Curt Dempster, Founder of Ensemble Studio Theatre, Is Dead at 71

Obituaries   Curt Dempster, Founder of Ensemble Studio Theatre, Is Dead at 71
Curt Dempster, the founding artistic director of the Ensemble Studio Theatre and one of the seminal figures of New York's Off-Off-Broadway movement, was found dead at his home in New York City Jan. 19. The cause of death remained undetermined at press time. He was 71, and was running EST until his final days.
Curt Dempster
Curt Dempster

Mr. Dempster founded EST, as it was called for short, in 1972. Over the next 35 years, he produced more than 6,000 plays, many by playwrights who were destined to become some of America's most prominent dramatists.

The large number of plays he produced was due to EST's most famous enterprise: an annual "marathon" of new one-act plays. Each spring, at EST's second-floor black box on a desolate block on West 52nd Street near Tenth Avenue, 12 or more short plays received their world premieres in three series labeled "A," "B" and "C."

The One-Act Marathons became a yearly benchmark of the New York theatre calendar and lent prestige and a showcase to a form of writing often given short shrift by critics, scholars and audiences. When David Mamet, Craig Lucas, Michael Weller or John Guare had a short play they wanted staged, they invariably turned to EST. Romulus Linney was a frequent participant in the festivals. Horton Foote was another reoccurring author. In June of 1994, Mr. Dempster was given a Village Voice OBIE Award for the annual Marathon of New One-Act Plays.

One of EST's primary goals was to nurture new American writers, and many young playwrights cut their teeth at the theatre, among them Richard Greenberg, John Patrick Shanley, Arthur Giron, Jose Rivera, Eduardo Machado, and Leslie Ayvazian.

Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You was first presented as part of an EST marathon. Open Admissions, a Shirley Lauro play first seen at EST, was later produced on Broadway. Noelle Parker's To Gillian, on Her 37th Birthday went on to become a full-length work and a feature film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. EST's small stage and short runs were often adorned by talent usually seen on Broadway or at major Off-Broadway theatres, including Rob Morrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary Stuart Masterson and Amy Irving. When Cynthia Nixon decided to return to the stage after achieving fame in the television series "Sex and the City," she chose an EST production called String Fever.

Frank Curtin Dempster was born Nov. 1, 1935, in Detroit, Michigan. As a young man, he lived in Greenwich Village on Cornelia Street, a few doors down from Joe Cino, founder of Caffe Cino, an early Off-Off-Broadway crucible. Before founding EST, he worked as a stage manager for Theatre 1969, a group organized by playwright Edward Albee and producer Richard Barr, and acted in such productions as Peter Weiss’ The Investigation on Broadway and an Off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge with Robert Duvall and Jon Voight.

After years of warning friends he was on the verge of starting his own company, the tall and lanky Mr. Dempster (he looked more like a Yankee carpenter than a theatre man) made good on his word, opening EST with an evening of Frank D. Gilroy one-acts. "I wanted to make a refuge for theater professionals, where you didn't have to be in Equity or in Off-Broadway," he said in an interview with Time Out New York. "We had a group of 40 people who set up a system to support people we thought were important." The company would grow to include more than 500 members.

Besides the main theatre, the 52nd Street building housed a warren of rehearsal and playing spaces, used during the company's many annual developmental festivals, such as Octoberfest, during which ensemble members tried out their new works. The company has suffered financial setbacks in recent years, with even the Marathon sometimes delayed or postponed, but throughout all Mr. Dempster has managed to keep the enterprised going.

In a written statement, a spokesman for EST said, "The Membership, Board, Members Council and Staff of Ensemble Studio Theatre are deeply saddened by his passing and remain committed to continuing Curt’s mission to develop and replenish the American Theatre."

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