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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What Do We Do Now, Curt?

Curt Dempster's memorial was on Sunday, April 29th in New York City. The whole idea of Curt's death is devastating. What was not initially reported in the press is now a public fact: he killed himself.

I was surprised and yet not surprised when I first heard the terrible news. I was utterly flattened. A man who inspired so many gifted minds and gave them a place to experiment and have their work seen by New York could not find inspiration within himself to carry on. He wanted to end it on his terms and on his own timetable.

The concept that he felt it was time to go is heartbreaking. I loved this man dearly. I learned more spending two years by his side than I think I would in a lifetime about the theater, life and the chances we need to take as human beings and artists.

The great inspiration could find no more for himself. This simple fact haunts me. It's with me night and day. Does it change how I perceive him and what he has been for me?


It just makes me so very sad. Below is a recent item from Bloomberg News about Curt's death and the memorial service on Sunday.

Founder's Suicide Jolts Theater Where Mamet, Wasserstein Grew

By Philip Boroff

May 1 (Bloomberg) -- To everyone who knew him, Curt Dempster was the Ensemble Studio Theater.

On Jan. 19, Dempster, 71, was found dead in the Greenwich Village studio apartment he shared with two dogs, a pug and a mixed-breed husky. It was a suicide by hanging, said Grace Brugess, a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner.

Dempster left a note asking his superintendent to find a home for the dogs. More uncertain was what the future held for the off-Broadway theater he had founded some 35 years earlier in a condemned Manhattan building and turned into one of the country's most prodigious developers of theater talent.

On Sunday, April 29, one month before EST opens its 29th annual marathon of one-act plays, many of the pioneering company's best-known members -- including director Jerry Zaks, playwright Frank Gilroy and actors Lois Smith and David Rasche - - gathered at John Jay College of Criminal Justice near Lincoln Center to remember Dempster. All told, 36 speakers told an overflow crowd of 600 about how he had changed their lives, in stories that were as forceful, funny and sometimes savage as the man himself.

A driven and iconoclastic director and cultivator of talent, Dempster left a theater that had found fame, if not fortune, by nurturing at least a half-dozen writers who would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes (including John Patrick Shanley, Horton Foote, Wendy Wasserstein and David Mamet), an array of actors such as John Turturro and Sarah Jessica Parker, and a legacy of some 6,000 new plays developed and produced there.

Flirted With Bankruptcy

EST had flirted with bankruptcy almost from the beginning, and its survival was thrown into question with the death of its founder.

``He was one of those people who made New York go,'' said Shanley, who worked on plays at EST after winning an Academy Award for writing the 1987 movie ``Moonstruck.'' ``It was a financial disaster. And it was a miracle, a levitating machine.''

The 52nd Street studio, with its second-floor, 74-seat main stage, is an artists' co-operative with about 500 invited members who don't pay dues. Its bylaws give every member the right to get a professional reading of a new work, or a play in progress, or merely to sound out an idea among colleagues. There are no subscribers to cushion it financially. Nor has it transferred shows to Broadway -- which can be a source of income and a magnet for publicity and corporate support.

By contrast, Merrill Lynch & Co. is a sponsor of Lincoln Center Theater, which is presenting the trilogy ``The Coast of Utopia'' in its 1,100-seat Vivian Beaumont Theater. Manhattan Theater Club, which is supported by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and others, presented last season's Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Rabbit Hole'' at its 650-seat Biltmore Theater. Both shows are Broadway productions, which makes them eligible for Tony awards.

Science Themes

Dempster hewed single-mindedly to his mission of providing a workshop free of commercial pressures. EST recently staged the thought-provoking drama ``Serendib,'' about scientists studying monkeys in remote Sri Lanka who are upended by a reality-TV crew. The production was two years in the making, aided by a $500,000 annual grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop science-themed plays. Sloan renewed its commitment to give EST $500,000 in each of the next three years to develop dozens of new plays annually.

``It's one of a kind,'' said Doron Weber, who oversees Sloan's theatrical grants. ``No other theater comes close in doing new work. And it's not hackneyed, I've-seen-this-before work to please subscribers and fill seats.''

Human Condition

In an interview with Bloomberg News before last year's marathon, Dempster decried the ``false values'' of television, dismissing it as a form of advertising.

``Theater is something that contributes to our knowledge of the human condition,'' he said. ``Theater still has a purity that nothing else has.''

Throughout its history, EST had lurched from one financial crisis to another. ``It's an amazing institution, but in the last 10 years its place on the landscape has diminished,'' said J. Holtham, a playwright and former EST staffer and board member. ``I don't think the quality of work is suffering, but it's not getting out there.''

Dempster was particularly stressed at the end of his life. He was consumed by fund-raising, his least favorite activity. And despite his efforts, he feared he'd have to cancel his famed marathon of one-act plays, according to a Feb. 8 letter that EST management wrote to members.

``He was desperate for money,'' said stage and film director Ulu Grosbard, who hired Dempster as an assistant 40 years ago and was one of several people Dempster had called in his last days. ``He had never asked me for money all those years.''

`Deeply Tragic Story'

Friends said Dempster seemed despondent in recent months. He was long afraid of developing Alzheimer's disease, and some witnessed moments of forgetfulness. Moreover, he struggled with spasmodic dysphonia, a vocal disorder that must've pained the one-time actor who had studied and taught voice.

``It's a question you'll never answer, why Curt took his own life,'' said William Carden, an EST member for three decades who last month was named its new producing artistic director. ``It's a deeply tragic story.''

In the 12 months ending in June 2005, Dempster earned $41,346 as president of EST, according to a filing with the Internal Revenue Service. EST board members said grants and teaching supplemented his income.

Grew Up in Michigan

Friends described Dempster, who grew up in Michigan and was the son of a Ford Motor Co. engineer, as quirky and idealistic. He wore shorts and work shoes to the office and usually sported a backward baseball cap, resisting efforts to make the ramshackle theater slick. He could be combative and he had a penchant for self-sabotage.

``He was a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy,'' said Kathy Yates, his wife from 1995 to 2001, who teaches feldenkrais, a method of movement to improve coordination and health.

Dempster founded EST in 1971 with about 30 others, including playwrights Foote and Arthur Giron. Giron said Dempster aimed to create a laboratory where writers could try out new work, experiment and, if necessary, fail without repercussions. David Mamet, another member, said Dempster deliberately kept EST small.

``He wanted to run his theater his own way,'' Mamet said. ``If you have a bistro and seat 12, you have to be there every night. When you start expanding, you can't give the same attention to a place that seats 80. He wanted to keep things the way they are and fight that fight.''

Helping Playwrights

Dempster established the one-act marathon in 1977, with the aim of helping playwrights grow by seeing their short plays staged.

``The work of all major American playwrights can be traced back to their early one-act productions,'' he wrote in a collection of the 1999 one-act marathon.

EST was an obsession. Former staffer Billy Hopkins, now a casting director, cast Dempster as a coffee-shop manager in the 1985 movie ``Desperately Seeking Susan,'' with Rosanna Arquette and Madonna. He said he tried to cast Dempster in other projects. Dempster never made the time.

His programming was egalitarian, presenting drama by celebrated and unknown writers one after another. EST was among New York's early champions of work by women playwrights and playwrights of color.

A bizarre, elaborate theft in 2003 nearly did EST in and broke Dempster's already fragile spirit. The company's executive director, Susann Brinkley, stole $48,000 from the theater, according to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

Embezzled Funds

She used the funds to repay money she'd embezzled from a group led by actor Carl Reiner, who'd engaged her to produce a play by Reiner's daughter. Brinkley pled guilty to grand larceny.

``It almost killed us,'' Giron said. ``It's a poor theater. We can't afford to lose anything.''

Dempster tried to cultivate corporate support and recruit board members who work in finance, with little success. In recent weeks, Carden said he and current directors raised $35,000 toward this year's one-act marathon, which is budgeted at $50,000. Beginning on May 31, it includes new plays by Neil LaBute and Stephen Adly Guirgis.

EST hasn't decided whether to proceed with plans to move into a new facility down the street in 2009 that would require raising more than $2 million.

Carden's first priority is getting the theater's finances in order, he said. ``Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, but having the security to plan ahead and develop new work through more sustained, consistent and coordinated programs does, and that's our goal for the next two years.''

Sunday One-Acts

Even with its founder-proprietor gone, EST is abuzz with productions and readings -- some more serious than others. The first Sunday of each month, for just $15, EST's group of playwrights under 30 offers one-acts with an all-you-can-eat brunch. One Sunday the theme was pirates. In April it was God, in ``The Last Temptation of Brunch.''

As for the dogs, Dempster's girlfriend, Amy Portnoy, has taken them in.

Dempster remains an inspiring and enigmatic presence at EST, where he's represented by an old black-and-white photograph hanging in the center of the second-floor lobby. He's wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a crew neck sweater, beret and is cradling a phone.

His suicide ran counter to a philosophy that sustained his non-profit, non-compromising theater for 36 years.

Said Graeme Gillis, an EST staff member: ``Curt often said, `keep your eye on the donut, not on the hole.'''

(Philip Boroff is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Philip Boroff in New York at .

Last Updated: May 1, 2007 00:05 EDT


Heather H. said...

My thoughts and prayers go out to you Nancy, and all those whom Curt's life touched...
I don't want to say the old cliche: I know how you must feel. But my heart goes out to anyone who's had a loved one die this way. My grandfather committed suicide, but that side of my family chose to keep it as secret for as long as they could, and to this day never told my dad or anyone why it happened...I have my theories, but I will never know for sure.
[just a cyber-hug]

Jill Paxton said...

Thank you Nancy for this thoughtful post. I only recently found out about Curt's death, and have been so saddened by it ever since.

I briefly worked as one of Curt's assistants back in the mid-90's, and remember thinking that I had never met anyone quite like him. Oh, I totally felt that I had 'made it' working in such close proximity to this truly unique man - a theatrical institution.
Now, more than ten years later, I can still say I have never met anyone quite like him. His unassuming and selfless yet always intense presence was a rare thing, especially in the world of theatre.

Rest in peace, Curt...

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Louisa Landers said...

Hard to read stories like this. So many complicated things going on but this man sounded like a true artist with a passion for his art. Then you come across the hard realities of art vs. money/compromise/control and that is really tough-especially can be for an artist's heart.

Who knows what makes people commit suicide - complicated I'm sure and I think it's likely has real physical brain issues that just go unknown in addition to encountering very difficult and painful life struggles that we all go through - can feel overwhelming. My friends who lost their son to suicide have started a FB page called "Putting a Face on Suicide".