Andrew Russell, Intiman Theatre's Artistic Director Credit: Photo: LaRae Lobdell
Truth be told, it was the legendary Seattle summer that saved the Intiman Theatre. Or at least that was what kept Andrew Russell — a frighteningly talented young Artistic Producer who had just shipped in from New York City — here in Seattle after the mismanaged and debt-riddled Intiman delivered him into the unemployment queue.
The intoxicating blend of mountains, sound and sunshine distracted Russell long enough for Intiman’s board to take the reins, evaluate the theater's options and size up his potential as a savior/phoenix.
By the time the summer had begun to wane, the board had already invited him to submit a proposal to reinvent the theater. Already, in fact, said yes to his rescue plan: a challenging summer repertory festival on 1/6th the budget, paid for entirely ahead of time; a towering and painfully urgent fundraising campaign; a creative space-sharing partnership with Cornish that would allow the theatre to stay in its offices and keep performing on its historic stage – if only as a tenant.
The first six months were the worst. Tasked with raising more than $1 million before February 1st, Russell and the board began the hard work of repairing an entire portfolio of broken fundraising relationships. “Every conversation was like, ‘I know, I’m so sorry for what Intiman did,’” he remembers.
“We’re actually now finally to the phase of not apologizing,” he adds, his face registering a mix of surprise and relief.
Not only is Intiman not apologizing these days. The theatre is actually thriving – reveling in artistic risk, recovered from its financial nosedive. Spirits up, attracting talent, risen from the ashes, more on the horizon.
Credit Russell's persistent courage and optimism in the face of hopelessness, and his artistic risk-taking. “What we’re learning more and more is how to be provocative and challenging,” he tells me.
Intiman’s biggest hits have been just that – tongue-waggingly provocative plays about people living on the margins of society. During the festival’s first year, Dan Savage’s “Miracle!” put Helen Keller (Helen Stellar) in a 90s-era Seattle drag bar. Seattle Met called it "offensive, crass, but with heart. This summer, "Stu for Silverton" turned the story of America's first transgender mayor into a musical and "Trouble in Mind's" heartfelt examination of a theater company struggling with racial division left one reviewer literally weeping through the curtain call.
Russell, a gay man himself, who grew up in the midwest, says he's not worried about being pigeonholed: "I actually think the more pigeon-holed the better."
Still, he's also faithful to the classic American canon, by his own admission learning how to balance bright and loud with longer-standing theater.
For though Russell is primarily a director/producer and occasionally a playwright, he is most of all a determined strategist who is rewriting the rules of Seattle theater.
Russell’s creative partnership with Cornish gives Intiman not only performance space, but access to top young creative talent. Reverting to an older repertory model makes Intiman unique among Seattle theaters, but it also cuts costs — actors and sets are shared among plays.
By Russell’s personal decree, Intiman has to raise, in full, the contributed goal of each summer’s festival by January or the season won’t go forward. Every year. (“Do you think that’s crazy?” he asks.) He travels from meeting to meeting with a portable Square credit card reader – always ready to accept donations. Next up, he says, is getting audiences even more engaged in the social issues his plays are raising. He's thinking big. He's thinking national.
Occasionally during our conversation, his inner theater nerd overtakes his organizational drive — if just for a moment. “I love musicals," he gushes. "They’re one of America’s greatest gifts to the world… Plus democracy, of course.”
He's not exaggerating. At least not as he sees it.