The Playgoer: Curt Dempster, RIP

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Curt Dempster, RIP

The already sad story of the death Curt Dempster at EST just got sadder. According to Bloomberg, it was clearly a suicide.

Sounds like he had some sever phobias and maybe also genuine health problems. And under those conditions, the already tortuous life of running a small nonprofit theatre in NYC just may have got to him:

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.
At the end he was 71 years old, personally drawing making just over $40,000 a year himself. And a massive embezzlement four years ago by his own Executive Director(!) set the company back even more.

Given the dire finances, Dempster--son of a working class autoworker--admirably kept his priorities straight on what was worth preserving at EST, instead of diverting wasting his already spare finances on some quixotic "campaign."
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 shoesto the office and usually sported a backward baseball cap, resisting efforts to make the ramshackle theater slick.....

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.''

As Philip Boroff's excellent reporting (business savvy, of course, it's Bloomberg) makes clear, just as there are "two Americas" there are "two theatres" in this city--two different versions of nonprofit theatre at that.
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.

Rest in peace, Curt Dempster. You won't have to make no desperate donor calls no more...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this...the article is indeed thoughtful, and it's sad to hear that this has been verified as the cause of his death. He definitely touched a lot of people...RIP, Curt.

Anonymous said...

I think this article states it plainly.

Curt Dempster made plays.
Joe Papp made important ones.

Which theatre will survive longer?

Anonymous said...

didn't know it was a contest...
keeping score on your fridge for the final tally, I imagine?

While Papp and Dempster shake their heads and think, another one that doesn't get it.


Thanks for posting this. Great (although ultimately sad) story.

I met Curt only once, while I was rehearsing at EST last year for a Fringe play.

I just performed at EST last week as part of the Sloan Project (the Cabaret Scientifique) where I did a portion of my flea circus. I like the feel of EST-- it's informal and clearly hardworking.

When I was at Conservatory, the director of the conservatory made a big point about the difference between a career in the theatre and a life in the theatre. Curt really had a life in the theatre, and no matter what, you can't take that away.

I'm hoping EST can do what HERE did, and buy their space.

I love this quote from the article:

"Curt always used to say "Keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole.""

Diana B. Thompson said...

I just heard the news today, Oh, no.

I'm so sad to see you go. Although it has been a very long time since we talked over a cup of joe in a neighborhood diner, I will always respect your dedication to running a theatre and living life on your own terms. I suppose you decided to end it on your terms as well. I respect it, though it makes me sad to know you're not there making EST the symbol of artistic integrity.

Anonymous said...

EST developed more plays and more films than the public even realizes. I worked on 2 that won Best Film there.