David Esbjornson doesn't want to talk. I made a number of requests to interview the Rep's new artistic director, but according to the theater's publicist, "He is still in the process of learning about Seattle and about Seattle's audiences and does not feel ready to comment on how the season is going." That's too bad. We want to hear the new gun speak on exactly that subject—"how the season is going."
He's had to make unusual late-term changes to the schedule, scuttling a Neil Simon premiere for August Wilson's latest play, and delaying the new musical Temple (about autistic "humane slaughter" activist Dr. Temple Grandin) for the well-worn 1930 romance Private Lives (which Warner Shook directed at the Intiman in 1997).
It may be too early to call him embattled, but reactions to his first season have ranged from hostile to mixed. Esbjornson famously directed world premieres by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Edward Albee, Ariel Dorfman, and Arthur Miller. He is, by all on- and off-the-record accounts, a smart man with strong opinions. Word on the street has it that David actually gives a shit about locals and—even better than our typical artistic protectionism—wants to cultivate connections between Seattle and other cities, not only to bring big shots to us, but to send our big shots abroad. So what's he thinking, now that the honeymoon has so abruptly ended? Is he the steely badass we want leading Seattle's biggest theater?
Frankly, we're probably not missing much—artistic directors increasingly resemble press releases with legs and tasteful sweaters. We want visionaries and brawlers, but we get pussyfooting: They either lack strong opinions (the fatal blow to any medium) or they're too timid to voice them (the penultimate blow). Or they're too revenue oriented, afraid of pissing off donors, subscribers, boards, and other parasites that take twice as much in vitality as they give in cash.
So far, all of this season's Rep productions (Cathay, The King Stag, Purgatorio, Restoration Comedy) have failed, but they've been ambitious—and I'd rather watch ambitious failures than just another dishrag of a show.
Which is the kind of thing we want to discuss with David. Which is, apparently, the kind of thing David doesn't care to discuss. Hence this invented interview, based on things he's actually said (see asterisks). It's how we wish he would talk—preferably with a frayed stogie staining his lips and a bottle of rye on his desk.
Thanks for agreeing to meet.
It's more than you deserve. I have a date with Ed Albee tonight, so make it snappy.
Yeah, we're going to creep around fancy neighborhoods, peep through windows, and mock bourgeois idiocy. So get on with it.
All the plays in your inaugural season have gotten mixed to bad reviews—feel a little beat up?
Pshaw. Half the old bastards who saw Restoration Comedy ran home and had sex for the first time in years. That's what art should do—get people laid and give them something to talk about afterward.
What about Purgatorio? Seattle reviewers did the obligatory bows to Dorfman's pedigree, but nobody actually liked it.
Bullshit. There are some amazing people here with tremendous intelligence.* Those people liked it. The rest of you are all product and no process—you want instant genius or your money back. But the critics are weirdly chickenshit. They won't punch me in the face, but they'll leave a bag of flaming shit on my doorstep: mixed reviews. And they save the sucker punches for the fringe, which is like setting cripples on fire.
So Seattle didn't understand Purgatorio?
The variety of reviews in New York reflect the complexity of the show.* Let's leave it at that.
You told a New York Times reporter that Seattle audiences—
"Were so receptive to the nuances of Ariel's irony,"* yeah.
But that's not true. It's not what—
Not what? What the critics said? Watch yourself, bud. I don't need critics: The best work in the world has always met with controversy.* That's all you need to know.
And the worst work has also met—
That's all you need to know. That, and I taught Arthur Miller to make a decent Manhattan. And you've got a stupid scarf. Now get out of my office.
What about the midstream switches? O'Neill for Wilson, Temple for Private Lives?
August was a champ—I want to honor that. You people aren't ready for Temple, so the board said Private Lives. Stupid fuckers... [Takes a swig of rye.] I swear I'm going to go for-profit and cut them out. Now seriously—get out of my office.
*Actual phrases uttered to other firstname.lastname@example.org