Intiman's million dollar comeback hurdle

The Intiman Theater abruptly closed its 2011 season due to cash flow problems. Now the theater has announced a relaunch, but critics wonder whether disgruntled patrons can be mollified enough to gather the $1 million they'll need.

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Andrew Russell of Intiman

The Intiman Theater abruptly closed its 2011 season due to cash flow problems. Now the theater has announced a relaunch, but critics wonder whether disgruntled patrons can be mollified enough to gather the $1 million they'll need.

After months of speculation, Intiman Theater leaders announced on Monday that they hope to reopen for business next summer. Under the leadership of newly appointed Artistic Director Andrew Russell, Intiman will mount a four-play festival to be performed by a 12-actor repertory company. That is, if Intiman can raise the money to pay for it. New Intiman Board President Terry Jones stressed that the festival will only be produced if Intiman can raise all of the funding up front: one million dollars. So far, the theater has come up with $200,000 toward that goal, including a $100,000 matching grant. Still, even if the Board can come up with the balance, can this Seattle institution successfully reinvent itself?

When Intiman closed last April, patrons were shocked. The company had just launched its 2011 artistic season with a production of All My Sons, following what had appeared to be a successful emergency fund drive. But beneath the business-as-usual façade, Intiman was crumbling. Several months earlier, Managing Director Brian Colburn had resigned abruptly, under a cloud of mismanagment accusations. The Board hired longtime Seattle arts manager Susan Trapnell to set things right. Most non-profit performing arts groups develop their annual budgets based on projected ticket sales, philanthropic donations and other potential revenue sources. In Intiman’s case, the projections were far too rosy. Trapnell took a look at the books and realized the theater company didn’t have the money to continue with the season. She told the Board she felt Intiman needed to suspend operations immediately.

If Intiman’s closure surprised patrons and donors, it terrified local theater artists. Intiman, along with ACT and the Seattle Repertory Theater, has been a source of steady employment for Seattle actors, directors, and behind-the-scenes crew. One less theater company paying decent wages would mean one less reason for these artists to stay in the Seattle area. And a mass outflow of talent would be a blow to the remaining companies. ACT founder Greg Falls once compared Seattle’s theater scene to a cluster of grapes. He said the art form thrived in bunches. A rotten grape could ruin the cluster.

Intiman was founded in 1972, by Margaret “Megs” Booker. Initially, the company focussed its energy on the classics. It was a way for the new theater to differentiate itself from ACT, which mounted contemporary shows, and from the Seattle Rep, with its mandate to present a little bit of everything. These three professional companies, along with the 5th Avenue Theater, Seattle Children’s Theater, and a host of smaller groups, helped to establish Seattle’s bona fides as an American theater hub. Only five years ago, in 2006, Intiman’s accomplishments were recognized with the Regional Theater Tony Award. So how did it fall apart?

Off the record, arts community insiders see problems that developed over time, particularly under Brian Colburn and the manager who preceded him, Laura Penn. These insiders talk about Intiman’s culture of secrecy, and its habit of crying wolf every time it had a cash shortfall. From Penn’s tenure on, Intiman fell into a pattern of emergency fundraising campaigns. Now, as the company embarks on this latest push for money, some donors ask why they should give the theater company more. They say they’ve got no reason to believe their contributions will be handled any differently. President Terry Jones acknowledges Intiman’s Board of Directors didn’t exert enough fiscal control over the organization. She promises that will change, and that the community will know how their donations are being managed. Arts manager Susan Trapnell believes Intiman’s new plan is viable. And with new leadership at the Board, perhaps costs really will be contained this time around.

The theme of economic constraint is built into Intiman’s new artistic plan. The theater has assembled a who’s who of arts leaders and community activists to help guide the institution. They include Spectrum Dance Theater’s Donald Byrd; Ludovic Morlot, new Seattle Symphony Music Director; theater directors Valerie Curtis Newton, Sheila Daniels, and Allison Narver, and writer and activist Dan Savage, who’s been tapped to create one of the upcoming festival offerings. Although Artistic Director Andrew Russell says Intiman can’t confirm the four play titles, under consideration are Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, with choreography by Whim W’him’s Olivier Wevers, along with the new piece by Savage.

In addition to the arts’ maven advisory council, Intiman has forged a partnership with Cornish College of the Arts. Cornish students will be involved in all aspects of the upcoming productions, and the college will provide technical support to Intiman. Spokeswoman Karen Bystrom says Cornish believes the partnership with Intiman will benefit its students. But more than that, she says, Intiman’s health is important to “the sense of ecology of Seattle’s theater community.”

Cornish has also been in talks with Seattle Center officials to take over the Intiman Playhouse lease. Spokeswoman Bystrom says Cornish would use the theater for student productions, and could rent it to other arts groups when it wasn’t in use by the College. This could mean more theater space for small, lower-budget companies. Currently, Intiman has a contract with IATSE International, the union that represents everyone from the stagehands to the wardrobe mistress. IATSE representative, Sandra England, says the union’s contract with Intiman also extends to other professional theaters.

In other words, when a company like Seattle Shakespeare rents the Playhouse, it has to pay union scale salaries. For many small theater groups, the costs are prohibitive. According to England, the IATSE-Intiman contract doesn’t cover nonprofessional productions, so if Cornish takes over the lease, the college won’t be bound by the same costs. Cornish’s Karen Bystrom says Seattle Center officials are considering the lease takeover plan. Seattle Center didn’t return repeated calls for comment.

Intiman’s Terry Jones says she can’t comment on the Playhouse lease plans, either. Her focus is narrow — resurrect Intiman. The task at hand is to raise the money for next summer’s festival. And to woo back the patrons who lost faith with Intiman when it closed last April. Jones acknowledges that Intiman’s patrons got burned, and her first step to re-establishing trust is to offer free 2012 tickets to all of the theater’s 2011 subscribers.

Still, maybe more important than free tickets is good theater. Artistic Director Andrew Russell acknowledges that the usual response to uncertain times is to forego risk taking, but promises that the new Intiman won't fall into that trap. “Getting small and nimble is healthy,” he believes. But “getting small in ideas, in scope and adventure, is not going to be useful.” If the company can come up with another $800,000 before next February, Seattle theater-goers will get a chance to take Russell up on his promise.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Marcie Sillman

Marcie Sillman is a longtime radio journalist and co-host of the arts & culture podcast DoubleXposure.