Profile: David Esbjornson

Artistic director, Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre's new artistic director won't have it easy exactly because he has it easy. Taking the reins at an award-winning company that has no pressing financial concerns presents its own set of challenges. "When you're coming into something that is reasonably successful, the question always is, 'What are you going to do to make it more successful?'" David Esbjornson acknowledges. "For me, it's just a question to find a way in which I can present material that I believe is relevant, and that there's a dialectic that begins to be created with the Seattle community. I mean, those are lofty ideas, but I think in presenting plays, there needs to be a combination of the plays that think [and] some understanding that theater should also be a place of pleasure and entertainment." It's a fairly common sentiment these days. The question of balance—the need to figure out how to juggle the necessities of both art and escapism—is perhaps the most pressingconcern facing contemporary theater. With its Tony pedigree and large budget, the Rep is in the plush yet paradoxically problematic position of being the Big Theater. Esbjornson, who was named Sharon Ott's replacement in February, is well aware of the practicalities of the work. "The difficulty of being the large theater in town is you must fill those seats, and so you're not going to always be able to do a steady diet of the really edgy, difficult work," he says. "On the other hand, the community as I understand it seems to be incredibly intelligent and capable of really meeting you halfway, so I want to acknowledge that." Intelligent work is, by most accounts, Esbjornson's hallmark. He appears to have spent most of his artistic life as a wanderer in search of inspiration from idiosyncratic voices. As a freelance director at important regional venues and on Broadway, he has been connected to some of the most singular talents in American theater, working with playwrights as diverse and distinctive as Suzan-Lori Parks, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, and Edward Albee (whose The Play About the Baby and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? both premiered in Esbjornson stagings). "I have an eclectic past," Esbjornson admits, "but I intentionally have pursued that because there are so many interesting points of view that I want to explore. I think I'm not quite as all over the map as maybe people think. There's a certain reason that I have done all those plays. I tend to gravitate to the writers that I think are trying to say something, or who are outside of the center a bit and who are trying to break in and get their point of view expressed." His choices for his first full season at his new home are telling. Alongside such obvious subscriber pleasers as the latest installment of Neil Simon's semiautobiographical cycle (Rewrites, which finds alter ego Eugene simultaneously experiencing his first child and first Broadway play), you'll find Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, a spring offering based on the writer/performer's 11 years of interviews with Iraqi women. Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom's adaptation of the feel-good Albom publishing phenomenon Tuesdays With Morrie should provide the theater a hefty safety counterweight to world-premiere works by Amy Freed (Restoration Comedy), Ariel Dorfman (Purgatorio), and Teatro ZinZanni'smusical director, Norman Durkee (composer of Temple, a song-filled story based on the life of autistic Temple Grandin and her remarkable work with animals). It's a shrewd lineup—there is also the return of Ping Chong's puppetry, Cathay: Three Tales of China, which was chosen before Esbjornson's appointment, and a new adaptation of Carlo Gozzi's commedia The King Stag—at once careful and canny, as if the man is ready to throw himself into the aforementioned juggling act. But is there any piece, marketing appeal or no, that Esbjornson views as unfit for a company seeking status as a trailblazer? "Oh, I'm sure I'll be making that kind of judgment all the time," he allows, before reflecting on his artistic travels over the years. "But do I have a prejudice against a certain kind of work? No. Because I have found that I'll go off to some small place and I'll go, 'Why am I doing this?' And there will be some amazing talent or mind in that situation, or some artist that I'll meet, or some designer, or some young student that eventually gets into the field. I just think you have to be really careful not to have preconceived ideas. You just never know where the inspiration is going to hit you, and who you're going to get to know, and what affect that may have on your life and your work." He knows whereof he speaks: Esbjornson was the first to get his hands on Kushner's Angels in America, which premiered under relatively modest circumstances at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre. It's natural to wonder if something like Kushner's epic would have a chance at production as an unknown quantity in an uncertain age for the arts. Could Esbjornson even consider tackling such a mammoth maybe at this point in time? "Well, I would hope that if it was the right piece that I could," he answers. "I don't think I can walk in tomorrow and be delivering that kind of thing. Back then, Angels was in front of us. No one had said, 'This is Angels in America!' It was a new work of theater that was extremely challenging. The thing is, it takes a whole community to put on great work. I can't tell you the hundreds of people that helped create Angels in America. That is something that our society doesn't celebrate. But it is a collective effort, it is on the backs of many, many talented people. And I think that a theater like the Rep should be trying to participate in those kinds of things if they can, but, of course, you have to understand and identify them when they come—and that's a trick. And you also have to be able to let those ideas spring forth from an environment that you create. So much of it is just intuition and trying to create the right attitude." If Esbjornson's reputation is any indication, the Rep should be ready to roll. Seattle Repertory Theatre, 206-443-2222,

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