One of the first things David Esbjornson did when he became artistic director of the Seattle Rep was decline to give an interview with The Stranger. "He is still in the process of learning about Seattle," a Rep publicist said by way of polite refusal back in late 2005.
It appears Esbjornson never fully succeeded in decoding the city. Last week, the Rep announced that he would leave in 2009, as soon as his first contract expires. (Four years is a relatively short tenure: Bart Sher took the helm at Intiman in 2000. And Daniel Sullivan was artistic director at the Rep for 18 years.)
Esbjornson has declined to say where or why he is going. I asked board president Marty Taucher whether Esbjornson was leaving because of problems with budgets, programming, staff, or community relations. "All of those," he replied.
Among Esbjornson's achievements: being the first to maximize the Rep's available space, programming full seasons in the secondary Leo K Theatre; and being quick to identify young local talent. He entrusted the Rep's production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie (a one-woman play so controversial it was scheduled in, then kicked out of, New York) to excellent local artists: director Braden Abraham, actor Marya Sea Kaminski, and designer Jennifer Zeyl. The bet paid off with a successful show and an extended run. It's hard to imagine another major artistic director who'd hand over the car keys so willingly—and have the judgment to know which artists to hand them to.
But Esbjornson's season programming reflected his background as a freelancer; it didn't cohere, but instead lurched from bold gambles like Rachel Corrie and Ariel Dorfman's Purgatorio to vapid pap like Tuesdays with Morrie and Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday Concert. During Esbjornson's reign, the Rep has tried to be all things to all people. Taucher said Esbjornson has "pushed us to be more ambitious," but that newer and sometimes undercooked productions, like The Breach, "have not achieved a lot of resonance in this market." (According to the Rep, subscription sales are expected to fall 6 percent over the course of this season.)
Those mixed results must be frustrating for a guy who had such a successful career as a freelancer. Esbjornson directed the first production of Angels in America (in 1991, at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco) and was a favorite director of Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Dorfman. He probably wanted some of what Bart Sher was having across the street at Intiman: a stable base from which to fly off to work at Lincoln Center and the Met Opera, and to get, you know, Tony nominations. Which must have been doubly frustrating.
But every exit is an entrance someplace else. Next year, Orphans, starring Al Pacino, will open on Broadway. Its director: David Esbjornson.