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David Esbjornson's Driving Forces

The busy director discusses his many new projects as well as his work at Mason Gross School of the Arts. logo
David Esbjornson
(© Larry Levanti)
Opportunities don't knock politely for David Esbjornson -- they somehow elbow their way into his revolving door of stage projects. For example, the journeyman director was set to helm the premiere of Edward Albee's Laying an Egg for the inauguration of Signature Theater Company's 42nd Street home this winter, but is instead prepping a new production of Albee's The Lady from Dubuque starring Jane Alexander, while the playwright tends to his new work.

Meanwhile, he opened and closed a production of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy, on Broadway earlier this year, then last month re-hoisted the Vanessa Redgrave/James Earl Jones hit at the Wyndham's Theatre in London.

And he'll take another crack at Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, a solo homage to the free-wheeling Texas journalist starring Kathleen Turner, this January at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

But the open door that lured the 58-year-old Esbjornson from his home in Inwood to New Brunswick, New Jersey this past summer was the position of chair of the Mason Gross School of the Arts Theater Department at Rutgers University, a highly competitive training ground for actors and designers in the New York metropolitan area.

"There are quite a few people in the theater profession who really get what education is all about. It's not so hard to get them to give back if they tend to want to," he says candidly. "But you also have to 'cast' people, because some theater practitioners are better than others at doing this kind of thing. You don't have to be judgmental, but you have to be smart about it and make sure that both students and professionals are going to be served by the situation."

Esbjornson remembers his years at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and later at New York University, where he earned a master's degree in directing, as dynamic, idea-fueled transitions when old-guard faculty conflicted with assertive newcomers. At each school, he says, that "wonderful tension" encouraged him to make his own decisions about which theories resonated the most.

"You're trying to give the student a comprehensive view of the world and at the same time you're trying to find their individuality," he says. "That doesn't mean that they don't learn to work collectively or it isn't important for them to understand a company or collaboration."

Esbjornson began performing at an early age, prompted by his parents, who were active in community theater in his hometown of Willmar. While his early jobs included carpet cleaner, telemarketer, bartender, and farm worker, it was the skills he learned designing store-window displays for Joseph Magnin Co. in San Francisco -- in carpentry and silk-screening, for example -- that sharpened his eye for design and craftsmanship in the productions he would later direct.

"I couldn't shake the theater out of my system," he recalls. "I decided to move to New York, sight unseen, and delve into the theater culture. I didn't even know the names of theaters at that point."

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones
in Driving Miss Daisy
(© Annabel Clark)
That has changed drastically over the years, and as many theaters know Esbjornson's name as he knows theirs, here and abroad. For example, Driving Miss Daisy is enthralling audiences in the West End, just as it did in New York.

"The show fits beautifully into the space," says Esbjornson, grinning. "As far as translation goes, that was pretty easy," he continues. "We started with Vanessa and James having some health issues and a very short rehearsal time, so we had to create a little less conventional way of approaching our rehearsals. But a lot of detail work got done, reminding us of what the play was about. London offered us an opportunity to go back in and rediscover the inspirations and the moment-to-moment work that we had at the beginning of our run on Broadway."

Moreover, he is particularly excited to have the chance to revisit his 2007 production of Dubuque -- which he first mounted at Seattle Repertory Theatre, where he was artistic director. The work -- a notorious Broadway flop in 1980 -- is a study of death set during a party game of Twenty Questions.

"I had suggested doing it because it was something I still didn't feel complete about," says Esbjornson. "It's not so much that it has to be in New York to fulfill that sense of completion, but I wanted to work on it again. This was one of those pieces that I felt deserved my attention, one more time."


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