Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, which just this year finally emerged from under the mountain of debt that had threatened to bury it eight years ago, is at another perilous crossroads — putting its board at odds with its staff and its future at risk.
At a contentious meeting Wednesday night, Intiman’s board of directors laid out a stark vision, saying the organization was out of money and would probably have to close in October.
Intiman’s staff, led by artistic director Jen Zeyl, and a collection of roughly 10 arts leaders and philanthropists from around the city, thought otherwise, arguing the money can be raised and that the current situation is thorny but not fatal.
The three camps (board, staff, outside arts leaders) shared a makeshift oval of tables in an upstairs room in the Seattle Center Armory during the meeting.
The board began by saying Intiman’s bank account would read negative $7,475 by Oct. 1, with just $45,000 left in its once-$350,000-strong reserves — and that the theater might have to lay off most of its six-member staff.
Revenue this year has also been below expectations. By the end of the year, the theater could be in a $60,000 hole, said Barbara Lewis, whose five years on Intiman’s seven-member board made her the most senior member present.
“We are in financial straits,” said Lewis, who has also served on the boards of Spectrum Dance Theater and Velocity Dance Center. “We will be out of cash by next Tuesday and our bylaws say we cannot go into debt. We need an infusion of cash right now, or there’s nothing.”
“While I wholeheartedly acknowledge its good intentions, the current board’s assessment is based in inexperience, fatigue and lack of capacity,” Zeyl countered.
Wesley Frugé, Intiman’s communications and development director, said Thursday the staff plans to raise $204,000 from donors by the end of the year, which would leave the theater with at least a $140,000 surplus. The staff, he continued, will cut its roughly $1 million annual operating budget (which the theater has maintained over the past three years) to $600,000 for 2020.
“I feel very confident we can do this,” he said, adding that Intiman raised $1 million in six weeks in 2012.
Outgoing executive director Phillip Chavira, who joined Intiman in 2017, said the organization had evolved into an unfortunate cycle of raising money piecemeal to cover the next project.
“As the board said, that is not sustainable,” said Chavira, who is stepping down Sept. 30 and moving to California to help raise his young nephew. “But what you need to break out of that cycle are committed stakeholders who are ready to learn, ready to receive help and will do the work.”
Founded 47 years ago, Intiman became one of Seattle’s “Big Three” professional regional theaters, along with Seattle Rep and ACT, and won a Tony Award for outstanding regional theater in 2006.
But in 2010, the theater revealed it had racked up at least $2.3 million in debt. Five months later, Intiman announced it would cancel the rest of its season and lay off all of its roughly 20 employees.
The theater emerged from its own ashes in 2012 as a company of local rather than national stature, producing shorter summer festivals instead of traditional seasons.
Zeyl, an award-winning scenic designer and founding member of Washington Ensemble Theatre, took over as artistic director in 2017.
This year, Intiman marked several successes. In January, after years of budget austerity — plus generosity from donors and mercy from creditors — the theater celebrated its new debt-free status, having paid off $1.8 million and negotiated $900,000 of debt forgiveness.
“Can we talk about racial equity?” Dominica Myers, one arts leader at the Wednesday meeting, asked the room. Myers is associate director of administration for Seattle Opera as well as a board trustee for statewide cultural-advocacy nonprofit Inspire Washington. “That is the mission this theater decided to wrestle with. I don’t know how many other Equity theaters could do this. And if you close Intiman, you are saying to every other theater in the country: ‘If you take this on, if you try to make this work, you will fail.’ I say this as an arts administrator and as a woman of color. This is not a fiscal crisis. This is a rough patch.”
Elizabeth Copland, founding member of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, agreed. “I’m afraid this board is throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” she said. “I feel like they came in with a set agenda: ‘We have nothing left. It’s over.’ This board is just way too small and they need people with more board experience.”
Susan Trapnell, a retired career arts administrator, who earned a national reputation as a nonprofit fixer after helping lead ACT and Intiman through financial crises in 2003 and 2011, said the tension between a pessimistic board and an optimistic staff is not uncommon.
“The board is right that they have to stop incurring financial obligations,” she said. “And the staff is right that they can probably pull it off. But they may have to have a recess.”
Today’s Intiman, she said, “is in a much stronger position” than most arts organizations with budget woes because it has no debt.
After the ACT experience, Trapnell says she started getting calls from troubled nonprofits around the country. “In every case, it was a board putting the kibosh on what the staff was capable of,” she said. “You cannot pursue the difficult with a partner who only sees the impossible.”
But, she added, Intiman needs to raise money beyond the immediate future. “You have to get people to agree to give this year,” she said, “then the year after that, then the year after that.”
Lewis, the Intiman board member, said she was heartened by the support she heard during Wednesday’s meeting and that the board will continue to consider possibilities, including keeping Zeyl on as the only staff member for a few months or exploring a partnership of some kind with Cornish College of the Arts.
But, she said, “no decisions have been made.”