Monday, January 22, 2007

A Remembrance: Curt Dempster (1935 - 2007)

I was warned to fear the Gypsy. For those unfamiliar with the term in its theatrical context, a “Gypsy” is a dress rehearsal for Curt and other members of the EST staff to attend so that they can evaluate the progress of the theater’s current production to make sure it is fit to open the following week. Curt, I was informed, had a reputation of being a particularly harsh critic – so much so that one member of EST affectionately rechristened the Gypsy “How Long Until Curt Makes You Cry?” The most frequent advice I was given before the Gypsy of my play A Bitter Taste was, “Bring a box of tissues.”

I knew as I sat down for our Gypsy rehearsal that things would not go smoothly. A bout of the flu had meant a lost week of rehearsals for the cast. Nor was there – for various and temperamental reasons - an excessive amount of love and devotion amongst our actors. They were under-rehearsed, under-prepared, still fumbling through lines and generally adrift. Two hours later, after sitting through the most painful dress rehearsal of my brief career, I watched the actors wheeze across the bloated finish line that marked the end of what had once been my play. Curt politely thanked the actors for their time and talent; he then took the director, the co-artistic director, and me into his office to talk.

If Curt had wanted to cancel the opening (which was less than a week away), he would have had my full support. I had, by this late point in the game, lost most of my faith that my New York theater debut would be a successful one. It wasn’t simply the lost week of rehearsals and the unsteadiness of the actors that dampened my hopes. It was the fear that this unsteadiness that seemed to permeate the production stemmed from the fact that no one seemed to understand what my play was about - and no was getting closer to figuring it out. To explain it in the simplest terms: I thought I had written a battle to the death; I was getting something closer to a very intense thumb-wrestling match.

“What is this play about?” Once we were all assembled in Curt’s office, that was the first question he asked. No threats. No warnings. No catalogue of flaws of what he’d just suffered through. Just a simple question, “What is this play about?” My heart stopped because I thought he was being literal. I thought we had failed at the most basic level of storytelling and he had not understood the plot (even though he’d seen a workshop production a year earlier at Carnegie Mellon University). A moment later I realized Curt was not talking about plot. He was asking – as all good theater practitioners do – what we were trying to communicate. Before we could answer, Curt proceeded to tell the room what my play was about.

Playwrights – particularly fledging playwrights looking for their first production – can spend a lot of time explaining or defending their work to people. But in Curt’s office that day, someone other than me did the explaining. More importantly, he got everything right. Everything I felt was important in the play, everything that needed to be communicated to the audience – he understood it all. And it didn’t take him more than five minutes to impart this to those gathered in his office. What he was essentially saying was “Kevin’s play is about X, Y, Z and what I’m seeing is A, B, C.”

The production had gotten off track, and Curt knew it. He knew it wasn’t just line flubs and missed blocking that was standing in our way. He knew what he had just seen wasn’t my play, but some spiteful doppelganger posing as my play. The production had strayed from the play. (His wittiest observation that I recall concerned the role of the underage male prostitute, “This kid lives on the street, and you’ve got him dressed like he orders his clothes from L.L. Bean.”) Curt might not have been saying anything new to the people assembled in his office. But it served as a wake-up call. We had five days before we opened and a lot – a lot – of work to do to get this play back on track. It wasn't just Curt lighting a fire under our asses, it was Curt reminding everyone in that room that there was already a fire - in the play that I had written - and we needed to use that.

That hour in Curt’s office was the first time since coming to New York that I felt like I was taken seriously as a playwright. Only two weeks earlier the photographer taking publicity shots for A Bitter Taste overheard some of the more risqué dialogue and remarked rather snarkily in front a full room of people, including the actors, “Do your parents know you write this kind of stuff?” (Imagine such a remark being addressed to Neil LaBute or Adam Rapp or Christopher Shinn and expecting them to take it in stride.) I was used to being treated like a kid who didn’t know what he was doing. But Curt trusted the text. He trusted the play I had written. He not only understood the play, but championed it to room full of people, telling them, “This is what this play is about. Do THAT.”

I have great memories of A Bitter Taste and rather depressing memories of A Bitter Taste. I have pleasant memories of Curt, and I have frustrating memories of Curt. What I will remember the most, though, is the first time I was treated like a playwright. For that memory, I will always be grateful to Curt.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Made me cry. Again. Those of us from the old guard are right there with you. We've all had that hour in the den with Curt. And will never be the same for it. Better artists all.

Risa Bramon Garcia
member since 1979
Los Angeles, CA

James DuMont said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience of Curt. Here is mine.
I was 19 when I walked into EST and Curt pushed my Chicago street smarts buttons when he kicked me out of his office (laughing) for even thinking I could be in his precious summer lab in Tannersville.

I showed him my college professors glowing recommendation letters and he said "I have never heard of ANY of these people".
Before leaving I paused at the door, thinking I had nothing to lose and said "that's funny cuz I never heard of YOU either till about a week ago, I guess you couldn't make it as an actor, so this is your TRIP" and left.
I cursed his name, his bald arrogance from 10th Avenue all the way to Broadway, got on the A train to 181st in Washington Heights only to find a message waiting on my answering machine from an intern… telling me Curt would like me to join his lab this summer.
That was the mixed message I got from Curt, I’ll fuck with you to see how you react and if you stand up for yourself….I’ll do it again, cuz… that’s how I show you I care about you.
I had lost my father the year before I had this first encounter with Curt. I was just trying to find my way in NY. So in typical Curt style, he put me to work. Cleaning toilets, doing box office, trying to fix the elevator and getting to be a reader for the Marathon auditions, which to this day was a great learning lesson.
Over the next few years I started to find my way as an actor by studying at the Institute, with Gina Barnett & Debra Hedwall and doing the Summer Conferences with Frank Girardeau & Curt’s Labs in Tannersville, where one summer I turned 21 and had my first legal drink at the Tannersville Tool & Die with Steve Hamilton & Barry Kramer.
I would see Curt and he would LOOK right though me like an X-Ray machine and ask “whadda ya doing?” We’d have some small talk…BS a bit and then he’d make some off handed remark about what I SHOULD be doing to be a better artist. Which pissed me off, as all I could think about was paying my rent on the $6k a year I was making at the time. But his comments made me stop, look and question “where I was at?” which in hindsight I really needed to hear from someone. The way he did it… was not the best, but it needed to be said…by someone.
I became a member of EST at 21 and learned how to act and produce my own projects through Octoberfests, did the Marathon and then moved on to Los Angeles to help create EST-The LA Project with Risa Bramon-Garcia, Debra Stricklin & Barry Kramer, which is now in it’s 14th year.
I would call Curt from time to time and fill him in on our West Coast progress, my marriage, the birth of my 2 children and each visit in LA, we would spend a little time together being in awe of how my artistic life was born at EST. I thought about it recently and EVERY job I have gotten in the last 20 years, had SOME connection to EST either though my work at EST, relationships built from EST or inspired by EST’s mission. Without EST I have no idea how my life would have turned out. Curt IS EST, so that applies to him as well.
22 years later I have lost a mentor and an artistic father, flawed as he may have been, he was one of my biggest fans and taught me to "Protect & Respect my craft” before I even knew what the word meant. The last time I saw him in LA, he said “hey… Jimmy Do, whadda ya doing?”
I had way too many things to tell him… and his attention span was short, so I just said “who invited this guy?” He laughed…gave me a firm hug and I felt like I was home again at EST. I will never forget him and will be forever inspired by him. He will be missed… but not forgotten.

James DuMont
EST NY Member, Former Co-Artistic Director & Founding Member of EST-The LA Project

Paul Mullin said...

Good for you, Kevin. As a fellow playwright who also worked closely with Curt and who also knew the fear and love that it was to sit in that office after a gypsy run, I have to say you got it deadon right. Thanks. I'm gonna miss Curt. Your writing here helps.