Over the past few years, Intiman Theatre has overcome a number of challenges, including a nearly $3 million debt, vagabonding around the city without a permanent home, and, of course, enduring the pandemic-induced theater shutdown.
Now, after a lot of hard work and as Washington state opens back up, Intiman’s new chapter is looking promising.
The theater company is currently moving into its new digs at Seattle Central College on Capitol Hill after forming a partnership with the college last year. It’ll be kicking off its 2021-2022 season Sept. 18-19 with an outdoor performing arts street festival to celebrate its arrival into the neighborhood and the return of theater post-pandemic shutdown. About a week later, it’ll be welcoming the first class of students into a pioneering Associate of Arts degree program, Technical Theatre for Social Justice, formed through its partnership with SCC.
Intiman is also seeking to welcome new audiences by introducing an affordable membership model that allows theatergoers to make monthly donations between $8 and $98 dollars to become members.
It’s a big year for the theater that, in 2022, will celebrate 50 years on the scene.
Originally founded in 1972 as a theater with a focus on international drama, Intiman has undergone many transformations since, and its newest chapter is strongly focused on leveraging its newfound stability to help make the local theater scene more accessible, more equitable.
Welcome to the neighborhood
Jennifer Zeyl, artistic director of Intiman Theatre, has been wanting to bring Intiman to the Capitol Hill neighborhood for years.
It’s where she herself has lived for the past 20 years, hunkering down in her 500-square-foot apartment with her husband and her dog and weathering the neighborhood’s ups and downs, demographic shifts and rising rents.
“This neighborhood has been through a bunch of different identities but at its heart it is a queer neighborhood, it’s a political neighborhood, and the epicenter of that has always been Seattle Central College,” said Zeyl.
“It actually feels like I have an opportunity to program more broadly for who I know Seattle to be.”
But Intiman isn’t relying only on gut feelings and personal familiarity. According to Wesley Frugé, development and communications director at Intiman, the leadership team met with over 200 community members through happy hours and roundtables to understand how they could best serve their community — both Intiman regulars (“Inti-fans” as Frugé calls them) and audiences they hope to court.
“We heard very loud and clear that the path that we’re moving on right now is the way that is going to be meeting the community needs,” said Frugé. “The thing we’re most excited about right now is being a good neighbor in our new neighborhood. … What is our role in the Capitol Hill arts district, how do we meet our neighbors there? What’s our role in the gayborhood, how do we contribute to holding space for the queer community?”
As a sort of housewarming for their new digs, Intiman’s first show of the 2021-22 season, “Homecoming,” will be an outdoor street festival made up of commissioned works and performances curated by community artists and arts organizations.
Building new audiences, building up new artists
One of the ways Intiman hopes to reach new audiences in its new Capitol Hill home (and beyond) is through its new membership model.
Inti-Club members can make monthly donations ranging from $8-$98, and no matter what they pay, everyone receives the same membership benefits: discounted tickets, member parties and happy hours, special preview invitations.
Membership models have become increasingly popular for theaters nationally over the past few years, though revenue through memberships still makes up only a very small portion of the subscription pie, according to a report from the national Theatre Communications Group.
Intiman’s offering a range of monthly rates for the same benefits is certainly an unusual model, but Frugé says the theater saw great response to its “free for everyone” shows in the past and the affordable membership model is an expansion of Intiman’s efforts to “have accessible, inclusive theater.”
Those “free for everyone” tickets — another way Intiman is reaching new audiences — are available at the box office one hour before every performance. There are a limited number of tickets guaranteed and anyone who arrives at the box office no more than 60 minutes before the performance can nab one on a first-come, first-served basis.
After launching the free ticket program in 2019, Intiman saw immediate changes in who was showing up to the theater. Surveys of their walk-up ticket audience in 2019 showed 54% were under the age of 44; 40% were people of color; 30% go to the theater once a year or less; and 54% make less than $49,999 a year.
In addition to the free ticket program and the affordable membership model, the associate degree program that Intiman announced last year is all about changing what theater looks like behind the scenes by providing an affordable education opportunity to bring historically excluded communities into the world of theater technologies.
“You can put people of color on your stage, you can hire Black playwrights, you can do all of these things. Intiman is now saying: Well, what about all of the backstage technicians. It’s almost entirely white men,” said Frugé. “What are those pipelines that create ways for people of color, people that have been traditionally left out of these amazing union jobs to actually enter that workforce.”
The program launches this September with its first class of students.
“Now it’s time to write Chapter 1. In some ways it feels like the work is actually just beginning, but we’re always starting fresh in the arts,” said Frugé. “People talk to me and say, ‘Intiman isn’t what it used to be,’ and I’m like, ‘Thank God.’ This is our role. Intiman’s role in this community is to be constantly shifting and evolving and evaluating what our role is. The Intiman of today is different, but we’re still on a journey towards rebuilding.”