The Playgoer: Intiman Shuts Down

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Intiman Shuts Down

The Intiman Theatre drama continues. The board of this prominent Seattle nonprofit company which has been dealing with huge financial woes this year just announced they're bailing on the rest of the season effective immediately, in the hopes of reopening in 2012.

Meanwhile, they've laid off the entire staff (with two weeks' notice)--including the new artistic director Kate Whoriskey. The intention apparently was not to fire her, per se.  But let's see if she sticks around waiting till 2012...

(All this despite the board's announcement two weeks ago that everything was just fine.)

Quite an artistic director's nightmare.  Reminds me of the classic Seinfeld where George is all psyched to finally get a corporate job only to find out that the entire board is under indictment. ("Of course, you are aware...")

Otherwise, this is also a pretty big ship to go down in our fleet of professional regional theatres. One of Seattle's big three nonprofits, Intiman was also Bartlett Sher's theatre from 2000-2010. (It also won the Tony's Regional Theatre award in 2006.) And as David Brewster, of the Seattle micro-news site, Crosscut, reminds us, the other two institutions aren't doing so hot either:

ACT Theatre, which also dealt with a financial crisis by suspending operations for a season, has recently reinvented itself by using its multi-stage theater as a way to draw in varied audiences and mount some shows at lower costs. The Seattle Repertory Theatre is in a kind of controlled "pause," reducing costs while preparing succession plans and new directions.
Brewster also offers sound advice for Intiman's future:
Intiman has very much been a theater revolving around the needs and charisma of its star directors, most of whom were better as stage directors than as artistic directors who could make the whole company flourish. That approach is probably no longer affordable, and it may reflect a Broadway and New York orientation that has outlived its appeal. Now Intiman needs to think more about the present needs of the community: how this theater should fit in, what other users its playhouse might host, and how the whole teetering world of Seattle theater should adjust after this new seismic shock.
I think the problem, though, may not be whether or not Sher or Whoriskey were the best artistic directors possible for the place. Those with fewer NYC commitments might have been marginally better.  But could the theatre still have survived the huge systemic challenges going on right now to such institutions? Don't forget that this news comes on the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra filing for Chapter 11.

What we may be seeing here is the first crack (or one of the many first cracks) in the whole regional theatre/LORT network that has defined the profession's national nonprofit landscape for the last fifty years. Basic economics tells us that a cyclical change is due, in response to a changing world. Where does it lead?

One lesson, perhaps: cities other than New York might find it harder to support more than one large nonprofit theatre institution. Who has money to subscribe to even one theatre season these days, let alone three. So either the subscription model goes, or the theatres themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I wouldn't ignore, though, the question of how the economic outlook of a specific region can influence the life of its flagship cultural institutions. Has Seattle, with its high concentration of software and electronics manufacturers, suffered a deeper economic dip than other cities? Are there particular shifts in the arts funding climate of Washington state? These factors can greatly affect giving on the corporate, individual, and government side, as well as ticket sales and other sources of earned income (such as drinks at the bar, purchases in the theater's lobby, etc). I'd wager that this tells us more about Seattle than it does about the national regional theater network.