A class act hopes to avoid tragedy

Blessed with a loyal and growing audience and a hot artistic director, Intiman Theatre goes public with a dire need for money. What's happening to Seattle, that great theater town?
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Intiman Theatre's former artistic director Bartlett Sher.

Blessed with a loyal and growing audience and a hot artistic director, Intiman Theatre goes public with a dire need for money. What's happening to Seattle, that great theater town?

Money, money everywhere, so how come Seattle arts groups are struggling? Not all, to be sure, especially not the Seattle Art Museum, which has raised nearly $200 million in recent years to power a dramatic ascent. But during the past year we have witnessed the shuttering of Northwest Chamber Orchestra and Empty Space Theatre. And now Intiman Theatre, a mainstay of Seattle's theater renaissance since 1972, has sent up serious distress signals. It's been known among insiders, but not made public until this month, that Intiman has been struggling financially for the past seven years. Dealing with a growing deficit in the normal way of fundraising was not working, so earlier this month Intiman decided to go public with the news. The company needs $1.3 million by Nov. 1 to stabilize a precarious cash-flow situation, and then another $1.5 million by next March 31. That's just to get things stabilized, to get out of debt. After that, Intiman (like ACT) needs to raise an endowment in the $10 million to 15 million range, well beyond its current small endowment of about $2 million. That's a lot of money for a smallish operation, whose annual budget is around $6 million. If Intiman falls short, it will probably have to scale back a lot of its ambitious plans and might lose internationally acclaimed artistic director Bartlett Sher, at the helm since 2000. It is very odd. Intiman has a strong and loyal audience. Last year, it won the Tony award as the nation's Outstanding Regional Theater, and Sher's project of developing the acclaimed musical Light in the Piazza won six Tony awards for New York performances, including best director. Next season he will be directing a New York revival of South Pacific, likely to be a huge deal, and he's emerged as one of the hottest new opera directors in the world, with jobs next year at the Salzburg Festival and other major opera houses (but curiously not Seattle Opera). The theater has been well managed for years by Laura Penn, one of the most experienced company managers in the land. The problems began seven years ago, Penn reflected in an interview, when there was "a little bump" around the transition from Warner Shook to Sher as artistic directors. In the confusion over artistic direction, there was a little loss of momentum, and next came the bust of the dot-com economy and the 9/11 impact. And so a $3 million capacity-building campaign by Intiman fell short and was suspended after raising only one-third of the goal. Audiences kept growing as Sher settled in and started successful projects like the American Cycle. But by a year and a half ago, the failure to cope with a nagging debt produced a $1.5 million cash crunch and another quiet effort to raise the money to fend off the problem. By this summer, the theater had run up against too much debt and no more ability to borrow. Out went the S.O.S. signals, and in the first days that produced donations of $580,000, a good start toward the first goal of $1.3 million. Seattle used to be known as a very good theater town, growing three full-Actors Equity houses (same number as the much larger Bay Area). Over the past 10 years, it has been shedding mid-sized and small theaters at a rapid rate, and that's had an effect on the number of actors who can live in Seattle and make a modest income, as well as on the town's ability to develop the best new plays. At the same time, the big three – Seattle Repertory Theatre ("The Rep"), A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), and Intiman – have enlarged their budgets, added second stages, and gone for more expensive productions. The Rep is the most stable, having raised an endowment to $15 million under the previous artistic director, Sharon Ott. ACT almost went dark. An expensive run of plays under former artistic director Gordon Edelstein, combined with poor board oversight of the budget, brought it to the edge of bankruptcy. ACT has survived by intelligently re-engineering its mission under artistic director Kurt Beattie and is having a very successful current season. The three major theaters, in turn, have distinctive strengths. The Rep is known for its polished productions, as well as links to some major commercial playwrights. ACT, with its stages very close to the audiences, excells in performances that let the actors shine. Intiman has been a director's house, where notable directors like Bart Sher can show their style across a range of plays and working with their selected writers. These three institutions give Seattle a high standard of performance and three different styles. Both ACT and the Rep, like many other arts organizations in Seattle, had large capital campaigns during the past 15 years, something Intiman did not do. One less-obvious benefit of big campaigns is that they transform boards from clubby groups into fundraising machines, and that lingers after the new building is opened. Intiman made do with refurbishing the old Rep theater at Seattle Center, didn't build a second stage, and stayed with a formula of "six polished gems" a year. "We were stunted because we were responsible," observes managing director Penn. Those other boards, thanks to the capital campaigns, also seem to have nabbed major donors from the area's new wealth. Intiman has some very generous donors, notably Ida Cole (now living in New York) and Marcia Zech, but not enough. Intiman alumni board members seem to remember fondly the "little Intiman" days. Some big spikes in attendance and fame, such as producing Angels in America, are followed by a big drop-off. Intiman's distinctive approach has been to reach out to broader communities, stressing the political relevance of many plays (Grapes of Wrath, raising issues of losing soil and harming salmon runs, for instance) at community readings and other events. The hope is that this strategy of making art meet life (to borrow the SAM slogan) will attract future audiences as well as the more politically engaged local donors. Sher's directing style, coming from left-wing theater and drawing audiences in by compelling, jarring, classics-twisting, full-stage energy, also meshes with this approach. But it's an asset-building, long-term strategy. These periodic crises for Seattle theaters raise the question of whether the city is oversaturated. Certainly there are a lot, given the region's size, and allowing for the large audiences drawn to musicals at the Paramount and 5th Avenue theaters. When the Rep added its smaller stage, the Leo K, that strained an already overstretched audience base and budget. Seattle theater audiences are smart and loyal, but likely overstretched. The same is true for donors, and the newer money in town seems to have shifted its philanthropic focus from theater and classical music to visual arts and dance and opera and more youthful programming. Nor is the town the magnet for actors it once was, when new actors fresh from graduate programs would come to cities such as Seattle to learn repertoire before heading to New York or Los Angeles. Now they head right for L.A., say artistic directors in Seattle, getting into films and television as soon as possible. Another perennial issue comes up when artistic directors like Bart Sher have strong connections with New York, using Seattle as a place to develop plays bound for New York. The current Intiman play, Prayer for My Enemy, is an example, since it is a premiere by Sher's close associate, Craig Lucas, heading from here to New Haven and then New York. The excitement is from seeing a new work in development. The danger is getting a work-in-progress not quite ready for prime time, or from having Intiman be a good work space for one or two artists but not enough breadth in the curatorial role of putting on work by other directors and writers. When Dan Sullivan was at the Rep and doing new plays by Wendy Wasserstein, this issue was also raised, since the Rep got pretty mainstream and commercial in its taste. That's hardly the case with the Sher-Lucas team, who are doing risky new work. Penn talks about the "new paradigm" Intiman is developing, with Seattle as a home base for an artist with strong national and international connections, as well. That paradigm raises the standards and somewhat drives up costs. But one would think it would work well in a city such as Seattle, which ordinarily needs "New York validation" to feel comfortable about local arts. The heart of the problem is financial support. Corporate support is stuck at the same level as 10 years ago, with corporations moving out of town, merging, or shifting to social causes. Public support remains very low, and for a company such as Intiman it amounts (city, county, state, and national combined) to about $130,000 on a $6 million budget, and it only goes down. Some foundations, like the Allen Foundation, have taken up some of the slack, but the real source of money to stay up with rising budgets is wealthy individuals. An arts group that doesn't attract 10 to 20 such very wealthy individuals is asking for trouble in this town. Intiman will probably survive its near-dark experience, waking up loyal supporters with the urgency of the situation. But the fact that a theater with such a distinguished track record, such a hot director, and such a tradition of strong support and smart management would hit such a speed bump should be a message about the arts ecology of the city. Seattle has long prided itself as being an overachiever in the arts, as it is. It has paid much less attention to the slow erosion of that position, and the causes for it. The main causes, in my view, would be the decline of major corporations based in Seattle who care about the arts and the dramatic underachievement of our public funding. Until at least one of those is fixed, we'll have more shocking encounters of the Intiman kind.


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