The board of Seattle's Intiman Theatre has a big decision coming up: how to resurrect one of the city's Big Three theaters, after deciding to end this season after one play. The previous model, of lurching from crisis to crisis, isn't going to work any longer.
If the Intiman Theatre saga was a play, it would be a mercurial drama plotted with booms and busts, colorful characters, anticlimaxes and reversals. And the author would have a tough time coming up with the right ending.
Finding a resolution (at least for this act) is the pressing task of Intiman’s board of directors, which last weekend canceled the rest of the long-standing Seattle theater’s 2011 season because of ongoing financial troubles.
Soon the board, with input from local theater artists, supporters and funders, must answer the big existential question: Should Intiman continue to exist? Or work to settle its remaining $500,000 debt and call it quits?
Tempting as it is to play the blame game, no single villain is responsible for the company’s dilemma. Former ACT Theatre manager Susan Trapnell, now a planning consultant for Intiman, said the theater’s problems were cyclical and years in the making, caused by an array of management errors and fiscal factors.
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With local philanthropists hard-pressed by other needs in the community, this is a daunting time to raise the large sum Intiman will need to get back on the boards.
But is it wise to simply write off a Tony Award-winning company that created arguably the best venue in town, innovative arts education programs, and great productions of such works as “Ruined,” “The Kentucky Cycle,” “The Light in the Piazza” and, recently, “All My Sons”?
Trapnell believes there’s a possibility of a turnaround. “There’s a beautiful theater here, there’s a reputation, there are artists who want to work,” she said. “That makes me believe something can come back.”
There is a multipronged argument for saving Intiman, which is being considered by such potential major donors as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
For instance, Intiman is a key player in the central Puget Sound theater industry, which, according to a recent ArtsFund survey, sold more than 2 million tickets, generated $83 million in ticket sales, and employed some 4,400 people in 2009.
And while the theater has received harsh criticism for its fiscal quagmire, supporters stepped up to donate $450,000 in just six weeks to the cash-depleted company.
But the Seattle arts insiders interviewed agreed the theater can’t be revived only to keep lurching from crisis to crisis, with its subscribers and its landlord (the Seattle Center) left in the lurch when it crashes. And the kind of theater Intiman may become is instrumental to its success or failure.
Here are some possible options for a “new” Intiman:
• Erase the debt, then restart as a traditional subscription-based, May-to-December theater, led by an artistic director with national cachet (like departing honcho Kate Whoriskey, who had no long-term contract with Intiman and has moved back to New York to resume her freelance directing career.).
• Cut costs by sharing the Intiman playhouse with another group, say, Seattle Shakespeare Company or Book-It Repertory Theatre, so the space offers shows year-round.
• Produce some plays, but like the resurrected-from-the-brink ACT Theatre, also rent out the playhouse for shows by outside performing groups, as well as lectures and other events.
• Move Intiman out of the Seattle Center facility, and produce its seasons in a smaller, less-pricey venue.
• Turn Intiman into a kind of artistic collective (a la Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre), run by several affiliated directors instead of one, committed to casting locally generated projects with mainly local artists — to save money and reconnect with the community.
• Ditch the subscription model and present only as many shows each year as conservative budget projections indicate are possible, without incurring big debt, with rentals filling the gaps.
But several conditions, local theater experts agree, should be met in any case: A revamped board of directors, with more hands-on involvement in the day-to-day finances. More transparency and responsiveness to the public and donors. Rooting the mission and leadership in Seattle, rather than focusing on reflected Broadway glory (as when Tony-winning, bicoastal director Bartlett Sher was artistic head).
Much talent, money and passion has been invested in the Intiman since Margaret Booker dreamed up the theater in 1972. But to survive and thrive, Intiman’s next act may need to look very different from its previous ones.
Misha Berson: email@example.com