Many of us still say we’re going “to Intiman” when we refer to a certain theater on the Seattle Center campus, but the sign in front says differently. The old Intiman Theatre Playhouse is now the Cornish Playhouse, an explicit statement about the new roles both Intiman and Cornish College of the Arts are playing in the Seattle arts community.
With the demise of the old Intiman and its 2012 rebirth with a summer “microseason,” the local theater scene has been radically altered. Rather than operating as a year-round company with a full complement of actors, designers, technicians and administrators, the pared-down Intiman now offers four plays in repertory over 12 weeks.
The administrative staff has been trimmed to six with Andrew Russell, originally hired as Intiman’s associate producer in 2010, serving as head of both artistic and management matters. The Managing Director position, eliminated in March because of what was considered a top-heavy administrative structure, has been downgraded to Business Director. The old Managing Director’s fundraising responsibilities are being handled by a recently hired development manager. For the moment, marketing is coming, pro bono, from an outside consultant.
The Intiman board is also smaller, down to 14 members from a high of 25. Some are v eterans of the old board, while others are completely new. “We learned that it takes a special kind of devoted person to be on the board, because we have eight months when you don’t have a product,: says Russell. "We now have two boardmembers from Gates Foundation, someone from Town Hall. The ones who stayed are the most devoted.”
The new board has been heavily involved in fundraising, gathering support for last year’s season and this one. Although the total number of donors and dollars is down this year from 2012 levels — 700 versus 1,000 donors, and $700,000 versus $1 million — the campaign has met its 2013 goal, allowing this summer’s festival to proceed as scheduled. The board's fundraising efforts have also reduced Intiman’s accumulated debt from $920,000 to $535,000.
The theater has also reduced the amount of office space it occupies at Seattle Center and dismantled its scene shop. Sets are now being built by Seattle Children’s Theatre.
Perhaps the most interesting and far-reaching change is Intiman’s cooperative arrangement with Cornish. Cornish has assumed the lease on Intiman's Seattle Center theater and office space. The move simultaneously eases the financial pressure on Intiman and raises Cornish's visibility in the community. It also provides a first-rate facility for Cornish’s own productions, as well as a place where Cornish students have the tools they need to learn their craft.
The relationship between Intiman and Cornish extends to artistic and production matters as well. Intiman has hired more than 30 Cornish interns to flesh out this year’s professional casts and technical crew, and is using adjunct Cornish faculty in a variety of roles. Cornish professor Sheila Daniels, for instance, is directing one of this year’s shows; an assistant director, assistant choreographer, costume designer and stage manager also come from Cornish.
From an artistic standpoint, a number of things have changed. Russell is still planning four productions, but says he learned a lot about what kinds of shows appeal to audiences. Last summer, without budgetary pressure to sell tickets — 75 percent of the seats were offered free to Intiman subscribers — Russell went out on a limb with some controversial and not entirely successful plays. He admits that last season's selections “really pushed it." This year, he's taking a softer, more sophisticated approach. "The programming," he continues, "was deeply considered in terms of what people want to see in the summer, what is adventurous enough to be provocative but also accessible.”
Russell says Intiman also learned that since audiences are seeing so many shows in such a short period of time it’s important to create an explicit context for the work. This year’s slate of three plays and one musical has a clear unifying theme, tackling subjects that, says Russell, “one shouldn’t discuss at dinner: race, sex, politics and money.”
The play “Trouble in Mind,” for example, is about the challenge of mounting a racially-mixed Broadway show in the 1950s; the Greek classic “Lysistrata” finds women withholding sex as a way to discourage their men from going to war; Dario Fo’s farce “We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay!” deals with rising grocery prices; and the new musical “Stu,” which Russell helped develop, follows Stu Rasmussen, America’s first transgender mayor.
Russel and Intiman hope this combination of themes will encourage audiences to see all four plays. With the added pressure on ticket sales this year (no free subscriber offerings), Intiman has also changed its marketing. It is calling the season a “festival” with four different Festival Passes available, in addition to individual tickets. Passes start at $70 ($17.50 a show) and, depending on the price, offer options such as ticket fee waivers, discounts, priority seating, free and unlimited ticket exchanges and invitations to opening night performances and parties. Half the available passes were sold at pre-sale; since individual tickets just went on sale this week, it’s too early to tell how they’ll do.
Obviously, Intiman must do well at the box office if it hopes to remain viable in some form or another. But equally important is the artistic quality of its productions. According to Russell, when the decision was made to suspend Intiman’s operations, he and the Board had many conversations about the theater’s role. Among other things, they came up with the plan for “Start Up Stagings,” the company’s initiative for developing new plays and musicals.
The bottom line for the new Intiman, says Russell, is to continue “to produce plays that are smart, engaging, challenging and beautiful, just like audiences have always expected from Intiman.”
Needless to say, all eyes will be on this summer’s lineup to see whether Russell and his Intiman colleagues pass the first real test of the old theater’s new model.