Lanky, laconic, usually seen in the Ensemble Studio Theatre lobby in work clothes, sometimes with a baseball cap perched on his head, Curt Dempster often struck me as seeming more like a Midwestern gas-station attendant than someone who ran an important testing ground for New York theater artists. This image was both a ploy and a reality: Frank Curtin Dempster, who died in his Greenwich Village apartment on January 19 of causes still undetermined as of press time, made himself look less important, less commanding, and less determined than he actually was, precisely to create the informal, workaday atmosphere in which artists would feel freest. Once that atmosphere was established, the interchange that was the essence of EST could begin.
The results, for such a small and seemingly offhand enterprise, have been astounding. It’s doubtful that any other producer in New York can lay claim to having offered the public 6,000 new plays, but under Dempster’s leadership, EST did just that. While giving renewed credibility to the short-form with the theater’s annual one-act Marathon, he also led in the exploration of plays based in science, and festivals of plays in development (an area far too many theaters conceal from their audience). Though EST often conveyed a “straight white guy” posture not unlike Dempster’s own, it gave constant opportunities to women, gays, and ethnic minorities. Celebrity writers and actors cropped up often, side by side with near-unknowns and outright novices. Up the dusty stairs of that drafty building on that once-desolate block of West 52nd Street, Curt Dempster welcomed, nurtured, and showcased them all.