The Seattle Repertory Theatre named former artistic director Daniel Sullivan as the directing artistic consultant after David Esbjornson stepped down in August.

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The Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Puget Sound region’s largest nonprofit playhouse, is turning to a popular former artistic director for assistance in a period of management transition.

Daniel Sullivan, 68, has been hired as a directing artistic consultant to help the Rep devise its 2009-10 season while launching a national search to replace David Esbjornson, the artistic director for the past three years, who stepped down last month.

Sullivan was in a rehearsal Friday for a new show at the Rep, the Charlayne Woodard play “The Night Watcher,” and unavailable for comment. But Rep managing director Benjamin Moore said Sullivan “is a great resource to us in our thinking and future planning.”

Esbjornson said earlier he would not seek a renewal of his four-year contract. But last month, the theater announced unexpectedly that he would depart the company immediately rather than stay through the 2008-09 season as previously planned.

Jane Zalutsky, the chair of the Rep’s board, said Esbjornson’s exit is not acrimonious, but a mutual decision “so we can all move on.” Esbjornson will receive his full salary until his contract ends next June.

Sullivan is largely credited with turning Seattle Rep into a Tony Award-winning, nationally respected playhouse during his tenure as artistic leader, from 1981-97.

Since moving on to New York, Sullivan has staged major plays on and Off-Broadway, and won his own Tony in 2001, for directing the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Proof.”

He also periodically teaches at University of Illinois, where he is the Swanlund Chair and Professor of Theatre. Last year he temporarily took over the reins at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club while its artistic director was on sabbatical.

Moore said Sullivan, who has also directed several Rep shows in recent years, will continue to pursue other projects; he’ll complete the part-time Rep consultancy both long-distance and in person. Sullivan’s contract is expected to last until the Rep’s 2009-10 season is finalized next spring.

Seattle Repertory Theatre was founded in 1963. It operates two stages on a $10 million annual budget.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com