Monday, February 12, 2007

The Theater Loses A Champion - Curt Dempster

When I was hired to be Curt Dempster's assistant in 1987, I was warned by several people that he was difficult, exasperating but a genuis when it came to analyzing plays. In the nearly two years I worked as Curt's assistant, he was indeed all those things and more. He was alternately nuturing, annoying, supportive, a stick-in-the-mud, incredibly funny, generous, but always a champion of new work enshewing the New York commercial theater which made hearing new voices almost impossible.

Curt died at home on January 19th. He hanged himself. The news is almost as devastating as trying to imagine what compelled him to make the choice to end his life. As he got older he developed, as everyone does, some health issues. His beloved theater was once again facing some hard times financially. But in knowing Curt and his resolve to have things his way or the highway, he decided he was done. No more.

Three men I met in New York influenced forever the way I thought about the theater, writing, and how to live. One was an actor named Jonathan Frid, another a teacher/actor/playwright Chris Ceraso and then Curt Dempster who looms quite large in my memory and pysche.

Curt Dempster was and will always be one of the most important influences on my life and work. Curt gave aspiring artists a chance to be seen and heard. He was incredibly generous that way. He could be hard if you were not giving it your all but if you were trying to make something work and having trouble, he was nuturing and patient.

He was a genuis at constructing and de-constructing plays. No one else came close. He also told me once how important it was to have a life outside of the theater, to have other interests. Curt had a painful childhood and his sharing memories of that with me allowed me to understand him. Rather than feel sorry for himself and seek out the limelight to prove how worthy he was, he used the limelight to discover great talent. I won't go into the personal things he shared with me about his early life other than to say elements of those negative experiences haunted him and he channeled those feelings into his own plays and work. He made a great effort to be healthy physically and emotionally but he succeeded more in the former than the latter. There was always a sense of deep unhappiness about Curt.

However, Curt could be quite funny - that dry, deadpan delivery was frequently missed by others completely. I loved it. He was not above being self-depreciating.

Ensemble Studio Theater (EST) had some difficult times financially and while I was working there putting on new full stage productions had stopped for a period of time. Nonetheless, we got on staged readings, Octoberfest, and more informal productions to keep the artistic blood flowing. There were humorous moments: some new theater patrons came while a pipe near the lobby had sprung a leak and Curt, complete with that dead serious face, talked to them while stopping the leak with two fingers. Another theater employee and myself were laughing so hard that we had to hide in the bathroom until the hysterics passed.

Curt and I had our moments - both strong-willed people - and we'd go at it when clashing. He fired me three times. I quit about the same number of times as well. When I wasn't fired he would mock-shout at me: "Let's try to remember who supervises who here!" He made fun of himself many times with that dry wit of his. Some articles written about EST included the opinion that Curt looked very "Lincoln-esque." This would inspire staff to post a photo of Lincoln on his office door. He took it in stride. It was a big day for me when Curt told him he respected me very much and that I had an "inherent sense of play structure." I'm still living off that compliment.

He loved rock climbing. One time while chatting with fellow climbers during a climb, he discovered there was an aspiring playwright among them. This playwright handed Curt a script just as they reached the top of their climb. It was one of his favorite stories.

One of my favorite Curt stories involves the parting of one of the theater's producers. Curt and this producer worked well together but their butting of heads was well known. As a parting gift, Curt had a photo of himself put on a T-shirt and gave it to the departing producer. It was so funny.

Curt loved children. The 6,000 some odd plays that have been developed and presented at EST were in their own way his progeny. It is impossible to accurately capture the influence this man has had on the New York theater. Many playwrights and actors owe a large debt of gratitude to him.

Even though I had not seen Curt in a decade, it's hard to believe he is gone. It hurts. It's unbelievable. I loved him. Many people will miss him.

I encourage everyone who reads this blog and believes in support new plays and playwrights to nmake a contribution to the Ensemble Studio Theater in Curt's name. You can read more about the theater and how to make this important donation at Ensemble Studio Theater.

Thank you. I appreciate it very much and I know Curt would.

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