselves didn’t even think possible, that potentially groundbreaking work could happen. And, potentially, new forms could be born.”
Yes, she can sound terminally optimistic, but come on — isn’t that infinitely better than the alternative?