SEATTLE: It’s 11 a.m. and Andrew Russell is barely through his first cup of coffee. You can’t tell, though, as the 32-year-old theatre administrator passionately talks by phone about matters ranging from arts to finance, peppering the chatter with the occasional wry joke or expletive. “If you don’t hear what you need, you can just make it up and I’ll trust you,” he joshes. Energy is important, since Russell has had a busy few years—he’s the producing artistic director of Intiman Theatre Festival, which he inherited in 2011 and brought back from the brink of closure.
When Russell stepped in as artistic director (and sole staffer) four years ago, the Intiman was $1 million in debt and virtually nonfunctional. Today the 43-year-old company is cruising along with an operating budget of $1 million, a full-time staff of six and a four-show summer season. It has paid off half of its debt, and is on track to be debt-free by 2017.
The difference is like night and day, at least according to Russell, who succinctly sums up his accomplishment: “It was one of the biggest effing things I’ve ever done, and maybe will ever do.”
And now the Intiman is taking its show on the road. On the May morning we spoke by phone, Russell was in Minneapolis, where he was directing three workshop presentations of Stu for Silverton for Theater Latte Da’s Next: New Musicals in the Making showcase. Originally commissioned and produced by the Intiman in 2013, the musical is based on the life story of Stu Rasmussen, the former mayor of Silverton, Ore., who was the first openly transgender mayor in the U.S. Written by Peter Duchan and singer/songwriter Breedlove, Stu for Silverton has a decidedly Pacific Northwest bent, an indication of the theatre’s current focus on local stories.
Let’s back up, though: The last time the Intiman held the national spotlight was in 2011, when the highly respected company, recipient of the 2006 Regional Tony Award, was under the artistic directorship of Kate Whoriskey (who took over from acclaimed director Bartlett Sher)—and found itself on the brink of closure. The causes were financial mismanagement and myriad miscommunications, leading to debilitating debt, the cancellation of the 2011–12 season, and the firing of the entire staff.
Instead of dismantling the theatre, though, the board decided to step back and reevaluate, polling the Seattle arts community on what role the Intiman should play in the city’s theatre ecology. Russell, who had been hired as an Intiman associate producer in 2010, was brought back to lead the effort, and the theatre launched its first summer theatre festival in 2012.
The resurrected Intiman is a leaner operation, with a $1-million budget (a comedown from its pre-2011 peak of $6 million), raised almost entirely via donations from the community, and a four-show summer season instead of a five to seven-show year-round season. Most notably, the new Intiman employs a repertory company of local actors, a positive move on all fronts.
“Our local community was supporting us, and we wanted to support them back,” says board president Cynthia Huffman, who has been an Intiman trustee since 2007. “Seattle is blessed to have a creative artistic community. We wanted to support them and provide jobs for them in times when there aren’t any. Plus, quite honestly, it made sense financially to not incur the cost of bringing in artists from out of town.”
More generally, the Intiman adapted a finance strategy based on one guiding principle: “Don’t spend money we don’t have.” Along with a slimmer budget and a decreased reliance on out-of-town talent, the theatre also gave up its lease on the 446-seat Cornish Playhouse and employed a rigorous financial protocol whereby every check had to be signed by a board member, eliminating some of the miscommunication that led to the debt balloon in the first place. The theatre created a reserve fund, which currently stands at $245,000 and needs replenishing every 24 months.
Creatively, the focus has also changed. Not only is the theatre employing Seattle-based actors and paying them LORT-D rates, it is also telling local stories. Over the past three years, among 10 mainstage productions have been two commissioned plays: Miracle! by Seattle-based writer/advice columnist Dan Savage, and Stu for Silverton. This upcoming season, which runs from July to October, includes a commissioned play with a Seattle bent (John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter by Ana Brown and Russell), Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams (from the Intiman’s first-ever company-in-residence, the Williams Project), The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, and Bootycandy by Robert O’Hara. The latter will be directed by Malika Oyetimein as part of the Intiman’s new Directors Lab residency for early-career directors.
The theatre has also created an Emerging Artists Program, an eight-week training program for early-career artists. This year’s group, Russell excitedly points out, is “70 percent people of color.”
“Since Andrew has taken over, the theatre’s commitment to Seattle has only grown,” confirms Ryan Purcell, founder of the Williams Project. “I know that the theatre has gotten smaller, but its reputation as a force for Seattle artists has gotten stronger. The commitment to reflecting what Seattle looks like, what Seattle cares about and what people are talking about in the community is kind of unparalleled.”
In April, the theatre was recognized for its artistic and financial progress with a $500,000 gift from the Raynier Institute & Foundation, a feat in itself considering that the foundation doesn’t accept solicitations for grants or gifts. “I’m trying to sound humble about this,” says Huffman. “They were impressed with our efforts to bring the theatre back in a responsible way.”
With budget surpluses and critical acclaim under their belt, do Russell and his team plan to bring the theatre back to its former, more expansive, Regional Tony–winning scale? Not really, says Huffman.
“There are multiple other theatres that do very fine productions in your typical September-May schedule, and Seattle patrons have a lot of choices of very good things to see. Adding onto that might not be in anybody’s best interest,” she reasons.
Russell is even more emphatic. “I get asked once a week, ‘When are you gonna go back to year-round programming?’” he says. “And I say: I don’t plan on it—because I would rather pay my actors twice as much than figure out how to do twice as many plays.”