Reinventing a Classic: Director David Esbjornson

Observing David Esbjornson direct is like taking a master class. From the way he breaks down a scene to how he analyzes a script to the way each bit of direction is intuitively designed around the actor and the story, is truly impressive. His work with playwright Todd Kreidler and the cast was comparable to a new play development process. The Guess Who's Coming to Dinner we all love is just as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1967. We discussed his approach this past week on a break from tech rehearsals. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

David Esbjornson, director

What attracted you to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
It's a really good story that deals with a subject that is on the forefront of people's minds once again. Also, there is a theatrical approach to the script, the way it has been translated from the screen to the stage, that attracted me. Todd Kreidler’s script was tapping into things that were more complex than the movie, but I wondered if it could go further to distinguish itself from the screenplay. The first thing out of Todd's mouth was that he wanted to continue work on the play. That’s all I needed to hear. There are truths that couldn't be discussed in 1967, when the film was made. Talking about race almost fifty years later is quite different. Both the discussion of race and the presentation of it had to be made palatable for the audiences of its time. The subject of race was so hot and disturbing in 1967 that the movie was radical simply for existing.

A big theme in the Sixties was the hypocrisy of people with power and money and how they separated themselves from the rest of society. It's alarming that we find ourselves right back there fifty years later with the same economic disparity. Look underneath the surface and it reveals these ugly truths about America. That exploration, that breaking open, that tearing down, was being embraced; especially by younger people. I've never seen America’s culture fractured between the young and old the way it was then.

In approaching the play for Arena Stage, it was important that what the characters said still felt credible, that they were expressing the issues of race in a way that felt complete and did not feel as though we were cheating or covering anything up. At the same time, it isn't as full-out a conversation about race as if it were written by someone writing it today. We wanted to keep it in the period of 1967. There's something about looking backwards and seeing where we've come from and using that as a platform for a conversation about today. What ways have we succeeded and what ways have we failed? If you actually dig into a revival in a serious way you can find a way to open it up. It can be a great platform for conversation.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Bethany Anne Lind, Tess Malis Kincaid and Tom Key in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at Arena Stage. Photo: Teresa Wood

What are the challenges and advantages of working in-the-round?
In the screenplay there were multiple locations and moments of privacy that existed. The film was able to achieve a level of intimacy and separate the action from other people in that world. When you have one space, that stage becomes your entire world and you have to make that feel natural and make it work for the play. That can be a terrific advantage in shaping a theatrical experience.

It’s also exciting but very challenging to make sure that certain physical actions seem natural in an arena setting while at the same time constantly keeping the action moving and opened up. Once you achieve that balance, you get something extra special. You get a connection that you don't always achieve in a proscenium theater. You are more involved in the action. You are connected to it in a deeper and more visceral way. Thrust and arena stages - where the audience's relationship is shifting and changing - are the most exciting venues to me as a theater artist.

How would you describe your approach as a director?
I try and approach each play with an openness. I scrutinize it, I think about it, I look for what's there, and what I think is missing. I do that more experientially than through advance planning. I am a director who wants to be in the room, working on my feet. My perceptions and my choices are often intuitive. I look at the arc of the narrative, to determine whether the story is coming through clearly, whether any character has to sacrifice something that they should need or want and, if that is happening, I try to remedy that. The play has to work for all the people in the story. I encourage actors to be vigilant about that, too. The environment I hope to create is safe enough so the actors can question and be challenging, and that I can do the same thing back to make the best choices possible. I always want that communication to be open. It's a process of give and take, of trial and error.

All of the choices come off of the material. In this case, it was wonderful because Todd Kreidler’s and my goals were aligned. When you’re working on a new script, each incarnation yields another set of challenges to be solved. This was an opportunity and we both felt it. What I find exciting about this is that we've been quite simpatico. Todd maintained a similar kind of openness to shifting and changing things, and I’ve enjoyed the ease of that.

What does the phrase ‘guess who’s coming to dinner’ mean to you?
It suggests a surprise factor – a sense of the most outrageous person or circumstance that you can think of, coming into your home. It’s both titillating and terrifying at the same time. It’s a provocative statement, specifically about bringing the unthinkable into play and into the home. Within the film and the play, race was an incredibly potent subject so when that phrase is used it implies something equally important, which is why I think it can be used so often as an idiom.

Originally published on the Arena Stage blog.

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