The Long Goodbyes

Here's a pair of predictions I wouldn't have made a year ago: that Bartlett Sher, the artistic director at Intiman, would renew his contract, and David Esbjornson, artistic director of the Seattle Rep, would not. Esbjornson will be leaving the Rep after 2009. Sher has renewed for only another year and could still leave then too. He had a Tony nomination in 2005, has just had a critical hit with a Broadway revival of South Pacific, and has already moved his family back to New York. It would be a major blow to Seattle to lose these two in the same year. In the best of situations, it's a wrench for a theater to lose its leader, and with our crumbling economy and falling audiences at practically every house in town, now is a particularly sucky time. Of course artistic directors cycle in and out of regional theaters constantly, and a tenure ranging from three years (Esbjornson) to nine (Sher started back in 2000) is pretty much standard. Neither director has said much about their plans after Seattle. Sher's decision to remain for another year is good news for Intiman, which has had its share of recent woes. A $2.1 million debt, first disclosed in 2006, is only partly repaired, and to make matters scarier, Intiman's longtime managing director, Laura Penn, left in March for a new gig in New York. The fact that Intiman scored a regional Tony Award in 2006, coupled with Sher's increasing status on the national theater scene, hasn't guaranteed the company's financial survival. Despite a state-of-the-art facility and an impressive lobby, Intiman's not on the same financial scale as the Rep or ACT; when you owe a couple million and you're Intiman's size, that's real money. Over at the Rep, the outlook is more financially stable (it's the battleship of the Seattle theater scene), but recent comments in The Seattle Times from Managing Director Ben Moore suggest that Esbjornson's tenure hasn't exactly been a boon for the bank account. As theatrical directors, Sher and Esbjornson are both accomplished, intelligent, and capable of exceptional work. You don't have your Shakespeare production invited to England's Royal Shakespeare Company (as Sher had, with his Cymbeline) or get to direct the world premiere of Tony Kushner's astonishing Angels in America (as Esbjornson did, as well as working with theatrical icons like Arthur Miller and Edward Albee on their premieres) without talent. Every director misfires, and both have featured several duds in the past few seasons, but there's no denying Seattle's been lucky to have them both. The difference, it seems to me, is that while Sher has been a director in Seattle, Esbjornson has worked mightily to be a Seattle director. He's shown this partly through his openness to working with local actors—an effort that builds an indigenous theatrical community, and, as a side benefit, is more economical than hiring and housing out-of-town talent. In artistic terms, Sher's most-lauded work in the last few years has been not here but in New York, while Esbjornson has primarily stayed in town, doing the unglamorous work required of an administrator. And though audiences haven't always agreed, I've been impressed with the Rep's choice of challenging and unconventional material, whereas Sher's seasons have often relied on a backbone of regional tried-and-trues. This season alone, two of Intiman's five shows—The Diary of Anne Frank and The Little Dog Laughed—are on the 2008 list of 10 most-performed productions by regional theaters. As a result, it's easy to feel that while Sher's been leaving us for a while, Esbjornson has just given up on us. It should be a matter of pride that we've nurtured artists of this caliber, at least for a few years. But as much pride as I feel for artists who've left Seattle for bigger and better things—directors like Dan Sullivan and Doug Hughes, actors like Paul Giamatti and Lauren Weedman—I have an even greater pride in those artists—directors like Kurt Beattie and actors like Todd Jefferson Moore and Lori Larson—who've chosen to stay.John Longenbaugh

 
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