Intiman Theatre, long one of Seattle's "Big Three" theater companies, has bowed to its chronic financial problems and decided to suspend the rest of its current season. "We need time to regroup," explained Susan Trapnell, the veteran theater administrator hired by the Intiman board as a consultant. All employees' jobs will be suspended in two weeks, and the remaining four plays of the current season will be shelved. This tough medicine will make it easier for Intiman to pay its bills and creditors.
Its current play, Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" with an all-black cast, will close on schedule Sunday night, when theater goers are likely to wonder if that curtain will be the company's final one. Details are still being worked on forcompensating ticketholders for the remainder of the season, and the theater is seeking other theaters to honor Intiman tickets.
Not a great day for American arts, with the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra declaring bankruptcy at about the same time Saturday that the Intiman board was reaching its decision to suspend.
Originally, Intiman was going to soldier on for this season, raising emergency money as it went along. That would have meant living paycheck to paycheck, not a good environment for serious soul-searching. Trapnell says the company is hoping to have a 2012 season, perhaps somewhat shorter than their usual seven-play season. Meanwhile the leadership will take a deep and extensive look at options, community needs, and the willingness of key donors to sustain the company. It's not clear if artistic director Kate Whoriskey will stay with the company, but that would now seem unlikely and she will be among the staff laid off.
The decision to end the 2011 season was made by the Intiman board on Saturday. Under consultant Trapnell, the theater took a sober look at its revenue projections and decided that spending the rest of the year living near the edge, raising money to stay afloat, and planning for a more sustainable future would be an impossible task. "I think the only hope is, you stop and you focus," Trapnell told The New York Times. "Otherwise, you just never get your head up far enough to think, and it just gets worse and worse."
Intiman has an illustrious history. It was started in 1972 by Megs Booker, who gave it the name of Strindberg's theater (the word means "the intimate" in Swedish) and focused on classic theater of 100 years ago. In 1987 it moved into its present theater, the remodeled former home of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, with Liz Huddle as its new director. Huddle was succeeded by Warner Shook in 1993 and Bartlett Sher in 2000. Sher's hand-picked successor, Whoriskey, arrived last year. Intiman has also been shaped by strong-minded managing directors, notably Peter Davis and Laura Penn. In 2006 it won a Tony award for outstanding American regional theater.
It's not clear, at least to the public, how the company got in such financial trouble, but it extends back at least five years. As Sher's career took off in New York, he was less present, directed fewer plays, and did less fundraising even though the board remained "Bart-struck." For a while, the theater was selling tickets more on Sher's New York triumphs than on its own productions. Whoriskey arrived with little experience at being in charge of a theater, and her desire to stress multi-ethnic theater may not have meshed very well with audience demands and financial realities. Still, the board proved adept at emergency fundraising, keeping the doors open while shedding employees and radiating danger signals.
The pause to think deeply would seem to be wise and welcome. ACT Theatre, which also dealt with a financial crisis by suspending operations for a season, has recently reinvented itself by using its multi-stage theater as a way to draw in varied audiences and mount some shows at lower costs. The Seattle Repertory Theatre is in a kind of controlled "pause," reducing costs while preparing succession plans and new directions.
Intiman has very much been a theater revolving around the needs and charisma of its star directors, most of whom were better as stage directors than as artistic directors who could make the whole company flourish. That approach is probably no longer affordable, and it may reflect a Broadway and New York orientation that has outlived its appeal. Now Intiman needs to think more about the present needs of the community: how this theater should fit in, what other users its playhouse might host, and how the whole teetering world of Seattle theater should adjust after this new seismic shock.