Intiman, the theatre company that earlier this fall staged an extraordinary meeting at which its continued existence was debated in public (the board arguing to shut down, the staff exhorting troops to go forward), has announced it has raised almost 70 percent of the money it needs to continue in just one month. It also announced intentions for a new strategic plan and five new board members to help it get back on its feet.
While $200,000 to raise ($170k has been found so far) is not insignificant, it’s really the smaller part of Intiman’s challenge. This is not the story of an enterprise massively in debt with little chance to dig out and stuck in a structural deficit that has mortgaged the future. (That was Intiman crisis 1.0 a few years ago in 2011, when the debt was $2.7 million, staff was laid off and the budget went from $6.8 million down to about $1 million annually.)
Intiman crisis 2.0 is, curiously, more existential. Intiman has no building. No debt. No big salaries and union contracts it can’t get atop of. And the company’s activity has shrunk down to a just few productions. The small board was spooked over a mere $50,000 shortfall, suggesting fatigue rather than impending financial ruin.
No, the existential question this time is what exactly Intiman is at this point. The speed at which money has been raised so far suggests there’s still a constituency willing to find out, but the Big What is still an open question. And that is what is intriguing (or daunting, depending how you want to look at it).
It’s difficult to reinvent a legacy company, no matter what it is, especially if the scale of its business has changed beneath it. Intiman back in the 70s, 80s and 90s was good theatre but traditional theatre staged in a traditional theatre space with traditional cost.
It’s no surprise that live theatre has struggled over the past decade as screens have become ubiquitous, individualized entertainment-on-demand has become a reality, and costs of space and production and with them ticket prices, have all gone up. The best storytelling talent has largely moved to TV where there’s been plenty of money to fund creativity, unlike theatre. And the scripted language and conventions of the stage have become foreign to those who have grown up on “reality” TV.
The Intiman of ten years ago, locked in its legacy configuration, had little flexibility to change, and got mired in growing debt. To its credit, Intiman recognized (or was forced to recognize) that what it had been doing was unsustainable. As painful as it must have been to downsize by two-thirds, give up its home, and retreat to a mini-festival format, the company that comes out the other end has some potential advantages.
Start with an illustrious past, including regional Tony award and a roster of illustrious artistic alumni. Second, there’s nothing much left to dismantle, and at this point audience expectations are malleable. And while resources are still slim, Intiman has the ability to be nimble if it chooses.
So now that Intiman is stripped to its chassis, how to start building? Not that anyone’s asking, but here are ten ideas:
- Maybe ditch the festival model. It’s not really a festival in the classic sense, anyway, and the summer schedule is a tough sell. Besides, it’s a long time between festivals. Tough to build momentum.
- Or double down on the festival model, but make it a real festival, maybe make some inspiring partnerships and give it some density. Make it destination programming rather than just a series of plays.
- Turn the lack of a home into an asset. Immersive theatre. Unique venues and experiences. Non-conventional spaces. Match the space to the production rather than the other way around. Performing arts organizations of all sorts are experimenting with getting out of their traditional homes. If live theatre is changing, then be at the forefront of it.
- Or maybe think about having a home somewhere (being homeless is tough for so many reasons). But maybe think about an unconventional space, a clubhouse, a warehouse, a completely reconfigurable space that adapts to the production. There’s a reason New York’s Armory is its coolest venue right now. And the warehouse that is the Geffen Contemporary has been one of the best spaces in LA to see contemporary visual work.
- Seattle is a tech town, a pioneer in VR and AR, also in streaming and dozens of other technologies aimed at better storytelling and community engagement. Tap into that talent and become a leader in melding tech into the theatre experience. You’ll gain new friends and support outside the traditional theatre friendlies.
- Resist the urge to return to traditional institutional structures. Maybe there’s a virtual or hybrid organizational structure that would be more effective. The traditional board/staff/artist model hasn’t worked so well – either for the art or for the engine that supports the art.
- Explore a different business model. The non-profit model is geriatric and failing. Publishing, music, movies, TV, software, visual art, newspapers – the internet has disrupted the business model of every creative industry. Intiman already understands this – last summer it made all of its tickets free and learned some interesting lessons. Maybe look how Hollywood has reinvented its model (several times). Not that Hollywood is in a good place creatively right now, but the studios have evolved and re-evolved to stay financially viable.
- Re-examine the mission, which is “Intiman Theatre wrestles with American inequities,” and the vision, which is “Intiman has a passion for social justice, and we strive towards liberation through artistic activism. We look at inequities plaguing our country and talk about these injustices in our theatrical productions, work through these injustices in our educational programs, and evaluate our own policies within community to check our own institutional injustices.” These are specific and challenging statements. So who is the audience? Who should be the audience and what impact do you want to have on them? Political theatre has a long history, but it’s difficult to sustain. Are you politics first or theatre first? The answer is important.
- Theatre is in trouble in Seattle. The arts are in trouble in Seattle. The arts desperately need leaders, but most of our arts organizations are too busy just trying to survive to play the bigger role. There’s a potential role to play here if Intiman wants to think bigger than itself.
- Bigger than that, what’s the role of theatre in our community? What should it be and what do you want it to be? Right now, for a variety of reasons, the arts don’t make much impact here. Should they make more? Of course, but it will take artists and arts organizations being more than just champions of their own work.