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Intiman Theater Returns For A Shrunken Second Act

Jul 15, 2012
Originally published on July 15, 2012 11:11 am

Forty years ago, the founders of Seattle's Intiman Theater envisioned a company devoted to Western classics: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen and the like. But over the decades, Intiman also earned national recognition as an incubator of new work.

In 1991, it premiered The Kentucky Cycle, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. A decade later, it produced the first workshops of the Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza.

Early last year, the company abruptly shut down after revealing it owed more than $1 million to its creditors. Now, after months of downsizing and fundraising, the Intiman is set to reopen. But instead of a traditional season of plays, the theater is offering an eight-week summer festival — a new model launched in an effort to stay alive.

When the Intiman was honored with the Regional Theater Tony Award in 2006, the company was at the top of the mountain artistically.

But though it might have put quality work onstage, behind the scenes the theater was on the verge of collapse. By 2010, the Intiman owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent, plus about $1 million in other debts.

No one at the Intiman wants to assign blame for the problems, but some observers say the theater company's artistic ambitions overreached its budget. Others believe the Intiman's problems stemmed from fiscal mismanagement.

Whatever the reason, an outside consultant advised the company to shut down midseason. The Intiman gave up the lease to its building, laid off its staff and arranged with other Seattle theater companies to honor its tickets.

"Everyone was always teetering on the brink," says Bartlett Sher, the Intiman's artistic director in 2006.

"The endless amounts of crises we went through at Intiman ... but you always knew you just had to make sure you could make it happen, no matter what different things you had — you were trying to juggle."

Board President Terry Jones says that after the theater closed, the plan was always to reopen the Intiman at some point. It just needed to find a cheaper way to operate.

"We were producing for nine months out of the year and having to sustain 12 months of operations, and it was a much bigger budget," Jones says. "So, if you were going to shrink down and try to get lean and mean, what could you do?"

Jones and her fellow board members solicited ideas from dozens of Seattle theater artists. The summer festival proposal was the most intriguing, especially because it would cost just a fifth of the Intiman's budget for its last full season.

'I Contain Multitudes'

The festival will include classic plays and new work, all performed by an ensemble of 12 actors and five interns.

Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is one of the classics, starring Marya Sea Kaminski in the title role. Kaminski is also cast in the festival production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, as well as the premiere of a drag version of The Miracle Worker, created by writer and gay activist Dan Savage.

The plays will be performed on a rotating schedule, so Kaminski and the other actors will give a different performance every night.

"What keeps coming to mind is that Walt Whitman quote: 'I contain multitudes,' " Kaminski says. "Because I contain so much text right now, and it literally feels like a computer program. Like I flip through files, and I'm like oh, the Hedda Gabler file, and I bring it up and there it is."

But Kaminski says she likes a challenge, so she took the job for less than she might earn at another theater.

Jones says the Intiman has negotiated with the unions to make the festival affordable.

"We've had a lot of people who have been very gracious to us," she says, "including Actor's Equity and a whole number of folks who have said, 'We want to make this happen for Intiman.' "

That's partly because Seattle's tight-knit theater community depends on the city's five big Equity houses to generate enough work to keep a critical mass of actors, directors and stage crews employed. All of those theaters have had to cut their budgets in the past five years as the economy tanked, and sales and donors dwindled.

Meanwhile, the Intiman still owes more than a half-million dollars to its creditors. And the summer festival isn't likely to generate enough to pay that down.

In fact, ticket sales seldom cover the cost of mounting plays. Kevin Maifeld managed regional theaters for more than 25 years, and now directs an arts-management program at Seattle University. He says the Intiman is taking a risk by putting all its hopes on this short summer festival.

"Producing theater is always a risk," he says. "If any of us could predict what would be a huge hit and sell out, we would all make a ton of money. But the reality of this art form is you never know that."

Jones says at this point she has no choice but to be optimistic.

"We don't know how this book will end," she says, "but I hope we haven't written the last chapter."

Copyright 2012 Puget Sound Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kuow.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As the curtain goes up at a theater in Seattle this summer, everyone is hoping it is not the final show. Seattle's Intiman Theater has a long and proud history. It's considered one of the country's finest regional theaters. But the company was forced to shut down early last year after revealing it owed more than a million dollars to its creditors. After months of downsizing and fundraising, Intiman is reopening with an eight-week summer festival.

As Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW reports, the theater hopes they have found a model to keep them in business.

MARCIE SILLMAN, BYLINE: Forty years ago, Intiman's founders envisioned a Seattle theater devoted to Western classics: Shakespeare, Chekov and Ibsen. But over the decades, Intiman also earned national recognition as an incubator of new work.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE KENTUCKY CYCLE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Spark what lights the fuse for spring, that's the azalea. When they get to going, you'd swear somebody scattered a whole handful of lit matches across those hills...

SILLMAN: In 1991, Intiman premiered the "The Kentucky Cycle." A decade later, it produced the first workshops of "Light in the Piazza."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Everyone's a mother here, in Italy. Everyone's a father or a son...

SILLMAN: In 2006, Intiman was honored with a Regional Theater Tony Award. Artistically, the company was at the top of the mountain. Financially?

BARTLETT SHER: Everyone was always teetering on the brink.

SILLMAN: Bartlett Sher was Intiman's Artistic Director in 2006.

SHER: The endless amounts of crises we went through at Intiman. But you always knew you just had to sort of make sure you could make it happen, no matter what different things you were trying to juggle.

SILLMAN: Sher and his staff might have put quality work onstage, but behind the scenes the theater was on the verge of collapse. By 2010, Intiman owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent, plus about a million dollars in other debts. No one at Intiman wants to assign blame for the problems. But some observers say the theater company's artistic ambitions overreached its budget. Others believe Intiman's problems stemmed from fiscal mismanagement.

Whatever the reason, an outside consultant advised the company to shut down mid-season last year. Intiman gave up the lease to its building, laid off its staff, and arranged with other Seattle companies to honor its tickets. But Board President Terry Jones says they did want to reopen Intiman at some point. They just needed to find a cheaper way to operate.

TERRY JONES: We were producing for like nine months out of a year, and having to sustain 12 months of operations, and it was a much bigger budget. So, if you were going to shrink down, and try to get lean and mean, what could you do?

SILLMAN: Jones and her fellow board members solicited ideas from dozens of Seattle theater artists. The summer festival proposal was the most intriguing, especially the fact that it would cost just a fifth of Intiman's budget its last full season. The festival would include classic plays and new work, all performed by an ensemble of 12 actors and five interns.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good. OK, so we'll do that again once we run. just hope you read the whole thing...

SILLMAN: On a recent morning, the cast runs through Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HEDDA GABLER")

(SOUNDBITE OF SHUSHING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hedda Gabler.

MARYANN SEA KAMINSKI: (as Hedda Gabler) Yes, that was my name back when we first knew each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And now, I have to learn not to call you Hedda Gabler.

KAMINSKI: (as Hedda Gabler) Yes, the sooner the better. Start practicing.

SILLMAN: Marya Sea Kaminski plays the title role. She's also cast in the festival production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," as well as the premier of a drag version of "The Miracle Worker," created by writer and gay activist Dan Savage. The plays will be performed on a rotating schedule, so Kaminski and the other actors will give a different performance every night.

KAMINSKI: What keeps coming to mind is that Walt Whitman quote, "I contain multitudes," because I contain so much text right now. And it literally feels like a computer program. Like I flip through the files, and I'm like, oh, the Hedda Gabler file. And I bring it up and there it is, you know?

SILLMAN: But Kaminski says she likes a challenge, so she took the job for less than she might earn at another theater. Board President Terry Jones says Intiman has negotiated with the unions to make this festival affordable.

JONES: We've had a lot of people who've been very gracious to us, including Actor's Equity, and a whole number of folks who've said we want to make this happen for Intiman.

SILLMAN: That's partly because Seattle's tight-knit theater community depends on the city's five big equity houses, to generate enough work to keep a critical mass of actors, directors and stage crews employed. All of those theaters have had to cut their budgets in the past five years as the economy tanked and sales and donors dwindled.

Meanwhile, Intiman still owes more than a half million dollars to its creditors. And the summer festival isn't likely to generate enough to pay that down. Ticket sales seldom cover the cost of mounting plays.

Kevin Maifeld managed regional theaters for more than 25 years and now directs an arts management program at Seattle University. Maifeld says Intiman is taking a risk, putting all its hopes on this short summer festival.

KEVIN MAIFELD: Producing theater is always a risk. If any of us could predict what was going to be a huge hit and sell out, we would all make a ton of money and be very happy. But the reality of this art form is that you never know that.

SILLMAN: But Intiman Board President Terry Jones says at this point she has no choice but to be optimistic.

JONES: We don't know how this book will end, but I'm hoping we haven't written the last chapter.

SILLMAN: For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.