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La Mama's experimental brand of theater

Shows from ''Godspell'' to ''America Hurrah!'' have gotten their start at the La Mama Experimental Theater Club, where playwrights from Sam Shepard to Lanford Wilson were nurtured, where visitors from Peter Brook to the Fiji Theater Company make a point of bringing their latest work.

But generally, survival for La Mama has been a matter of ''a little of this and a little of that.'' Ellen Stewart, the founder, says, ''It's always been difficult. There was a long time when I'd work at a regular job as well as the theater, and sleep just a couple of hours a night.''

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Even now, there is virtually no paid staff, and Miss Stewart herself helps ''build sets, paint sets, raise money to pay for sets, and strike sets when the show is through.'' Look for her on a working day - any day, that is - and there's as much chance you'll find her sweeping off a stage as doing ''executive'' or ''administrative'' tasks.

What's the reward? Independence. ''I concentrate on the values I think are important,'' she proclaims. ''I never let anyone dictate what I do on the stage.''

Another continual challenge is finding plays worth presenting. Now that La Mama has earned a hefty reputation, plenty of material is available. But, says Miss Stewart, ''the type of plays people want to do nowadays are not the kind I'm interested in.''

Today's plays, she finds, are ''largely rhetoric. They're talky. But I'm more interested in communication. I care about having something to say, not having a lot to say.'' Much good work is being done in today's commercial theater, she feels, but it doesn't suit her style. Still, she wouldn't reject a playwright or a play simply because it had found commercial success. ''We were the first to produce Harold Pinter in this country,'' she says proudly.

An even more pervasive problem is the declining audience for theater that takes risks. ''People want to feel safe,'' Miss Stewart says. ''They are unconsciously afraid, so they avoid new and untried things.''

Why, as she puts it, have people ''retreated behind their TV sets''? ''The reason is not so much the political climate as the social climate,'' she suggests. ''The problem even extends to our streets, which are dirtier than ever. There's a general state of decay. I'm a religious person, and it worries me that the sense of love and concern for one's fellow human being doesn't exist anymore - because of the general environment, especially in the large cities.

''So if people can just push a button on the TV set, they stick with that. Not only in the inner cities, but in general. As for our situation at La Mama, people simply don't want to risk getting on the subway and coming downtown. If they will feel a little safe somewhere, it's on Broadway. Not here.''

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Analyzing another problem on today's theater scene, Miss Stewart says she feels ''the artist doesn't have the freedom to fail anymore.'' While artists once could experiment and try new paths, she says, ''now they must bring in audiences and sell tickets.'' Even theaters on the Off Off Broadway level have to charge $7 or more per ticket to exist, ''and few people want to spend that much to see something experimental.

''And when you receive government subsidies,'' she says, ''it's impressed on you that the more tickets you sell, the more help you'll be given.''

What's worse, the newer generation of artists is reluctant to trade security for artistic growth and independence. ''The people coming along now grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, which were an affluent time,'' Miss Stewart says. ''They don't understand creativity, which is not a creature comfort. They don't know what it means to work for years in an ensemble setting, in order to develop something worthwhile.''

She knows what it means to give up creature comforts for a worthy cause. Yet she seems cheerful as she describes arduous work on behalf of her beloved club. ''I feel we know how to do theater well,'' she says. ''We could do what others do, and we could do it equally well. We could receive the benefits they receive. We could make money and receive large crowds.

''But I'm not interested. I'd rather keep experimenting. As long as I can keep it going, I'm willing. And when I can't find a way, I'll simply stop.''

Given her strength, energy, and dedication, odds are she'll ''keep it going'' for a very long time.

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