What paths could work to rescue Intiman?

Something like an overall plan may be emerging, but the odds are still daunting for the troubled, nationally acclaimed theater.

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Intiman Theatre's former artistic director Bartlett Sher.

Something like an overall plan may be emerging, but the odds are still daunting for the troubled, nationally acclaimed theater.

The New York Times filed a comprehensive story this week (May 18) on the problems at Intiman Theatre, which has closed down suddenly in order to try to regroup. The Times' account moves beyond the simple-scapegoat version of events to blaming multiple parties. The board may not have looked closely enough at the sinking financial barometer, or the executive director may not have insisted they look. The previous artistic director, Bart Sher, may have been too much an absentee, or pushed the budget too high. There was too much turnover, in management, in artistic direction, and in the board. As Don Rumsfeld might have said, arts is messy.

Arts journalism always has a hard time sorting out the causes for these sudden air pockets, since so many of the parties are busy eluding blame and, if the organization is going to find a way forward there's not much value in pinning blame definitively. Better to share the blame and look for a solution and some new people to pull it off.

The lack of candor annoys the public of course, and may have a lot to do with poor public support for funding the arts. We had another example with the sudden resignation of Seattle Art Museum's president, Derrick Cartwright. Apparently what motivated that was his discovery that SAM was a job, given its financial and real estate problems, that left its president with little time to concentrate on his first love, art.

Concerning Intiman, I've been able to glean a few insights, Intiman Details, as it were. One is that the company, if it revives, is very likely to stay at its Playhouse at Seattle Center, not move to another neighborhood or a smaller venue. This makes sense. Intiman (the remodeled first home of Seattle Repertory Theatre) is an ideal theater, with a large stage and a reasonably sized space for audiences (446 seats). You can do almost any kind of show there, thanks to the large stage, and the actors don't have to shout, thanks to the small house. And you don't have to put on just plays with broad appeal, filling a lot of seats over a multi-week run. So let's keep it as a playhouse.

Second insight is that Intiman will almost certainly have to come back with a shorter season, maybe just three plays at first, in effect reverting to its original format of being a summer company. Both ACT and Intiman were started as summer theaters, complementing the winter season of the bigger Rep; and both had grown to runs that go from April to January. Summer doesn't mean lightweight fare, of course, and it has the benefit of more tourists in town and Intiman's lovely outdoor courtyard as an amenity.

Third, if Intiman has a short season, that opens up the Playhouse for a lot of other uses. One might be to turn it into a house for modern dance, a strength in Seattle that has no clear venue. (Again that big stage house is a godsend for dancers.) And it would be good, for economic reasons having to do with union contracts, if Intiman ran the facility, rather than Seattle Center. Classical music is not well suited for theaters, by the way, since it requires acoustical reverberation, while spoken word wants a very "dry" acoustic.

Fourth, Intiman is unlikely to revert to the pattern of selling tickets based on the New York reputation of its director. Indeed, all three Equity theaters in Seattle seem to have gotten over this besetting disease, with its problems of absenteeism, spouses who stay behind in New York, and buying in to the commercial formulas of Broadway. (Regional nonprofit theaters were supposed to be an antidote to Broadway, but instead many of them turned into laboratories for future Broadway shows, with often ruinous costs.) Intiman was the most smitten, and after its board finally faced up to the fact that Bart Sher had pretty much departed Seattle, it simply let Sher pick a Manhattan protege as his successor, Kate Whoriskey, with very little experience beyond directing plays.

Will this sobering up be enough to save Intiman? I'd say the odds are still less than 50-50. Subscribers don't like being told the tickets they bought can be swapped for another theater. Donors don't like ponying up for emergency campaigns only to see the doors close and the debt remain high. But the biggest problem is usually board dynamics, aggravated by the embarassment and the blame-game. A new board and a new message are needed, but it's hard to create one quickly and the generous donors are still on the old board.

In nonprofit boards, a wise friend (and excellent boardmember) says, you need everyone to be good and one or two to be great. That's tough at any time, much less when you are under the microscope.

Finally, what might be a new mission for Intiman? A few ideas I've heard are: A modified repertory company, built around a cadre of actors who work fulltime for the company. Smart adaptations of modern and older classics. Scaled back production values and scaled up acting and  rehearsing. A place where young actors learn repertoire and launch their careers.

The value of a strong new mission is that it helps you find the right kind of boardmembers and artists, differentiates you from other theaters, and is about creating something new rather than bailing out something old and troubled. Again, that's hard when you have a continuing board devoted to that old mission and proving that it can still work.


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