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Inside Out


"Surprise is the DNA of theater," says Bartlett Sher. "All you really want to do is find some way to surprise [the audience]. Surprise is the key to comedy; surprise is the key to tragedy, because it goes somewhere you didn't expect and then opens your guts up. That's the basic structural building block."

Surprises are what Sher, artistic director of Intiman Theatre, has been providing Seattle this season. Earlier this year his production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline (which he's about to direct again for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London) featured a kaleidoscopic mix of Japanese costumes, neon lights, and gorgeous cowboy ballads; running now is Craig Lucas' film-industry thriller, The Dying Gaul, which features an abundance of narrative twists and turns. Add to this such surprising fare as the solo show R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE and you have a season full of the unexpected.

The path that led Sher to Intiman is full of its own unpredictable turns: from a small Catholic college, to "fringe" theater in San Diego, to a Masters from Leeds University (his dissertation subject was Polish avant-gardist Tadeusz Kantor), to a resident directorship at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis--working with Garland Wright, one of the leading classical directors in the United States--and on to freelance directing, which led, via a New York production of the Edwardian play Waste, to Sher being asked to apply for the position at Intiman. His ideas and his resumé, studded with a mixture of Shakespeare and contemporary works, proved a good match for Intiman, which began as "Seattle's classical theater" but in recent years has produced the Seattle premieres of Tony Kushner's gay fantasia Angels in America and Paula Vogel's incest comedy How I Learned to Drive.

"I always wanted to run a theater because theater is best in relationship to a community," reflects Sher. "But the truth was that I didn't really know this community. Last year was pretty rocky trying to get to know the community through a season I didn't pick. And the work was in some ways uneven, so it was a bit like a boat tossing on the water. [Laura Penn and I] did a lot of work to reimagine the theater, based on its history and the kind of future we wanted."

The results, so far, have been excellent. Sher's first season at Intiman has been impressively strong, featuring the shows mentioned above and a solid production of Lorainne Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Coming up is Ibsen's tale of romantic obsession The Lady from the Sea, directed by Kate Whoriskey--whose visually flashy production of Ionesco's The Chairs was extremely popular last year--and the classic farce A Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni, to be directed by Sher. "We only do six plays a year, so we're going to polish them like jewels," Sher declares. "I don't want to expand anything, I don't want to have a second stage. I'd rather put all of the focus onto those mainstage shows as the center of what the theater's doing."

Equally as important to the renewed energy of Intiman is Sher's commitment to the local theater community, both in terms of hiring actors and designers ("We can't afford not to--so I'm glad the local community is so great") and viewing Intiman as part of a larger whole. "Any kind of theater scene is like an ecology. If people are having great experiences at Theater Schmeater, Annex, or the Empty Space, they come to rely on theater being an experience they can enjoy," says Sher. "The audience isn't concerned about who the artistic directors are, they're concerned that the work is good."

The presence of Sher, Allison Narver at the Empty Space, and Chay Yew at Northwest Asian American Theatre has the potential to radically change the climate of Seattle theater. The work they're either doing or preparing for in their upcoming seasons reflects a much rougher aesthetic and a more risk-taking mindset than is generally seen in theaters of their assorted sizes and budgets; it's telling that Sher and Narver have both come from fringe theater backgrounds, while Yew, as a playwright, is unsurprisingly interested in new writing and artists. This is not to discount the more adventurous work of the Rep or ACT, but the bulk of their seasons is still made up of work that has the tedious stamp of acceptability. Sher's Cymbeline may have been Shakespeare, but it was anything but culture as usual.

When asked why he does theater--an art form clearly moving more and more to the periphery of American culture--Sher replies, "I find the place I'm best at storytelling is in the imaginative space of the theater. I'm not a very good literal thinker. I wouldn't be good at putting together an action sequence in film or television. I'm too organic, I don't plan enough in advance. Theater is the only place that you can ask certain kinds of questions, and there are relationships you can set up in terms of space and time and content that can only be experienced in the theater, in the public ritual of theater. It's the central vehicle for me to ask all the biggest questions about being human that I know."