Monday, February 14, 2011

Intiman Theatre: Financial crisis in the Age of Landesman

By Barry Johnson

Intiman Theatre's Kim Anderson released a "State of the Theater" statement on Friday, and news was grim in Seattle. "Sadly, I must report that unless we are able to raise $500,000 by the end of March, an additional $250,000 by June, and $250,000 by September, we cannot continue," Anderson wrote.

That $1 million is on top of its annual goal of $1.75 million, though the company has raised almost $900,000 of that, according to Misha Berson's calculations in the Seattle Times. We won't go into Intiman's problems here -- a largely ignored long-term debt and an exhausted line of credit with its bank -- just point out that under artistic director Kate Whoriskey the ticket sales part of the equation has been fine, according to Anderson.

All of this should be a local issue -- how willing the deep pockets of Seattle (and we know there are some pockets in Seattle that beggar ours in Portland) are to keep one of Seattle's Big Three regional theaters (Seattle Repertory Theatre and A Contemporary Theatre are the other two) open for business. But it's not. Rocco Landesman's well-publicized comments about the over-supply of theater in America (well-publicized even here at Arts Dispatch) inevitably leads us to consider Intiman's troubles as an opportunity to "thin the herd."

If Intiman falls, this thinking goes, the existing resources (Intiman's $5 million budget) will strengthen the remaining theater companies. Its audience, donors, sponsors, foundation and government support will find other homes at other theaters.  I'm not sure that's how it works, though. Maybe some of the audience will pull up stakes and head over to Pacific Northwest Ballet or the Seattle Symphony. Maybe they'll just stay at home and watch Portlandia on cable television. The donations and grants could go almost anywhere; Seattle has lots of worthy non-profits.

Landesman put the matter in linear terms -- supply (theater productions) versus demand (the ticket-buying public). But we know that's a vast simplification. In Seattle, if you've had an exhausting day ocean kayaking, you may just pass on your theater plans that evening altogether, if you don't have your tickets to Intiman at home on the mantle. All I'm saying is that we can't begin to predict the consequences of Intiman's failure: We might look back and say this was the moment when the decline of Seattle's vaunted theater scene became apparent, when actors and designers, underpaid as they were, lit off for new homes where the money was better and the opportunities greater.

The primary problem with Landesman's thinking, though, is its implied mechanism. If we assume that the NEA, Washington's various arts agencies and foundations agree to de-fund some theater companies to help the rest, how do they decide? Landesman's "market analysis" would indicate that the companies that draw the fewest customers should be the ones to go: When we're thinning herds, the weakest are always selected, right? But Landesman rejected that approach, suggesting that the theater companies that do the best, most engaging work should be selected, not the ones drawing the biggest crowds. So, presumably, the NEA panels, the arts agency panels, the foundation staff and board and other big donors would test for "vitality" or "artistic importance," as though that was something abstract and measurable as opposed to personal.

Let's return to Intiman. Artistically important? Vital? These are matters of debate. Significant  nationally? The company under previous artistic director Bartlett Sher won the 2006 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater.  Financially stable? Clearly not, though the company claims to be back on the beam, the bookkeeping straight-and-narrow.

What's the argument for not helping Intiman out? I'm in Portland, and I can't speak to the issue, and that aligns me with the theater blog Parabasis, where Isaac Butler wrote the following:
"Here at Parabasis, both 99Seats and i [sic] are of the opinion that a theater closing is not in and of itself a tragedy, that perhaps some of the larger nonprofits that have outlived their usefulness need to go if a given area's theater scene is really going to flourish. That being said, certainly there are theaters worth saving. I don't know enough about Seattle to weigh in on whether or not Intiman is one of them."
Parabasis doesn't know the territory, but Seattle playwright Paul Mullin does, and his verdict is to the point: 
"Allow me to honor the clarity of Intiman’s ultimatum with some clarity of my own: I hope they die.   I hope they do it soon and with a minimum of suffering.  And most of all I hope they do it without siphoning precious funds from the rest of us who make theatre in the Pacific Northwest."
Mullin's argument is that Intiman isn't sufficiently connected to its community to deserve support, that it's a closed system where decisions are made undemocratically, that it doesn't support the theater artists of the Seattle community sufficiently perhaps because it if too focused on the national theater scene, and that it has mismanaged its extensive resources to such an extent that it doesn't deserve a second chance. He calls the company's behavior and even its plea for support "arrogance."

This is a many-fronted attack, and I think Intiman would be wise to take on each of points he raises -- defend particular practices, admit errors, explain how things might be different in the future. He does not mention "quality." Does Intiman make good theater? Mullin doesn't address that question; it's irrelevant to his argument.

This is entirely different from what I presume to be Landesman's criteria, but it's more persuasive. An arts agency might look at a theater company and make reasonable judgments about how democratic its practices are, how deeply it attempts to reach into its community, how well it manages its resources,  how convincing its rationale is for the balance between administrative and artist salaries and fees. So might a foundation or an individual donor. "Quality" lands us back in the delicious but inconclusive land of personal judgment -- by experts maybe but still personal.

The most recent brush with extinction for a major arts institution in Portland came in the summer of 2009, when Oregon Ballet Theatre needed to raise $750,000 within six weeks to make sure it survived to perform its 2009-2010 season.  At that time, I argued that our major foundations and arts agencies might play a role in its survival, but the key player would be OBT's community -- its audience, volunteers, donors, staff, board. If the company was important enough to them, then they had the resources to save it.  And that led me to a lengthy consideration of the usefulness of community organizing to arts organizations and the importance of democratic practices and deep community outreach to those organizing efforts.  Which is a long way of saying that I'm sympathetic to Mullins' approach in his column, if not his conclusion.

I agree with Cynthia Fuhrman, the head of marketing and communications at Portland Center Stage (and who performed the same function at Seattle Repertory Theatre in the recent past), tweeted last week, "I suppose it's up to Intiman's audience to decide if they should be saved."

I suspect they will be deciding on a basis closer to Landesman than Mullin -- which is entirely appropriate. Has Intiman given them something they needed?  Enobarbus says of Cleopatra: "She makes hungry/Where most she satisfies": Has Intiman been up to Cleopatra's standard? If it has been, then Antony -- or Seattle -- will keep her no matter how much she costs, no matter her flaws or past actions.

We are not wise to reduce this need to "demand," as Landesman seems to want to do. Or attempt to rationalize a theater ecology without taking it into account as Mullin seems to do.  We don't have a good way to measure it really, except in Intiman's case in dollars raised, so much by March, so much by September.

So, we'll wait and see. A million dollars isn't insubstantial, even in the Emerald City. The community that Intiman has created around its work will have to sacrifice some to generate that much extra to reduce its long-term debt and restore its line of credit. They'll decide without the benefit of Landesman's wisdom in the matter; and even Mullin's argument won't hold much sway, I suspect. The questions they'll ask themselves are simple ones. Is Intiman important to me or not? Can I get what Intiman offers somewhere else or not? Do I choose to keep this particular little community going or not? Is Intiman my Cleopatra or not?


Intiman's season starts in March with Arthur Miller's All My Sons. The company is the third-largest by budget of the Big Three Seattle companies. 

No comments: