On Manhattan’s West 52nd Street, in the neighborhood long known as Hell’s Kitchen, there is an unmarked industrial door. It leads to a flight of concrete stairs that opens into a 74-seat theatre in a former furniture factory. This initially nondescript structure is the home of Ensemble Studio Theatre, founded in 1968 to develop and produce new American plays. The company’s productions now number into the thousands.
“I believe in what people can do,” says artistic director William Carden, an EST member since 1978. “That’s what excites me, providing opportunity. I’ve always felt that was here.” On a recent spring day, Carden presides over an impossibly hyperactive programming schedule—mainstage and workshop productions, readings, commissions, a seemingly endless array of programming from EST/Youngblood (a program for playwrights under 30) and the Alfred P. Sloan Project to develop new plays about science and technology.
It was not long ago, though, that Ensemble Studio Theatre was on the brink of collapse. In January 2003, a former employee embezzled $48,000 from the EST coffers, and that loss, in tandem with a property loan on the company’s summer retreat, threatened to bankrupt the theatre. Then, after years of struggling to keep the theatre he founded alive, in 2007 the company’s founder Curt Dempster committed suicide.
Today, EST has finally paid off a half-million-dollar debt and, more important, is producing buzz-generating new work. The 45-year-old institution has reinvented itself for a new era with startling speed. Members credit the strong leadership provided by Carden in the years since Dempster’s death. “Billy and his team have really stabilized EST. They put it back on the map,” says member playwright J. Holtham, who ran the Youngblood program under Dempster.
The vision that launched the theatre’s current success took root in its earliest days, when Dempster’s group of renegades took over a condemned Manhattan office building and turned it into a magnet for the country’s top theatre talent, producing up to six new plays each season. “Curt was a guy with an extraordinary and powerful vision,” says Carden, a working actor who found a home at EST early on, performing in plays like Richard Greenberg’s Bloodletters. EST, according to its mission, “was founded in the belief that extraordinary support yields extraordinary work.”
The theatre created lifetime memberships for its playwrights, directors and actors (now numbering over 500). “That was so special for twentysomethings,” says longtime member Ann Talman. “It was the hottest ticket in town—guerrilla theatre, down and dirty. Curt was a force in American theatre, and it was all about the playwright, big time.”
Janet Zarish, a member actress since 1982, agrees: “At the beginning, EST had this combustible energy. It all crashed and tumbled together and was as wildly, unpredictably creative as the art itself. Curt had an infectious desire to create a visceral kind of theatre that was as jaggedly brilliant as he was.”
EST hit its stride in the late ’70s. In workmanlike clothes, Dempster would welcome audiences with his signature greeting: “In the spirit of works in progress, welcome to EST.” He developed an annual marathon of one-act plays—simply “The Marathon” to insiders—that was widely credited with revitalizing the short-play form. Seminal plays like Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You appeared alongside offerings from David Mamet and Tennessee Williams; new work from Arthur Miller, Lanford Wilson, and Wendy Wasserstein shared the bill with plays from newcomers like John Patrick Shanley; stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, David Hyde Pierce, Kevin Bacon and John Turturro created roles in new plays. “Whoever you were,” says associate artistic director Graeme Gillis, “if your play was good, that was what counted.”
By the ’90s, though, the venerable institution seemed worse for wear. “The theatre scene shifted pretty radically,” says Holtham, who came on as an intern in 1996 and stayed on staff until 2005 to run the Sloan Project and Youngblood. “The expense to produce theatre in New York, the need for an expensive publicist, dwindling space for reviews—those shifts left EST behind.” Other organizations moved to upscale theatre complexes, but EST remained loyal to Dempster’s noncommercial vision. In addition, under Dempster and a rotating series of managing directors, the theatre had built up a debt of over $1 million. “Curt was not good at money,” says Talman flatly.
Financial problems worsened in the early 2000s when the theatre purchased a 31-acre artists’ retreat in Lexington, N.Y. “It was something that Curt felt strongly about,” says Carden. “He was aware of all these poor artists living in New York and what it meant to have a place to go in the summer.” An outdoorsman, Dempster “pretty much spent every single weekend there,” says Gillis. “He needed to get back to nature.”
At times, it seemed the theatre was in the real estate business instead of play-producing. “Curt’s obsession with keeping Lexington, to the detriment of everything else, really started to hurt him,” says Holtham. The theatre’s board became concerned about the disproportionate out-of-town financial investment, especially since it was purchased with debt-generating loans. A troubled period ensued—“essentially a civil war,” remembers Holtham.
In 2003, a strange, complex theft was discovered within the organization—$48,000 had been stolen from the theatre using checks with Dempster’s forged signature, to pay debts associated with another theatre production. The robbery just “kicked a hole in the boat,” says Holtham.
“After the embezzlement happened,” says Gillis, “Curt had to let people go, one after another.” Gillis stayed, working for free, while Holtham worked on speculation. During the crisis, Dempster gave his lieutenants money out of his pocket.
Meanwhile, the increasingly desperate A.D. pursued an ambitious development project to move the theatre to a more upscale property at 789 10th Ave., despite a hefty price tag. “In the last years of his life, Curt was desperately looking for ways to make this work,” says Paul Slee, who was working at the time as a consultant. Slee reported to Dempster “that there was no way he could raise the money to do this project. He wasn’t happy with that.”
One bright spot during Dempster’s final years was the rise of EST/Youngblood, founded in 1993. It went from being a young-playwrights group (original members included Christopher Shinn, John Belluso and Lucy Thurber) to a producing entity, mounting works by Amy Herzog, Annie Baker and “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether. But generational tensions emerged between Youngblood and the organization’s larger membership. The younger playwrights garnered acclaim while veteran artists didn’t have the opportunity to produce as much work.
Meanwhile, Carden had just completed a 12-year stint as artistic director of the HB Playwrights Foundation. He was widely admired by EST’s membership—even Dempster, famously stingy with praise, expressed admiration and “had talked to Billy over the years about coming on and being partners with him,” says Gillis. Carden demurred, telling Dempster that “while we share the same goals, we have very different styles and I don’t think it would work.” Dempster also tried, unsuccessfully, to bring Slee on board, saying “I just need to find someone I can trust.”
On Jan. 19, 2007, Dempster was found dead in his Greenwich Village studio apartment, a suicide by hanging at age 71. His memorial filled the John Jay theatre to overflowing, where “you saw the enormity of the guy’s life,” Gillis says. Dempster was warmly remembered by playwright Shanley as “one of those people who made New York go.”
Dempster’s sudden death was a devastating event for the theatre. Almost immediately, the community reached out to Carden, who was quickly hired and began working to save the floundering institution. After reading Slee’s clearheaded consultant report, Carden offered him the executive director job; this time he accepted.
Dempster’s persona was that of a “shaman/wizard/visionary,” says Holtham. By contrast, the low-key Carden visited different parts of the theatre, listening intently to the challenges that the organization—always fractious, but now on the brink of chaos—faced. “Part of Curt’s management style was to create satellite organizations within the organization. Everybody knew the programs, and nobody knew EST.” One of the challenges, says Carden, was “How do we bring all of these things under one umbrella and unite them in the development of new work?”
Longtime members, some dissatisfied even before Dempster’s passing, voiced discontent. Everyone wanted the theatre to produce more work, especially full-length plays, but couldn’t agree on a course of action. “Everybody who wanted to have a say dove into the breach with their ideas and with their frustrations,” says Slee.
Gillis (now running the Sloan program and Youngblood, with co-artistic director RJ Tolan), recalls yelling and infighting during meetings: “Grief comes out in so many different forms—a lot of it had to do with Curt. He meant so much to so many people and was taken from them in this terrible, violent way.” As Carden worked to unify the grieving ensemble, he took solace in “the always exciting work that was happening in the theatre,” including strong productions of End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer and Lenin’s Embalmers by Vern Theissen (directed by Carden).
A six-month strategic planning process took two years—Slee calls it “a giant group-therapy session”—but ultimately EST emerged stronger. “It involved not just how we see ourselves, but how the world sees us,” says Carden. “How are we making a difference to theatre in this country?” A 2010 transition that brought Zarish and actor/writer Abigail Gampel into leadership also calmed waters considerably.
“It’s not something you can sustain as an institution—being a family,” says Carden, “which is very much what Curt created. That’s a wonderful thing, but families don’t relate in a professional way. That requires a different kind of discipline.”
Indeed, Carden determined that, although EST had many strong elements and a dedicated artistic ensemble, the many programs and constituencies lacked coordination. For example, Youngblood always wanted to work with the theatre’s older members, but Gillis hesitated about asking veteran actress Lois Smith to perform in one of the group’s projects. Carden, however, picked up the phone and enlisted Smith, who was thrilled to oblige. “The quality of the work they’re doing has improved exponentially in the last five years,” Carden says, “because the members of this theatre came in to support the program.” Now, the theatre’s older members regularly appear in Youngblood productions. “I’m addicted to their work,” says Zarish. “I love Graeme and RJ’s renegade spirit. It feels like the best of Curt and the best of now.”
By streamlining the “development continuum”—including 22 productions of full-length plays over the past four seasons (up from two in Dempster’s final year)—EST’s box office grew under Carden from $77,197 in 2007 to $186,061 in 2012. “We were really strong on all the early stuff, like staged readings,” says Carden, “but we weren’t producing enough full-length work and we were known as the one-act theatre. One-acts are great, but a full-length is what determines an artist.”
The 2011 production of Robert Askins’s Hand to God, starring a quintet of ensemble members, was a runaway hit and promptly optioned for Broadway. Lucas Hnath’s play Isaac’s Eye (nurtured by the Sloan Project) premiered to strong reviews in February, and radically reconfigured EST’s space into a pipes-and-all reveal of the building’s industrial trappings.
After a year’s hiatus, while the theatre got its financial house in order, the Marathon is back this month, featuring plays by EST members Shanley, Askins, Leslie Ayvazian and others. Longtime member Jerry Zaks will produce the theatre’s spring benefit. A theatre once associated with Boomer infighting now sports late-night dance parties after plays, sold-out Sunday brunches where crowds sample short plays by Youngblood playwrights, and a rambunctious social media presence.
Still, old perceptions die hard. When Nicky Silver’s The Lyons hit Broadway, it made reference to the old days at EST:
Curtis: Lots of stairs and the smell of urine?
Brian: That’s right! But respected. I mean people respect it. I was in last year’s Marathon series, Evening B. The third play.
When the quip was mentioned in a review of the play, the theatre promptly tweeted out a reply: “Nicky…you [obviously] haven’t been here in a while. Our halls smell like Pine-Sol and progress!”
“It feels celebratory,” Gillis says, of the theatre’s new energy. “Maybe because we’re still around after losing Curt, and we spent a few years figuring out who we were without him. We’re still that company, but instead of being about decades past, it’s very much about this moment.”
Now renamed Clinton (at least officially), the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood has changed from the days when Dempster’s artistic adventurers headed west in search of cheap space. Now, upscale condos inhabited by young professionals mix with holdover bodegas; around the corner are the studios for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
Sitting in his office, Carden reflects, “I never imagined myself in this position. I didn’t wake up and go, ‘I want to be an artistic director.’ I started directing because I felt like I was working for people who knew less than I did. I come to it as an artist, and I’m interested in how an institution can unlock artistic potential—to see where it can go.”
In May 2012, that potential soared—EST and Youngblood members packed into Webster Hall to watch Carden, Gillis and Tolan accept an Obie Award for EST/Youngblood, while member Steven Boyer snagged one for his performance in Hand to God. “It was a high point, for sure,” says Slee, “getting recognition for a program that is vitality personified.”
Accepting the award, Gillis looked up to see the theatre’s community cheering them on from the balcony. He kept the speech short. “The only people I wanted to thank were Billy and Curt. It just meant a lot to say their names on that stage.”
Mark Armstrong is a Brooklyn-based director, and a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre.