Every thing about the Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual marathon of one-act plays serves to deflate an audience's expectations. Arriving at the nondescript 10-story brick building on the corner of 52nd Street and 11th Avenue, in the deserted heart of Manhattan's warehouse district, you push through swinging doors painted an industrial shade of lima-bean green, and climb two flights of narrow stairs to the minuscule foyer that serves as reception area, box office, lobby and coffee bar. Your ticket entitles you to one of 99 seats on two sets of risers looking down on a square patch of stage space about the size of an average Manhattan bedroom. And your playbill, which doubles as air conditioning on early summer evenings, promises what seems like a meal of hors d'oeuvres: four one-act plays, from which you can reasonably expect perhaps one exquisite miniature and some quick, painless trifles but surely nothing more. 

Yet within these modest surroundings and diminished expectations, EST audiences have again and again witnessed the theatrical equivalent of alchemy. This tiny playground in Broadway's backyard was where Christopher Durang first unleashed a Catholic schoolboy's ultimate caricature of cheerfully fascistic nuns in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It was during EST's 1981 marathon that Shirley Lauro's Open Admissions, depicting a showdown between a semi-literate black student and the inner-city college professor who thought she was doing him a favor by passing him untaught, first exploded onto the stage.

The same year, songwriter and cartoonist Shel Silverstein made a stunning debut as satirical playwright with The Lady or the Tiger, in which Richard Dreyfuss played a cynical game-show host who hustles a contestant into gambling between reuniting with his childhood sweetheart or being eaten alive on national television. And two years ago Richard Greenberg’s Life Under Water, which portrayed class conflict and romantic turmoil among two generations of Long Islanders, compressed a novel's worth of material into a lyrical 50-minute play hauntingly performed by Amanda Plummer, Andrew McCarthy, Jill Eikenberry and Larry Bryggman.

The consistency with which EST pulls off this neat trick -- of promising canapes and delivering haute cuisine -- has made the one-act play marathon one of the most hotly anticipated events of the year in New York theatre. Now in its 10th year, the marathon has been widely credited with reviving interest in the one-act play form, and with spawning similar festivals at other theatres in New York and around the country. As a showcase for writing talent, it has become as closely watched as the O'Neill Center's National Playwrights Conference and the Humana Festival of New Plays sponsored each spring by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. And the marathon routinely collects critical panegyrics for its high level of acting and direction, whether the plays are trifles or triumphs.

While EST has unveiled plays by a variety of noted writers -- Pulitzer Prize-winners David Mamet and Marsha Norman, contemporary comic playwrights Wendy Wasserstein and Michael Weller, veteran storytellers Horton Foote and Romulus Linney -- it has also nurtured many young playwrights who have built careers entirely out of their labors at EST, including Richard Greenberg, Roger Hedden, Darrah Cloud, Jose Rivera, Eduardo Machado and Mary Gallagher.

This year's marathon plays for six weeks, through June 15. When it is in full swing, three evenings of four one-act plays apiece are performed in rotating repertory. On this year's lineup are such EST stalwarts as Cassandra Medley, Edward Allen Baker, Kermit Frazier and Stuart Spencer, along with better-known playwrights such as Ernest Thompson (On Golden Pond) and John Patrick Shanley (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea).

If EST produced nothing more than the one-act marathon, it would hold an esteemed spot on the landscape of New York theatre. But the marathon comes each year at the end of a busy season, which begins in the fall with an Octoberfest of member-initiated projects (this year they numbered more than 70) and continues with three or four mainstage productions (in the past these have included award-winning plays like Albert lnnaurato's The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie and Michael Brady's To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday), as well as a series of staged readings called "New Voices." Such prodigious activity makes other not-for-profit theatre companies, with their five-or-six-play subscription series, look like idlers.

But EST is a membership organization whose primary mission is developing rather than producing plays. The lion's share of activity consists of projects initiated by company members for their own advancement and presented, if at all, for small invited audiences. Rather than lavish all its energies on a handful of plays, it operates in the freewheeling, fan-every-flame spirit of pioneer Off-Off Broadway theatres of the early 1960s, which produced dozens of plays each year and provided budding artists with an alternative to the cutthroat competition of commercial theatre. Today Off-Off Broadway as a movement is virtually dead, a victim of economic circumstances. Among the few Off-Off Broadway theatres that continue to thrive are La Mama ETC, Ellen Stewart's all-embracing experimental outpost; Theater for the New City, sustained by the tireless devotion of founders Crystal Field and George Bartenieff; and EST. And if the membership is responsible for generating some 210 new plays in 15 years, EST owes its very existence to the passion, determination and leadership of 51-year-old Curt Dempster.

A writer and director himself, Dempster founded EST in 1971 as a studio where theatre professionals could work in an atmosphere devoid of any pressure except the inner drive to improve their artistry. Throughout its cyclical periods of heady success and financial peril, he has held the theatre to its principles. ''About 90 percent of what happens here is private," says Dempster. "In that sense, we are a service organization to the individual artist. Not just playwrights, but theatre people in general are an endangered species, and this is one of the places where they can keep alive."

EST has accumulated more than 300 members, both here and at its Los Angeles branch, including actors, writers, directors, designers and technicians. A member's council elects a few members each year, and anyone is eligible to apply. "But we have a very, very rigid set of criteria that eliminates most people," Dempster says. "They have to have a high degree of expertise or talent. They have to be interested in a real artistic collective -- meaning they have to be willing to share in the operation apart from their own artistic interests -- and they should have a body of work we get to know in some way. Once they're elected, they're members for life, and they have the run of the place. They can call up and book space anytime and do virtually anything they want to do. The people who get the most out of this place are those who use it as a studio to challenge themselves and to grow."

On a cold, rainy autumn day, the always temperamental heating system at 549 W. 52nd street is acting up, and Curt Dempster's corner office is one of the few places EST staff members can keep warm. So while the artistic director checks his schedule of appointments with his assistant Laura Barnett and consults by phone with his casting directors, Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, a steady traffic of interns and passersby streams through to huddle by the only working radiator in the office.

A tall, stocky man with glasses, receding hairline and a quiet but commanding voice, Dempster loves to play the funky father figure to his mostly younger artistic family. If the come-and-go atmosphere makes his office seem more like the lobby than the inner sanctum, Dempster doesn't mind -- it's very much his style. He likes to compare the theatre to an emergency room, where crisis is a normal state.

"Curt used to go through managing directors like water, because they wanted to make the theatre more upscale than we are," says Donna Moynihan, the company's literary manager. "One benefit night we were wooing oil tycoons, and I remember someone trying to move some big plants to cover a crack in the wall. We even talked about running a van service from Broadway for people who were afraid to walk all the way over to West End. Some people were trying to make the theatre something it isn't. They didn't understand it was Curt's theatre."

A latecomer to theatre, Dempster grew up in a working-class Detroit family, was kicked out of Michigan State College, apprenticed as a jazz musician in Las Vegas, and eventually gravitated to New York with the vague desire to become a writer. After taking night classes in philosophy and science at the New School while working in corporate public relations by day, he suddenly decided to be an actor, and at the age of 27 threw himself into four years of intensive study with Paul Mann, voice teacher Marion Rich, and Philip Burton (mentor and namesake of Richard Burton). He got his first professional job acting opposite Robert Duvall in Ulu Grosbard's 1966 revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which ran for two years Off Broadway at the Sheridan Square Playhouse. From the very beginning, though, he had more in mind than an acting career.

"When I got out of training, I was burning with zeal to begin a theatre. It took a while to collect enough people," Dempster recalls. Searching for a model, he studied such legendary theatrical institutions as the Group Theatre, the APA/Phoenix Repertory and the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company, and he discovered that each of them had failed for the same reason. “Any group that had to depend on a series of successes to stay alive, especially doing new plays . . . you can't do it. You have to have some sort of base so that if you have a public failure it's not going to wipe you out."

In 1970, when Dempster seriously started hatching plans for what would become EST, he had all of Off-Off Broadway to survey for practical advice. Around the same time, Circle Repertory Company, the Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons were just forming, under the influence of Off Off Broadway pioneers such as the Judson Theatre, La Mama and Caffe Cino; Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theatre and Richard Schechner's Performance Group were in full gear. But Dempster didn't feel comfortable with the radical aesthetics and sometimes amateurish standards of many Off-Off Broadway theatres. "Those were the pockets of discontent outside the system, and I came out of the system. And I always felt if anything was going to happen that would be permanent, it would have to come from within the profession, as opposed to some lunatic fringe."

What Dempster had in mind was to use Off-Off Broadway's free-for-all system of production to create theatre that conformed to Broadway traditions. This impulse seems paradoxical, but it was based on his personal experience of contemporary New York theatre, where even established playwrights like Arthur Miller had no guarantee of commercial success, and where the shows that did make money (mostly musicals and light comedies) lacked the depth to keep artists creatively stimulated. "A View from the Bridge ran for two years, it kept people working in an artistic endeavor of great significance, and it paid back its investors, but it wasn't really profit-making," Dempster says. “And you didn't make a living -- you got $75, maybe $85 a week. Unions have the point of view, 'Who can live on $75 a week?' That's true. But people weren't there to make a living. If you want to make money, there are always ways to make money. This was something more important. It had all the fervor of idealism."

Dempster saw that idealism being threatened by Actors' Equity Association's increasing hostility to Off-Off Broadway theatre and by the commercial exploitation of Off Broadway, so he started gathering around him a tribe of like-minded individuals. Some of the original EST members had been involved with A View from the Bridge, such as Jon Voight and Sarah Cunningham, and some, like Jerry Zaks, were Dempster's former students. Many of the people instrumental in founding EST -- Conrad Bromberg, Lois Smith, David Margulies and Jane Hoffman among them -- came from the Actors Studio, where Dempster had participated in writing and directing workshops.

For the original 20 or so members of EST, the first order of business was finding a permanent home. Dempster "went around knocking on doors" and ended up at an abandoned furniture warehouse on the far edge of Hell's Kitchen. The city-owned building was "5000 square feet of open space completely filled with a layer of scrunched-up newspapers," remembers Don Marcus, a former student of Dempster's at Smith College who became his all-purpose assistant. "We spent a year just cleaning it up."

Currently operating on a month-to-month lease, EST has periodically had to cope with threats of eviction in the face of real estate developments. The theatre pays only $282 a month for the two floors it occupies -- "a token rent," as Dempster acknowledges. But he points out that the tenants have to pay for frequent repairs to the ancient elevators, heat and hot water systems, and he maintains that the theatre deserves the city's support for its contributions to the neighborhood and to the theatre community. "I would close this place tomorrow if we had to pay market rate," he says. "I'm not interested in paying some slimeball $50,000 a day to rent some space."

It's significant that the core of Ensemble Studio Theatre came from conventional theatre sources such as the Actors Studio rather than the far-out fields of Off-Off Broadway. Part of the reason may involve sexual politics. Particularly after the Stonewall Tavern riots that launched the gay liberation movement, Off-Off Broadway became a haven for theatre people who no longer chose to hide their sexual preferences. Not everyone appreciated this freedom; an early draft of EST's charter disqualified from membership only two types of people: hostile personalities and open homosexuals. But the notion of launching a new theatre specifically committed to original work and then assembling a company of actors and writers steeped in Arthur Miller -- rather than, say, Jerzy Grotowski -- also reflects the artistic conservatism of Curt Dempster's personal taste.

Although the current membership of EST is too large and varied to subscribe to the same artistic school, the closest thing to a house style is what Dempster calls "the mainstream of American theatre, the modern Chekhov-Ibsen-StrindbergO'Neill-Miller- Williams-Albee tradition." Donna Moynihan says, "Curt is very solid and unpretentious in his tastes. He doesn't like poetic atmosphere or plays whose chief interest is literary or intellectual. He likes emotion, realistic behavior, dramatic action -- characters in interesting situations who want something and go for it." The emphasis on naturalistic drama can be a drawback. Sometimes the tiny scope of plays at EST seems all too familiar from television soap operas and sitcoms, and their old-fashioned dramaturgy makes one thirst for the sophisticated technology and avant-garde theatrics of the Brooklyn Academy's Next Wave Festival.

Still, it goes without saying that an honest, well-written play can forge a deep connection between actors and audiences. And at its best EST offers experiences as affecting as any to be found in the theatre. Perhaps the quintessential EST play is Conrad Bromberg's Fog, which was the first work ever shown at the theatre. The action of the play is simple: during the half-hour dinner break between his day job and his second job, a small-town metalworker and his wife review their household debts and painstakingly decide which bills they can pay and which will have to wait. As a one-act play running less than 25 minutes, Fog clearly has no commercial value; yet within its small scope, it is a devastating and truthful slice of life. Especially as performed by Deborah Hedwall and Robert Schenkkan when revived in the 1984 marathon, it was, as one observer put it, "a tragedy over scrambled eggs."

Writers occupy the center of attention at EST, but actors make up at least half the membership, and they are encouraged to develop skills at initiating projects and to sample other disciplines. Veteran actress Jane Hoffman, for example, has worked steadily for decades, yet as a member of EST from its inception she has tried her hand at directing, written a play for herself, acted in a workshop of Shakespeare's King John directed by Mary Robinson, and taught a course she designed herself at the EST institute. "When I first came to New York, there was no place like it. You'd go to Walgreen's and sit at the counter and buy a Coke," says Hoffman. "Here we can trade ideas, work on projects and network about jobs. I suppose I could just sit by the phone and wait for calls to come in, but EST has kept me working."

Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins both moved to New York as aspiring directors --she from Canada, he from Ohio -- and wound up working at EST in a variety of capacities, including assistant directing, stage managing, casting and co-producing the one-act marathon. In addition, they have launched promising directing careers with assignments at Lincoln Center and the Second Stage. But after film director Susan Seidelman borrowed their casting talents for Desperately Seeking Susan, they quickly became the most sought-after casting directors in the business. Over the last year they have cast Something Wild, Angel Heart, Making Mister Right and half a dozen other films out of their fifth-floor office in the EST annex on West End Avenue.

Considering the large number and variety of members who have achieved recognition both within and outside EST, it's not surprising that conflicting views of the theatre have arisen. A major ongoing controversy is whether the theatre should remain primarily a developmental theatre or become more of a producing organization capable of mounting longer runs in larger houses. Some feel that spending more energy on producing would damage the laboratory nature of the theatre. Others, particularly playwrights, feel that the theatre fails to serve their needs if they can never hope to progress beyond staged readings and one-act plays at EST. "We've become known as the theatre that does the marathon every year, and my feeling is that in this beautiful thing lurks poison," says Conrad Bromberg. "If we do a playwright's one-act and he then turns around and gives the big meaty play to someone else, I think we're cheating ourselves."

Dempster is aware of the need for long-range financial planning and a more stable real-estate situation; he is alert to the desirability of having a permanent corporate sponsor for the marathon (he was disappointed when Newsday, which underwrote operating expenses for the 1986 marathon, declined to continue its support on an annual basis); he is sensitive to the practical necessity of finding new sources of income for working members. In general, though, Dempster is reluctant to concentrate on the commercial potential of the company's acting, directing and playwriting talent -- which one member terms "a gold mine" -- for fear of raising expectations that EST is about anything other than providing a stepping stone for future generations of theatre artists.

"When I started out in the '60s, most of the producers, the Herman Shumlins and the Richard Barrs, weren't producing to make a million dollars. They were doing it because they believed in theatre as an artistic resource and that it should go forward. They were taking chances on new writers," says Dempster. "But that doesn't happen anymore. I don't see the next wave of people coming out of the professional theatre with the training, the background, the expertise to start theatres anymore. There just isn't enough going on. It used to be that you could produce a play for $25,000, run it a couple of months, and make your money back. Now it takes two years to pay back on a play. Meanwhile, the actors don't get trained, the directors don't get developed, and the playwrights don't get their plays done enough. So it's a part-time profession. Therefore it no longer has the surge of movement.

"Sometimes when things are at their worst, I think we're beating a dead horse," says Dempster. "The profession may already have mutated into extinction, and what's tottering around now are just people and places that don't know they're dead. The thing that saves me is my knowledge of theatre history. In every civilization that's had any significance, theatre has always been a central part of that. It's really thousands of years of heritage that propels the theatre forward. It has life. It evolves like everything else. And we're part of the evolution right here, in this little warehouse in Hell's Kitchen on the West Side of New York."

American Theatre, June 1987