Intiman Theatre is a professional not-for-profit resident theater company in Seattle. From its inception in 1972 in a tiny 70-seat theater in Kirkland to its present operation in the 480-seat Playhouse Theatre at the Seattle Center, the theater has steadily grown into one of the nation's leading regional theaters. Over the past decade it has developed innovative programs that forge increasingly strong connections with the larger Puget Sound community and encourage dialogue about the role of the theatrical experience in American life. In 2006 Intiman Theatre was awarded the Regional Theatre Tony Award, the highest awards honor an American regional theater can attain.
An Intimate Experience
Margaret (Megs) Booker (b. 1942) first studied theater from 1967 to 1969 as a Fulbright Lecturer in Sweden, returning to Stockholm in 1970 on a Ford Foundation Fellowship at the invitation of the Royal Dramatic Theatre to study with Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918), and again in 1972 on a Swedish government grant to study with Bergman's teacher Alf Sjoberg (1903-1980). Booker founded the Intiman Theatre with the aim of producing international dramatic literature on an intimate scale. She named the venture Intiman after the small theater called Intima Teatern or Intiman founded by August Strindberg (1849-1912) in Stockholm in 1907. "Intiman" is an approximation of the Swedish word intim, meaning intimate.
Intiman Theatre Company's first production was Henrik Ibsen's (1828-1906) Rosmersholm at the Creative Arts League Theater in Kirkland in December 1972. In 1973 Intiman incorporated as a non-profit organization with John Booker serving as its first administrative leader. In 1974 the organization began mounting productions at the Cornish Institute on Seattle's Capitol Hill. In 1975, Intiman's first season as a professional company operating under Actor's Equity agreements, the company adopted Seattle Repertory Theatre's 350-seat Second Stage in downtown Seattle as their main venue. The Intiman used Second Stage during the summer when the Seattle Repertory Theatre was not in season. Surprising some who thought heavy fare like the company's 1975 offerings (Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya, George Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer, and Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler) would be off-putting in summer, the Intiman's productions continued to do well. By 1976, Intiman had carved out a niche as Seattle's leading producer of classic drama and had a resident company of 14 actors.
In 1976 Intiman initiated "New Plays Onstage." These consisted of staged readings of contemporary plays designed to balance the company's season of five classic dramas. A year later, in 1977, the theater opened administrative offices in Pioneer Square in 1977 and hired Simon Siegl as its first general manager.
In 1982 the Intiman presented Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck and August Strindberg's A Dream Play, along with staged readings of five contemporary plays, as part of Scandinavia Today. Scandinavia Today was an international exposition of Nordic culture that took place in Seattle, Washington. D.C., New York City, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Exits and Entrances
In 1984 the Intiman was forced to vacate the Second Stage since the building was slated for demolition to make way for the Washington State Convention Center. The company and Seattle officials announced that the Intiman's new home would be in the Mann Building at 3rd Avenue and Union, at the time home to an adult movie theater and the Waggin' Tongue Bar, among other businesses. A plan to renovate the Mann Building fell through. Without a permanent home and carrying a $200,000 debt at 11 percent interest, the Intiman's chances for survival looked grim.
While struggling to stay afloat, in October 1984 Intiman received a $100,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Challenge Grants can jump-start an organization's fundraising program because they offer a large cash incentive if the organization successfully matches the grant amount within three years. Seattle had recently received a citation as America's most liveable city by the United States Conference of Mayors. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) told the press, "There is absolutely no excuse' for not enabling Intiman to achieve its goal of $375,000 when 'the economy is on the way up.' " Royer also called Intiman "a valuable part of [the city's] arts menu" (October 11, 1984, p. B-8).
The Intiman more than doubled its required 3-to-1 match. The company also received financial encouragement from the King County Arts Commission and the Washington State Arts Commission in addition to corporate and individual donations.
In 1985 the company reduced its season from six plays to three and mounted what they called a "survival season" at the Seattle Central Community College's Broadway Performance Hall. Intiman Board president Pamela Schell told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "The Intiman Theatre will operate without a loss in 1985 or not at all" (January 28, 1985).
In 1985 Margaret Booker, wearied by the company's financial woes, left the Intiman to become artistic director at the Hartman Theater in Stamford, Connecticut, and actor and director Elizabeth Huddle became the Intiman's artistic director. Under Huddle's artistic leadership, the Intiman's number of annual performances rose from 115 to 247 and its operating budget grew to more than $2 million.
General Manager Simon Seigl departed the company in October 1984. Peter Davis, a former scenic designer who had worked in this capacity for both Intiman and the Seattle Repertory Theatre and later served as manager of the Arizona Ballet, became the Intiman's first managing director in 1985. Davis restructured the company's financial and administrative procedures and negotiated a plan for the Intiman to operate and manage the Seattle Center Playhouse under a 22-year lease from the City of Seattle.
The Playhouse, originally built for the Century 21 Exposition in 1962, underwent a $1.2 million renovation in preparation for the Intiman's occupancy. The move into the Playhouse in 1987 united the company's shop, production, rehearsal, performance, and administrative branches under one roof for the first time.
Davis and Huddle's careful leadership, along with board and community support, pulled Intiman back from the brink and the company ended their 1986 season in the black.
In 1986 the Intiman founded Living History. Living History is an Arts In Education program that sends teams of actors into classrooms where they use theatrical improvisation techniques to actively engage students in exploring historical and ethical issues. Living History exemplifies Intman's drive to help the larger public, in this case students, spark a connection that illuminates the narrative line between past and present.
The program explores issues such as racism, human rights, censorship, and sexism and is integrated into the curriculum rather than being adjunct to it. Living History now (2006) annually involves more than 135,000 students in high schools throughout Washington. Living History received a Kennedy Center Award for Excellence and the Golden Apple Award for its contributions to arts education from KCTS.
Werner Shook and Elizabeth Huddle
In 1993 Warner Shook became Intiman's artistic director. A friend and protégé of outgoing artistic director Elizabeth Huddle, Shook had directed a number of productions at the theater, including The Kentucky Cycle, and had thus participated in the Intiman's financial recovery and artistic stabilization. Under Shook's leadership, the Intiman deepened its commitment to nurturing and producing new work and initiated New Voices at Intiman, a play-reading series for emerging and established writers.
In 1993 Tony Kushner's two-part epic Angels In America won both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for Best New Play. This cogent work explores the political climate in America during Ronald Reagan's (1911-2004) presidency against a backdrop of the rapidly growing AIDS pandemic. Intiman became the first regional theater in the country to be awarded rights to produce the play after the Broadway production closed, mounting Part One: Millennium Approaches as the final show of the 1994 subscription season and Part Two: Perestroika as the first show of the 1995 subscription season. This complete production of Angels In America drew an audience of over 63,000 and became the Intiman's most successful production ever.
Laura Penn and Bartlett Sher
In 1994 Laura Penn (b. 1961) succeeded Peter Davis as Intiman's managing director. Under Penn's leadership the Intiman has continued to deepen its commitment to civic dialogue, reaching beyond Intiman's audience-base and even beyond Seattle's general arts community to better root the Intiman within the Puget Sound region through educational programs and community collaborations.
Acclaimed director Bartlett Sher (b.1959) became Intiman's artistic director in 2000. Leading American playwright Craig Lucas became Intiman's associate artistic director in 2002.
Plays that made their world premiere at the Intiman include a collaborative dance/theater stage adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel The Last Unicorn choreographed by Kent Stowell and danced by members the Pacific Northwest Ballet; Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle, directed by Warner Shook and the first play ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama without first having a New York production; Nickeled and Dimed, Joan Holden’s adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction bestseller about America’s working poor Nickeled and Dimed In America; and Singing Forest by Craig Lucas, winner of the prestigious American Theatre Critics Association's annual Steinberg New Play Award.
In 2003 the Intiman mounted the world premiere of The Light in the Piazza by writer Craig Lucas and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel, its first musical. After a highly successful Seattle run, The Light in the Piazza traveled to Chicago's Goodman Theatre, then to New York, where it opened at Lincoln Center Theater. The Light in the Piazza was honored with six 2005 Tony Awards, more than any other production that year.
The American Cycle
In 2004 the Intiman initiated a planned five-play series of classic American stories they called the American Cycle. The American Cycle includes Our Town, The Grapes Of Wrath, Native Son, All The King's Men, and To Kill A Mockingbird. The American Cycle is designed to extend the audience's experience from that of passive viewer to that of an active participant in a full-scale dialogue about what it has meant through time to be an American and what it means today. Producing one play each year, the Intiman offers free community readings, original theatrical projects bringing together students from local high schools, humanities forums, and other arts educational programs for multigenerational audiences, all springing from the American Cycle play being produced that year.
These events, designed to engage residents throughout the Puget Sound region and to foster active ties between the Intiman and its community, exemplify the company's commitment to working in community. Bartlett Sher told American Theatre writer Stephen Drunkman, "What we try to do is never ignore the fact that we are part of a community. Whenever we build a piece there are two pillars. One is the artistic pillar, and the other is the community pillar" ("The Essential Bartlett Sher"). Sher credited the genesis of this commitment to Laura Penn, calling her "a genius at community work."
Largely because of this commitment to exploring interconnectedness, on June 8, 2006, the Municipal League of King County made Intiman the first arts organization ever to be chosen Civic Organization of the Year. The League stated, "Intiman Theatre distinguishes itself from other major theatre companies nationally, by its focus on using drama to promote discussion about civic issues. More than any other theatre in the region, Intiman has extended its educational programs and community collaborations. These partnerships have helped bring the Theatre's work to wide and diverse audiences across our region, and created long-term relationships that continue to enrich our commitment to civic dialogue" ("Municipal League 2006 Civic Awards").
In 2004 the Intiman received a three-year $400,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable foundation recognizing the organization as one of America's "Leading National Theatres." The Leading National Theatres Program supports artistic programs and provides matching endowment grants to exemplary theaters across the United States. The Intiman was the first theater in the state to receive this prestigious grant.
The Highest Honor
On May 16, 2006, the 2006 Tony Awards nominations were announced, including the news that Intiman Theatre would be honored with the 2006 Regional Theatre Tony Award. This award is the highest honor an American regional theater can receive. Laura Penn told Variety reporter Lynn Jacobson that the award came at a time when the Intiman was receiving robust support from season subscribers: "We have the highest renewal rate we've had in 10 years, almost 10 points higher than the national average (of 63%) reported by Theater Communications Group." The number of season subscribers who renew their subscriptions is a gauge of success both within and beyond the theater community and is a measure of how deeply embedded within its community a performing arts organization has become.
Penn and Sher accepted the Tony at Radio City Music Hall in New York on June 11, 2006. In the first "Reflections From The Artistic Director" column he wrote for the Intiman's Encore Arts Program after accepting the Tony Award, Bartlett Sher stated, "I hope that everyone who cares about things like awards realizes that the Tony we now have should be in the hands of thousands of people, artists and audiences alike who distinguish this city and region with their beautiful belief in the power of our artists and our stories to make a difference in each of our individual lives and in our collective experience" (Richard III Encore Arts Program, p. 9).