Bartlett Sher's artistic reign at Seattle's Intiman Theatre was eventful and triumphant. It was also uninspiring at times, but bracingly adventurous too. And at its outstanding best, it was a reflection of the impassioned, articulate and richly gifted, ambitious man at the tiller.
Bartlett Sher’s artistic reign at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre was eventful and triumphant. It was also uninspiring at times, but bracingly adventurous, too. And at its outstanding best, it was a reflection of the impassioned, articulate, impatient and richly gifted, ambitious man at the tiller.
One thing is certain: Sher was more than a figurehead even as he was shuttling between Seattle and points east in recent years. He stayed closely involved in fundraising and decision-making (by cellphone, fax, e-mail, perhaps carrier pigeon) through last year — when he made news by almost single-handedly engineering the hiring of his successor, Kate Whoriskey.
All in all, Sher left a big shoeprint on one of Seattle’s major resident theaters, lifting its national profile and often engaging his growing audience with a vision of drama as a vital intellectual and cultural force — an urgent conversation between a community and its artists. And, with colleague Laura Penn (Intiman’s manager for 14 years, through the 2007 season), he sparked discussion, debate, criticism and other feedback at every turn.
One should acknowledge that Sher also benefited from the path charted by his predecessor at Intiman, Warner Shook. Shook updated the company’s repertoire with polished-to-a-gleam stagings of British and American works, including the eagerly anticipated Seattle debut of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking epic, “Angels in America.”
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Like Shook, Sher is an impeccable theatrical craftsman. And he pushed Intiman’s envelope further by investing in new and recent works by artists he fervently believed in (particularly playwright and artistic associate Craig Lucas), conjuring more abstract stagings, and instituting the multiyear American Cycle series of classic American literary works (which created more public dialogue via participating local libraries, community centers and schools). He also achieved broad success with such shows as the Tony Award-honored musical “Light in the Piazza” on Broadway, and the new play about the working poor, “Nickel and Dimed” (which has been produced by more than 40 other companies).
An experienced and probing classicist before he took the Intiman job, Sher also returned to founding director Margaret Booker’s mandate by presenting Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov masterworks.
One could argue (as some patrons did) with his visually bold, unsettling reframings of “Uncle Vanya” or “Richard III.” But Sher’s theatrical intelligence, the precise beauty of his stage images, his deep engagement with text, were always evident.
More erratic were the shows that he tapped outside directors to stage. Attempts to pump up the box office, with tepidly realized comic fare like “Moonlight and Magnolias” and “The Mystery of Irma Vep, ” rang false. And some directors seemed at odds with their assigned plays — as in disappointingly askew versions of Joe Penhall’s “Blue/Orange,” and Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”
But as some Intiman shows Sher guided himself traveled to other U.S. cities, and even to Britain’s hallowed Royal Shakespeare Company, his fame spread and opportunities to work on Broadway and in esteemed opera houses multiplied.
Sher’s increasingly long stretches in New York to direct sterling versions of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” the musical “South Pacific” and (at the Metrpolitan Opera) “The Barber of Seville” were eased by his smart appointment of talented Seattle director Sheila Daniels as his artistic second at Intiman. But, after Sher and family moved back East, he became too busy to direct any productions in Intiman’s 2008 and 2009 seasons. Inevitably, there was Seattle backlash against an absentee impresario, and a realization by Sher it was time to hand over the theater he loves to another artistic regime.
But the past decade at Intiman will largely be remembered for its high points — which have been numerous, and gratifying. Here’s a personal selection of some of the most memorable shows of the Sher Era:
“The Dying Gaul” (2001) and the world premieres of “Singing Forest” (2006) and “Prayer for My Enemy” (2007) — all by Craig Lucas, all directed by Bartlett Sher
“Nickel and Dimed” (2002) by Joan Holden, adapted from a book by Barbara Ehrenreich — directed by Sher
“The Light in the Piazza” (2005) composed by Adam Guettel and written by Craig Lucas — directed by Lucas (later restaged for Broadway by Sher)
New Productions of Classics:
“Cymbeline” (2001) by William Shakespeare — directed by Sher
“The Servant of Two Masters” (2001) by Carlo Goldoni — directed by Sher
“The Chairs” (2002) by Eugene Ionesco — directed by Kate Whoriskey
“The Three Sisters” (2005) by Anton Chekhov (adapted by Craig Lucas) — directed by Sher
“Richard III” (2006) by Shakespeare — directed by Sher
“Native Son” (2006) by Richard Wright and Paul Green — adapted and directed by Kent Gash
“A Streetcar Named Desire” (2008) by Tennessee Williams — directed by Sheila Daniels
“Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (2009) by Robert E. Sherwood — directed by Sheila Daniels
Misha Berson: email@example.com