First came Arthur Miller, and now it’s Edward Albee—director David Esbjornson, you could say, has hit the big time. The 47-year-old Minnesotan made his Broadway debut last spring, directing Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, a year after launching the play at the Public Theater. Currently, Esbjornson is directing Albee’s enigmatic new comedy, The Play About the Baby, at the Century Theater. And next month he’s mounting a revival of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
“Well, he’d better shape up then!” Albee deadpans, when reminded that Esbjornson has now twice been entrusted with the New York premieres of plays by America’s leading literary lions. Then, in his typical laconic style, the three-time Pulitzer winner gives Esbjornson his endorsement: “I like his mind. I respect him. I trust him. He and I can work well together.”
Miller apparently feels the same way. After their successful Mt. Morgan collaboration, he’s discussed working with Esbjornson on a new play he’s writing. “He’s rather cheerful in a mournful kind of way,” Miller reports. Esbjornson, he says, has passed a test he deems critical for any director—to be able to “unify” the work. “He is quick to sense where the connections are. He wants to integrate the stylistic elements into what the production needs rather than laying it on with a brush in order to make himself look original.”
Before the Miller play, Esbjornson was best known for his seven-year stewardship of New York’s Classic Stage Company. Taking over the theater in 1992, Esbjornson set out both to build on his predecessor Carey Perloff’s legacy and to take CSC in a new direction. “I wanted to broaden the notion of what a classic play was,” he says. In his view, a “classic” could also be dramatized literature or a contemporary playwright’s riff on classic themes. For example, Esbjornson presented Iphigenia and Other Daughters, an adaptation by Ellen McLaughlin from Sophocles and Euripides. “I loved the fact we were doing a poetic interpretation of a Greek play from a woman’s perspective.” He directed Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape, and scored hits with revivals of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (starring Brian Murray and Jean Stapleton) and Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane. In 1997, he received an Obie award for outstanding direction of Therese Raquin, adapted by Neal Bell from the Zola novel, and in 1999 he garnered a Lucille Lortel Award for his body of work at CSC.
Esbjornson’s first major success, though, was the world premiere of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, produced at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater in 1991. His production won seven Bay Area Critics Awards (including one for direction) and launched a theatrical event that would go on to win plaudits in London and New York as well as a Pulitzer for Kushner. Esbjornson wanted to restage his production of Millennium Approaches, Angels’ first part, in New York and leave the still-to-be-completed second part, Perestroika, to another director. But since he had no Broadway track record, producers balked. Industry politics, says Esbjornson, are the “boring part.”
“The exciting part is the tremendous process of creativity, growth, and development. I wish that there would be some acknowledgment of all the work that went in. It’s not sexy, but it is the element I find most important and the reason I do theater.”
A 1984 graduate of NYU’s M.F.A. directing program, Esbjornson claims you cannot learn directing from observing others. “Directing is an extremely individual journey,” he says. “To some extent it’s about trying to find an honesty and a way of working with other people to achieve some kind of vision for a play. You become inspired by the work, but at the same time you honor the work. That’s a very delicate line to walk.”
Esbjornson got hooked up with Miller through Rosemarie Tichler, artistic producer at the New York Shakespeare Festival. She championed Esbjornson for his “extraordinary intelligence, respect for the process of the playwright, and the depth of his work with actors.” After CSC, she says, Esbjornson was hungry for a larger arena and had the equipment for it. While his work doesn’t have a specific signature, Tichler notes, his visual sense has “blossomed.”
Esbjornson says he looks for what he calls the “physical vocabulary” of a play: “How do the scenic elements interact and how do they help to create the event along with the play?” For Suzan-Lori Parks’s gritty In the Blood, produced at the Public in 1999, Esbjornson wanted a hard setting that would disconcert the audience. The key set element was a diagonal cement underpass, “so that when the audience came in they didn’t quite understand the relationship they had with the room.“ In the case of Mt. Morgan, he responded to the “dream landscape” that Miller’s play seemed to require. He’s reluctant to discuss The Play About the Baby while in rehearsal, but says that it reminds him of working on Beckett. “There’s the same precision involved, the incredible attention to language and detail, although Albee’s work flies around the room differently.”
If there is a hallmark of Esbjornson’s work, particularly in the two post-CSC years, it’s been this collaboration with adventuresome writers. In addition to Miller, Parks, and Albee, he’s also directed Kushner’s work in progress, Home body/Kabul, in London and Marie Irene Fornes’s Mud and Drowning at the Signature Theater here in New York. “These are some of the most theatrical writers around,” Esbjornson says. “They care about language and politics. I’ve been very happy being in service of those writers, because that’s where I want to live.”