David Esbjornson, new chair of the Theater Department, plans on preparing students for their big break

David Esbjornson
David Esbjornson. Photo by Larry Levanti

Students, parents, educators—and most commencement speakers, for that matter—tend to represent “the real world” as a menacing neighborhood entirely divorced from the university experience. 

Not David Esbjornson. Esbjornson, a longtime theater director and the newly appointed chair of the Mason Gross School’s Theater Department, says he believes the real world can co-exist peaceably with life inside the university gates; in fact, he insists on it.

“Often, academic and professional circles are like oil and water,” says Esbjornson, who has directed several Broadway productions, including the recent debut of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, now in London's West End. “There’s a natural cloistering that happens. Some of that needs to be present. But there needs to be an opening up toward the outside world as you go along.”

To that end, Esbjornson says he hopes to foster an environment at Mason Gross that “maximizes the possibility for professional connections. We will attempt to test theory and training on an ongoing basis through our work inside and, eventually, outside the university walls.”

According to Esbjornson, possibilities for cultivating professional connections include encouraging collaborations with working artists, not only via master classes, but also through semester-long projects that might even involve a production. He says he hopes that Mason Gross “begins to have a relationship with outside professional companies. An important aspect of beginning at Rutgers is a comprehensive introduction to what’s expected of you professionally.”

His extensive résumé includes helming the 1991 world premiere of former New York University classmate Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, as well as the 2002 Broadway production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, which went on to win a Tony Award for Best Play. Esbjornson also collaborated with Arthur Miller on two of his last plays.

Ideally, he says, “by the third year [of the BFA, BA, or MFA Acting program] you’ve developed muscles and skills so what will be thrown at you professionally won’t be a surprise.”

Another goal is to beef up the film-and-television component of the curriculum so that students will understand how to approach those mediums.

“When you get that break, you need to know how to succeed with that opportunity,” Esbjornson says. “If a program asks enough questions, it will develop students who have the head and the heart for it.”