Last Saturday, the board of Intiman Theatre voted unanimously to shut down the organization just one show into its 2011 season. The theater, one of Seattle's three largest, with an annual operating budget of $4.2 million, intends to open again in 2012, but it's not making any promises. "Everything is a question mark right now—everything," said Susan Trapnell, who was hired by Intiman as a consultant to help the theater negotiate its crippling financial and leadership problems, and who recommended that the board vote to cease operations. Intiman needed $3 million just to "meet zero" for this fiscal year, Trapnell said, and the theater's endowment has been spent down. After the vote, Intiman's 36 full-time employees learned that after two weeks, their jobs would be indefinitely suspended.
The theater has been living far beyond its means, Trapnell said. Responsibility stretches back to "an accumulation of poor judgments" made over the past seven years at all levels in the organization. The problems came to wide public notice in November, when managing director Brian Colburn abruptly resigned, and the theater announced that a lack of oversight and financial responsibility—on both the managerial and board level—had sent it into a tailspin. The theater had grown in prominence under the artistic leadership of Bartlett Sher and won a Tony Award in 2006; the current artistic director is Kate Whoriskey.
Until this point, Intiman's staff and board largely blamed the mess on former managing director Colburn, but Trapnell disagrees. "No one can point a finger," she said, "and no one is exonerated. People want a simple answer to this problem. It would be great if someone just stole the money, and we could follow that. But this is not a simple situation."
Rumors have been circulating that Intiman was offered a large bailout grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and that Trapnell advised the board to turn it down because (a) the grant wasn't enough to save the theater and (b) the board would lose long-term credibility with donors if it accepted a massive gift and still had to shutter its doors.
Trapnell would not comment on the rumor specifically, but said Intiman "could've had a whopping gift and still not made it to the end of the year. My recommendation was that we stop, cancel the rest of the season, and not incur any further obligations."
Trapnell, who has been working in the nonprofit arts world for over three decades and is credited with saving ACT Theatre when it faced a similar crisis in 2003, says she could sense the panic at Intiman as soon as she walked in the door. "The desperate efforts that people were going to to make it work!" she said. "The staff had been cut down to four days a week, but none of the expectations of their jobs had changed—sure, that looks good on paper to save money here or save money there, but you can't do that to people! You'll kill them!"
If you've read this far and still don't understand how this theater fell apart, we're in the same position. We're trying to figure it out.