Frank Rich: The word “vision” is thrown around promiscuously in the theater when in fact few people have a vision and even fewer stick to a vision no matter what. Curt Dempster was the exception. He never abandoned the idea behind Ensemble Studio Theatre – a true ensemble dedicated to artists, emerging and established alike, who wanted to get new work on stage in ideal circumstances. During my years as a theater critic, the number of fresh voices introduced in the annual EST Marathons was astronomical: Eduardo Machado, José Rivera, John Patrick Shanley, Brother Jonathan, Shirley Lauro and Richard Greenberg (still a student at the Yale School of Drama) were all coming of age as writers. More experienced writers also kept coming back: Mamet and Linney and Shel Silverstein and Tina Howe and Chris Durang, whose Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You took wing at the EST. Perhaps most remarkable was the case of Horton Foote: a great American writer whose earliest plays had been produced in New York in the early 1940’s but who had been largely forgotten by the New York theater after his decades working in television and Hollywood. Curt produced The Road to the Graveyard, one of many unseen works Foote had been piling up, and the instantaneous result was the second coming of a major American dramatist.
There have been other producers in the non-profit theater who made a cause of championing new voices – and once upon a time, even in the commercial theater – in the course of American theater history. But has anyone stuck so closely to his initial vision, never bloating it or compromising it from start to finish? Anywhere you look in the American theater of the 21st century you see the progeny of EST. Curt Dempster’s gift to all who care passionately about American drama is incalculable.