After two near-death experiences and eight years without a stage to call its own, Intiman Theatre has finally settled on a new home — at Seattle Central College (SCC) on Capitol Hill, where it will be the theater-in-residence and lead a new, two-year degree program in technical theater with a social justice emphasis.
This is an unusual arrangement.
Intiman will be the only nationally known regional theater attached to a college that specializes in vocational training and two-year associate degrees. (Seattle Central was known as a community college until 2014, when it dropped the “community” from its name.) While many community colleges have drama departments, and a few major theaters are embedded in heavy-hitting universities (Trinity Rep at Brown University, La Jolla Playhouse at University of California, San Diego), the Intiman-SCC alliance is unique.
“It’s a very horizontal relationship with SCC,” said Intiman artistic director Jennifer Zeyl. “We’re not trying to absorb or be absorbed — we want a partner.”
The degree program begins in fall 2021 and hopes to have an initial cohort of 40 students; Intiman plans to begin staging productions the same year.
Sheila Edwards Lange, president of SCC, said Zeyl pitched the idea during a meeting over coffee last year. She was impressed by Intiman’s focus on social justice and equity, as well as the Starfish Project — Intiman’s after-school technical theater training program at South Seattle high schools.
“If you look at the mission of the Seattle colleges and the mission of Intiman, they are so well aligned,” Edwards Lange said. “I hope this will change the face of theater not only in our city but across the country.”
This marriage hopes to solve several problems: Intiman gets a stable home. SCC students get an affordable two-year degree program with technical theater training from industry professionals — which means not only experience in a working regional theater, but job contacts once they graduate.
And the labor pool of designers and stagehands — which is overwhelmingly white and trying to change that fact — potentially gets an infusion of young, diverse, social-justice-minded workers who weren’t shut out of the industry by the financial hurdle of most technical theater degree programs.
“The industry is still primarily male and primarily not people of color,” said Jennifer Bacon, president of IATSE Local 15 (Western Washington’s chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). “There are ways to get into the industry without going to a college program, but someone who has a degree definitely has a leg up. This partnership between Intiman and Seattle Central is a real opportunity for a pathway into the industry.”
Bacon said the summer’s protests for Black lives jolted her industry like it jolted many others — and sent unions scrambling to write statements of support, institute diversity trainings and figure out what else to do.
One thing IATSE needs is demographic data on its members.
“We don’t even have the stats to know where we are right now,” she said. Bacon reached out to fellow union leaders to see if anyone had good statistics on race in the industry. The best they could find was a survey of union members in Hollywood — in 1977.
Why are unions so homogenous? Bacon said there are a few factors: Over the years, some white workers have actively resisted gender and racial integration. The unions also suffer a lack of diverse outreach and leadership — if young women and people of color don’t see folks who look like them in the field, they may be less likely to think of it as a viable career path.
And then there’s the financial bar of education, training and unpaid internships.
“Our industry is largely white and male and it privileges a pedigreed education — and a pedigreed education is expensive,” said Dante Olivia Smith, a lighting designer who worked in Seattle for several years before moving east to get her graduate degree at New York University. “While I’m very grateful for the education I’ve had, I don’t know if it’s ethical to tell people to take on $100,000 of debt to work in a field where most theaters don’t pay minimum wage.”
A solution for students
Adem Hayyu, who graduated from Franklin High School in 2019, knows all about it.
The eldest of six children in a single-parent household, and first in his family to graduate from high school, Hayyu bucked the community pressure to study engineering or tech and decided he wanted to become a professional lighting designer.
That dream was catalyzed during his sophomore year, when he joined Intiman’s Starfish Project to work on the school’s spring musical: “The Wedding Singer.”
He tested a few avenues of backstage work with Starfish mentors (costumes, scene shop) before settling on the lighting track.
Soon, he was hooked — and not just because he loved the work.
“It was a huge turning point for me,” he said. “Before, I was really introverted, not the type of guy who speaks up about messed-up things. But we had conversations about what was happening politically and in our communities, about why we do so many white shows, about voices that had been silenced for generations — it helped me. I was finding my voice.”
Hayyu took the leap and applied to Cornish College of the Arts, grabbing all the financial aid he could and, in an agonizing decision, took out a student loan.
“As a Muslim, there’s religious law prohibiting loans because of interest,” he said. “I took a huge risk in going against my beliefs.”
It still wasn’t enough. Between tuition, fees and Cornish’s requirement that first-year students live on campus (which can cost from $8,352 to $11,444 a year), he started fall semester thousands of dollars behind. The class schedule and on-campus living rule also took him away from home where, as the eldest sibling, he has family responsibilities. (Since COVID-19 arrived, he’s been supervising three siblings going to school online and babysitting his 1-year-old sister while their mother is at work.)
Hayyu said he was about to throw in the towel and take the predictable engineering/tech track when he heard about the SCC-Intiman partnership. Now he’s hoping to work for a year and save money until applications open for the fall 2021 term.
Hayyu had noticed the whiteness of the field, too — while touring theater backstages on field trips, in both Seattle and New York, he didn’t see many people who looked like him. “I hope that changes soon,” he said. “It really is important to have people from different backgrounds, even backstage — it helps push different stories more.”
For him, the lack of diversity has had purely practical consequences, too. One year, Hayyu was designing lights for a show during Ramadan, when he doesn’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. He realized he’d be fasting during tech week (the weeklong cram session to fine-tune a production just before it opens), a notoriously grueling affair under any circumstances.
He and his Starfish mentors tried to find a Muslim lighting designer anywhere in the U.S. to give him pointers.
“There weren’t any!” Hayyu said. But he’s still looking for someone to talk to: about art-school loans, fasting during productions or good portable rehearsal meals besides hummus.
“If anyone reading this is a Muslim lighting designer, hit me up!”
Intiman’s long, many-forked road
Zeyl is just glad to close this chapter of Intiman’s saga.
The 48-year-old theater has a roller coaster history that includes periods of nomadism, reinvention and awards (world premieres that would win Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, and its own 2006 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre), but the last eight years have been tough.
The story is knotty and snarled — the arts-nonprofit equivalent of a soap opera — but briefly: Shortly after Intiman’s acclaimed artistic director Bartlett Sher left in 2010, the theater admitted it was in a state of financial collapse and prematurely closed its 2011 season. (That was the first near-death experience.) In 2012, young artistic director Andrew Russell resurrected Intiman’s name as a summer festival.
Intiman also lost its longtime theater, the Playhouse at Seattle Center — though Intiman sometimes sublets the old home stage from the new leaseholder (Cornish College of the Arts). Other things happened: Intiman took a hard turn toward social justice, retired all the debt that nearly killed it in 2011, experimented with giving away its tickets for free and hired Zeyl as artistic director.
For the past four years, Intiman has been producing plays around the city: the Central District, the University District, Capitol Hill, West Seattle.
“In terms of energy, it takes so much to go between a costume shop in one neighborhood, a scene shop in another, a rehearsal hall in a third neighborhood and the venue in a fourth,” Zeyl said. “And when you’re teaching in four public high schools and have four people on staff — that is nuts.”
Under the current arrangement, Intiman will rent office space at SCC and have the use of the college’s two theaters (the 133-seat Erickson Theatre and the 295-seat Broadway Performance Hall) as well as its on-site scene shop. Intiman and SCC’s finances will remain separate, with the college responsible for tuition and faculty salaries while Intiman retains control over the theater’s budgets (fundraising, staffing, making theater).
“We will have our offices, shops, rehearsals and performance space in two city blocks,” Zeyl said. “It makes me weak with joy.”
Between a few 2020 grants ($110,000), light COVID-era fundraising (around $100,000) and other income (including $90,000 from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program), Intiman says it’s in a comfortable financial position to close out 2020.
But Intiman hopes to raise $1.5 million to facilitate the move to SCC, give itself some financial padding (the savings account is low) and gear back up into making theater again — Intiman took 2020 off after its board came very close to permanently closing up shop in late 2019.
That was the second near-death experience: Intiman had shed its debt but was left with very little cash and a skittish board that wanted to close it. The theater decided to pause and regroup instead.
At the time, shutting down for a year seemed like a tough decision — in retrospect, the timing couldn’t have been better. Between the coronavirus pandemic and the surging national conversation about racial justice, 2020 unexpectedly forced many theaters to close and conduct some deep self-examination.
For Intiman, the year of introspective hibernation (rebuild the board, find a home, strategize the future) was part of the plan.
During that time, the theater and SCC found each other and began the process of designing the degree program: a combination of preexisting SCC courses (some tweaked to have a nonprofit-theater focus, like a math class that covers production finances and asset depreciation) and some new technical-skills courses with union instructors, plus lab hours working on SCC student productions, as well as mainstage Intiman productions.
“How incredibly rare to be given a year of grace,” Zeyl said. “Everybody’s been given a forced ‘grace year’ that looks like massive layoffs, cancellations, angry subscribers — it was very, very lucky that this is how we got to spend this year.”
Edwards Lange, the SCC president, hopes this new partnership, in its own small way, can be an example of how to diversify workforces that seem entrenched in whiteness.
“This is so timely, given what’s happening in our community around racial justice,” she said. “This is one of the many things we can do to reconcile the racial inequity in education and theater.”