Intiman Theatre Struggle: Backdrop to Theatre Facts 2009


The story is several weeks old now, and the ritualistic ringing of the alarm has ebbed into a hum of mere worry. Yet I wanted to add some reactions and observations to the coverage of the financial instability of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. These thoughts and observations, first, are in light of the August release of Theatre Facts 2009, based on the survey of fiscal conditions conducted annually by Theatre Communications Group. Second, they’re in light of the fact that our nonprofit theater industry rarely resists its addiction to spin; that the Intiman’s troubles have been so publicly laid out strikes me as rather extraordinary. And third, these thoughts and observations relate to my old, tired soapbox: the nonprofit arts sector, including the theater industry, is far too resistant to dealing with the huge problems with its business model, problems that certainly aren’t fading from view anytime soon.

It was a well-written, well-read Nov. 12 piece in the Seattle Times that initially caught my eye — in particular how, in the second graph of the piece, it was reported that the Intiman’s board president “released a statement talking about recent ‘management missteps’ and lapses in oversight that led to late payments to creditors.” How unusual it seemed, how very aberrant, that a top-ranked figure at a major nonprofit regional theater would be so publicly condemning. I want to resist the urge to be conspiratorial here, but I did wonder if the real motivation was to throw someone at the Intiman under the proverbial bus. At least that was the whiff I got from the tone and substance of the story.

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An equally well-written, well-read Nov. 24 follow-up story, written by my colleague Misha Berson, somewhat validated my suspicion. Though the Intiman, according to acting managing director Melaine Bennett, “plans to reduce its $2.3 million debt through negotiations with creditors and budget-cutting,” Bennett admitted that “management missteps” dramatically increased the theater’s debt and put its “cash-flow situation in jeopardy.” (Note the use of “management missteps” by two different sources in two different stories. Can you say “talking points”?)

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Bennett went even further, making the story, to my mind, all the more unusual:

Neither the board nor staff was provided with information about the extent of these financial difficulties, so there wasn’t any opportunity do some broad problem-solving…

Misinformation was distributed, basic bookkeeping neglected, payments weren’t made. And when you’re operating on such a stretched budget, and many people are misinformed, it really creates a perfect storm of mismanagement.

The earlier Seattle Times story provided a two paragraph bit of background that will, as I promised earlier, bring me to a discussion of TCG’s Theatre Facts 2009.

For it turns out that the Intiman, called one of the “Big Three” nonprofit theaters by Seattle locals, is the third of this fine group to succumb to life-threatening monetary stresses:

From 1998 to 2009, Intiman ended seven years in the red, according to tax records.

That in itself is not unusual for the “Big Three” theaters. Over the same period, Seattle Repertory Theatre and ACT Theatre each ended up with nine years in the red.

Now, some thoughts. First, even we self-involved oddballs here in Gotham know the Intiman, or at least know its work and critical importance to the ecology of the theater in Seattle and to the American stage as a whole. That said, the way the Intiman’s issues are being discussed still makes me ponder what might be really going on. In giving the quotes that Bennett gave to the Seattle Times, is she, for example, actively trying to protect the board? Well, this might be a must: if the board is ponying up enough money to save the theater, which she did tell Berson they’re doing, it’s probably best not to alienate them. Second, could Bennett be trying to protect the Intiman board? After all, the board does bear legal responsibility for the theater’s health, but it may be irresistible not to blame the theater’s former managing director, Brian Colburn, who “suddenly resigned” in October. Hm, could be: the Los Angeles Times, which made a bigger molehill out of a little one last year in the wake of Colburn’s impolitic remarks about the L.A. stage scene, certainly has done its part to join the fray. And, indeed, the L.A. Times noted that the Intiman’s openness about its situation represents “an unusual development for the nonprofit arts world, where keeping mum is the rule of thumb…”

Reading between the lines in the Seattle Times pieces, it also seems to me — again, this is simply my observation — that the Intiman board is also being protected at the expense of the theater’s former artistic director, Bartlett Sher, now the undisputed darling of the New York directorial scene.

Why do I observe this? Note how Berson — having mentioned that the Intiman’s new artistic director, Kate Whoriskey, moved to Seattle just this year — lets Bennett insulate Whoriskey from blame, implying that her predecessor, perhaps, was a less-than-stellar steward of the Intiman ship:

Kate says great art isn’t driven by money, but by creativity. And we’re all trying to be as creative as possible about realizing Kate’s artistic vision.

Bennett’s words, not mine.

And let’s recall, moreover, that the Seattle Times did report, in its initial piece, about all the years in which the Intiman operated in the red. That’s on Sher’s watch. And so the blame game unfurls.

Personally, I think collective responsibility would be best. Yet, despite the bluntness of the quotes from the Intiman, it is not really what we have. It’s sort like paraphrasing the Project Runway motto: “In nonprofit theater, one day you’re in, and the next, you’re out.” Which doesn’t say much about the field.

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Which brings us, at last, to Theatre Facts 2009, a subject that several bloggers, starting in August, covered nicely. Here is a quote, for example, from the Los Angeles Theatre Blog:

From the intimate theatre companies to the largest of performing arts institutions, today’s theatrical presenters must accept the realities that current economic trends will continue well into the foreseeable future.

There were also posts at A Poor Player, Halcyon Theatre and Stage Money, although, in my view, they were more eager to direct people’s attention to the report itself than to analyze it.

TCG, almost by definition, is naturally going to spin the report as positively as it can. After all, that is what it’s members would want — they want hope, which is not necessarily congruent with reality. I do think Sarah Hart’s piece on Theatre Facts in the November 2010 issue of American Theatre is articulate and nicely sourced. I came away from it, however, with less of a sense of what the nonprofit theater industry really plans to do to stabilize itself in future years — given, to name one issue, that public appropriations are likely to fall, and that foundation and corporate philanthropy is likely to be a mixed bag. The penultimate graph of Hart’s piece, for me, brings the point home. It features a quote from Jennifer Bielstein, managing director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, who served as one of Hart’s sources:

We’ve really been at maximum efficiency in fiscal years ’09 and ’10, extremely lean, with the staff going above and beyond for a long, long time. We’re looking at the future not knowing where the resources are to increase salaries and not having people work 24/7.

Well, that’s right — salary increases are the stuff of fantasies. Just like the Intiman, which the Seattle Times reported will do as it must, including programmatic shrinkage, to stay alive, the question is how the business model of the nonprofit theater plans to retool itself for the new economic abnormal. I have been saying on this blog for two years that I don’t see it happening, and nothing in Theatre Facts 2009 convinces me otherwise.

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Which is why I advise anyone who has read this post to this point should get yourself a copy of the book 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, which we at the CFR will cover extensively during the next weeks and months. The opening chapter lays bare the situation — and possible solutions — quite convincingly.

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Written by Brian Newman of the Sub-Genre Consulting Group, it seems that as the fiscal strain of this era goes on…

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…the nonprofit arts sector will likely have to rethink business practices, and contend with radically different economics.

Unfortunately, it’s not a stretch to say the nonprofit arts sector looks like a field of zombies — undead, potentially harmful shells of their former selves, haunting the landscape, unable to live or to die. Quite simply, funders, board members, and leaders in the arts need to take a hard look at reality and make some painful decisions…. Even those organization that are healthy enough to survive will need to consider downsizing their costs and refocusing their energies as the dwindling support for the cultural sector is likely a permanent shift away from robust public, foundation and individual financing of the arts.

By contrast, what I got out of Theatre Facts, will all due respect to TCG, was a sense that the status quo is preferable to the tougher work of innovation, which is precisely Newman’s point. The quote from TCG Executive Director Teresa Eyring in the press release for Theatre Facts 2009, in my view, could have seized the moment. While professional and articulate, for me it fell completely short:

…there is also an enormous amount of resilience and entrepreneurialism in our field. Most theatres were able to navigate the rough waters and use a very tough environment to refine their focus, build new partnerships and strengthen ties within their communities.”

Painful as the Intiman situation may be, and as suspect as the blame-game may also be, what I applaud, in the end, is the Intiman’s willingness to acknowledge the magnitude of its issues. It would be a measure of respect for the theater scene in Seattle, I believe, if TCG acknowledged, for example, that if Seattle’s “Big Three” nonprofit theaters have each experienced fiscal traumas, perhaps something is wrong with the ecosystem as a whole. Indeed, please name for me a single U.S. metropolitan that hasn’t had a major theater absolutely churn monetary problems during the last couple of years. I still believe there is a structural hole in the fiscal heart of the nonprofit theater industry, and I still believe that TCG should provide the leadership to mend it.

What are the solutions that Newman proposes? There are a number of them in his chapter. I particularly like this one:

If neither non- nor for-profit models seem to work perfectly, perhaps the arts sector should explore new ventures at the junction of the two, combining the assets of the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to realize both financial and social profits. This new space, perhaps called with-profit, as in social goals “with profit potential,” promises a rich field for the arts sector to explore. Such experiments could be undertaken by existing or new nonprofits, or by creating new for-profit subsidiaries and/or affiliates of nonprofit arts company. With-profit endeavors could use nonprofit funding to accomplish that which the market won’t support, while for-profits would step in to capitalize on those items that have commercial appeal. For example, perhaps nonprofit arts funding could be used to seed the development of 12 new plays, with a commercial art (or separate entity) ready to step in and take the one project with the most promise to market. Of course, this would need to include some remuneration to the nonprofit and would require some clever legal thinking, but it could be applied to any number of art forms.

A with-profit partnership would allow a nonprofit to continue to serve its underlying mission, and maintain its tax status, while providing a vehicle for exploration of profit-making activities. For-profit partners (or divisions) could bring in investments, explore more robust marketing and program development with other for-profit companies and maintain an eye on the “double bottom line” of profits and mission. Such alliances are not uncommon in the health and science sectors and should be considered by arts organizations as well.