Donors have pledged a pair of generous gifts to Intiman Theatre that will garner the 35-year-old Seattle drama company $1 million. One grant, from Marcia...

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Donors have pledged a pair of generous gifts to Intiman Theatre that will garner the 35-year-old Seattle drama company $1 million.

One grant, from Marcia and Klaus Zech, is for $500,000 over five years. The other, for the same amount over five years, is from a donor who wishes to be anonymous.

But the Intiman brass are also going public about the company’s greater immediate financial needs, mounting a campaign to raise a hefty $2.8 million soon to meet an overall goal of $5.8 million; $3 million is already secured, including the new gifts.

“We’re not a sinking ship,” managing director Laura Penn said. “But now it’s time to go public and say we need to raise $1.3 million by Nov. 1 and another $1.5 million by April 1, 2008, or we can no longer do the kind of programming our audience expects of us.”

Some of the funds the campaign aims to raise will retire a mounting debt of $2.1 million, Penn said, “and stop us from sweating out the payroll from week to week. We are out of cash.”

To the general community, Intiman is an unlikely arts group to be facing a severe cash crunch. Headed since 2000 by Bartlett Sher, a two-time Tony Award nominee and one of the most acclaimed stage directors in the country, the company has doubled its attendance over the past five years.

Intiman has 9,500 season subscribers, with renewals at 73 percent — high figures compared with the national norm. On Sher’s watch, it has launched new works that went on to Broadway and national success (“The Light in the Piazza,” “Nickel and Dimed”) and a popular American Cycle of staged American literary classics, with free community readings, workshops and lectures.

But even winning a coveted 2006 Tony Award for regional-theater excellence has not brought Intiman the number of five- and six-figure donations it needs to stop hemorrhaging about $100,000 a year in interest on its long-standing accumulated debt.

Rumors of Intiman’s financial problems have buzzed around the local theater community for years. But the company has downplayed them, says Penn, because she believed major donors could be found.

Why hasn’t Intiman attracted enough deep pockets? Penn contends that compared with ACT Theatre (which came back from a dire financial crisis in 2003 when its debt was $2.7 million and an emergency campaign raised $1.5 million) and Seattle Repertory Theatre (long identified as the city’s flagship playhouse), Intiman does not attract enough consistent gifts from individual donors. At least, not enough for a company with a $6 million operating budget.

“We deal with five different unions and employ actors, technicians, designers, administrative staff at competitive wages,” noted Penn.

“We can earn half of what we need to survive, which is the norm. We get some money from the city and the county, but it’s individual gifts that really make the difference.”

That view is backed by the latest Theatre Facts national survey of more than 1,000 nonprofit U.S. theaters, conducted by Theatre Communications Group. According to the 2006 report, donations by individuals are “by far” the greatest source of contributed funds for the field, totaling $92 million in 2006 (down 3 percent from 2005).

An inadequate amount of individual gifts played a role in the recent demise of two other local companies of long-standing: The Empty Space and the Tacoma Actors Guild.

As for Intiman, said Sher, “When we approach people for money, they assume we’re doing great. And we are doing great, in terms of our work onstage. But financially, we’re somewhere between a midsized theater and a big theater, with the financial challenges of both.”

Penn contends that since Intiman was founded by a devoted lone artist, director and translator Margaret Booker, it got a later start on building a roster of moneyed “angels,” than did Seattle Rep, formed by local civic leaders, or ACT, which had close ties to the University of Washington drama school.

Sher’s rising star as an in-demand opera and play director has reflected a lustrous glow on Intiman. His current contract runs to March of 2009, and with his reputation growing, he has many options for employment outside of Intiman.

Sher insists he is not threatening to leave the company if the funding goal is not met. But he clearly wants to keep mounting world-premiere plays (including the current Craig Lucas work, “A Prayer for My Enemy,” and a commissioned script by novelist Sherman Alexie), larger-cast classical plays and historical drama cycles at Intiman — programming that, insists Penn, is endangered if the theater can’t meet its November and April funding goals.

“I believe Intiman can find a way to keep Bart here for many years,” Penn said, “if we can support his artistic vision.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com