For members of such a low-stakes, chicken-feed industry, theater people are bizarrely resistant to speaking on the record about how and why things go wrong. It's easier to get FBI agents to go on the record than arts administrators.
Matthew Richter, the founder of Consolidated Works, finally agreed just last week to go on the record about how and why the organization collapsed—five years after the fact. Allison Narver, who was the longtime artistic director of the much-loved Empty Space Theatre when it collapsed in 2006 (after a successful emergency fundraising campaign), still won't go on the record. Her explanation: "I still consider the closure a major defeat. It is a deeply painful subject for me. I feel that the closure betrayed the trust of the many artists, donors, subscribers, and supporters who had given so much to us over the years. It is not a story that can be summarized quickly or in which blame can be easily assigned."
Trying to get people to publicly explain about how and why Intiman Theatre abruptly canceled its season and laid off its staff in April is nearly impossible. I've spoken with staff, executive staff, much-loved former artistic director Bartlett Sher, much-maligned former managing director Brian Colburn, board members... and while they've mostly been willing to talk at length (the board members were the only terse ones on that list), they're universally shy about allowing their words to be printed.
Even the official narrative of what went wrong at Intiman is hazy.
First, some background information: Intiman Theatre was founded in 1972 as "Seattle's classics theater." Twenty years later, it hired Warner Shook as its artistic director. He put Intiman on the national map by a) directing The Kentucky Cycle, the first play to win a Pultizer without being produced in New York first, and b) by directing the first regional-theater production of Angels in America after it won Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, Intiman hired Bartlett Sher as its artistic director. He became known for his large, majestic productions of both world premieres and classics. Sher directed shows in Seattle, New York, and Europe, and was sometimes criticized for spending too much time away from his theater. But he was Seattle theater's indisputable star during those years. He was nominated for Tony Awards in 2005, 2006, 2008 (the year he won for directing South Pacific), and 2009, which muted the criticism. So did the fact that, in 2006, Intiman won its own Tony Award for best regional theater.
A few years later, Sher announced he was leaving and anointed Kate Whoriskey, a promising young director from New York, as his successor. The board rubber-stamped the decision (which was a little unusual, as boards tend to conduct their own national searches for artistic directors) with the understanding that Sher and Whoriskey would work as co–artistic directors for the 2010 and 2011 season so he could show her the ropes. Around the same time, longtime managing director Laura Penn announced that she was also leaving, and was replaced by Brian Colburn, former managing director of the Pasadena Playhouse.
Sher left and Whoriskey became the sole artistic director in March of 2010. Colburn suddenly resigned the following November for "personal reasons." The theater announced it was having financial trouble. Every week, the news got worse—and it was all Brian Colburn's fault, according to the first official narrative.
In February of this year, board president Kim Anderson gave The Stranger an interview for a story entitled "Can One Man Bring Down an Entire Theater?" According to Anderson, Colburn had completely fucked up. "I don't know what Brian's motives were for not coming to the board and not being truthful about the things that happened," Anderson said. "We had significant cost overruns in a few of our shows and those expenses were not reflected in the statements that the finance committee and the board were given—so we couldn't address them."
But it's the board's job to keep an eye on the money. I asked Anderson when the board first realized there was a problem with either Colburn or the finances.
"I cannot go into any detail about that," she said.
Then the rumors started: that Colburn had had a personal crisis, that the board had had its own breakdown and neglected to keep track of the theater's basic finances, that Whoriskey was incapable of leading the organization, that she was imperious, impolitic, aloof. "Sure, she can direct plays," one former Intiman staffer on the artistic side said, "but she is childish and demanding, and couldn't put together a season." (Whoriskey did not reply to requests for comment by phone or e-mail.) Whisperers around Intiman alleged that the entire place was a clusterfuck—that Sher and Penn had held the place together through star power and pure will, but that as soon as they left, the whole place flew apart.
But, of course, nobody would say anything like that on the record.
Then a new official narrative started drifting out of Intiman, courtesy of arts consultant Susan Trapnell, who had been hired by the board to help it fix its problems. (Trapnell, the former managing director of ACT Theatre, is a minor legend in Seattle for saving ACT when it nearly fell apart in 2003. I briefly worked as a ticket seller and bartender at ACT during that time, before getting a job at The Stranger.) Whereas the board initially blamed Brian Colburn—and people privately and not-so-privately wondered how one guy could wreck an entire theater in such a short time—Trapnell blamed everybody.
"There is a long history of spending too much money here, and we have to change that," she said in April, while announcing that Intiman was going to cancel the rest of its season (after only one show, All My Sons), lay off its staff, and go on indefinite hiatus. She didn't name Sher or Penn, but said that the "long history of spending too much money" was at least seven years old—back when Sher and Penn were running the show. The failure at Intiman, she (and a few board members) said, was systemic, and had been for several years at both the board level and the staff level. "Such comments," wrote the New York Times in a May article, "angered Mr. Sher."
"The theater does good work," Trapnell told me. "This isn't a problem with bad work. But they clearly sacrificed sustainability for excellence. These things always happen with the best of intentions."
"The best of intentions" is a phrase that's come up over and over again. In talking to people at Intiman, Empty Space Theatre (which abruptly closed in 2006), Consolidated Works (which abruptly closed that same year), Giant Magnet (which abruptly closed this year), and On the Boards (thankfully, still open and thriving) about how and why theaters fail, they like to say it's "always with the best of intentions."
That makes some sense: Nobody goes to work for a theater for the money. Staff are underpaid. Boards volunteer their time. You'd think the shared love and expertise would help the staff and the board work together—but the staff/board dynamic in American theaters is legendarily thorny. Both ConWorks and Giant Magnet folded shortly after their boards suddenly fired longtime and much-loved artistic directors (Matthew Richter and Andrea Wagner, respectively). Allison Narver, who ran Empty Space Theatre for several years, is still seething with anger at the board's decision to close the theater over a (relatively minor) cash-flow crisis in 2006.
"I am so fucking sick of Arts Boards that don't know what the hell they're doing," she wrote in the comments to a Slog post about the death of Giant Magnet. "Firing Andrea was criminal. What a stupid, ignorant, short-sighted move. And now they're closed. What a waste. What a loss for Seattle... I'm sick of seeing worthy arts organizations (ConWorks, the Empty Space Theatre, Giant Magnet, to name a few) close because of weak, scared, arrogant and/or inexperienced Boards."
Though people publicly greeted her rage with hallelujahs (both on blogs and at a benefit for Intiman employees where she spoke on a panel), Narver later softened her statement, writing in an e-mail (in which she declined to allow me to interview her for this story): "The Empty Space Board for most of my tenure were nothing short of heroic. People gave generously of their time, knowledge, and resources."
So why does this keep happening? Why do theater boards and theater staffs chop organization after organization into firewood by getting along so miserably? And why doesn't anybody do anything about it? And why, for that matter, doesn't anybody even want to talk about it?
Here's one answer: Unless you're looking at a theater in the middle of a major flameout, the subject is kind of boring.
Richard Linzer is a consultant who has worked with dozens of nonprofits across the country: On the Boards, City University of New York, Empty Space Theatre, Folklife, Stanford University, etc. He and I talked for a few hours about nonprofit theater, but we only got really animated when comparing notes on shows we'd both seen. "See there?" he said. "See how excited we just got when talking about performances? In the nonprofit sector, we tend not to want to be cold and rational. We don't want to look at the cost of raising a dollar or borrowing a dollar or getting involved with appreciation and amortization. It's the red meat that we love—the dancers and singers. For the audience, that's why we go. But for the board, it's a different thing."
Too many boards, he says, don't even know what their job is. One board member from the Seattle Symphony recently told me that her/his job is to "raise money and shut up."
"See, no, no," Linzer said. "The job of a board is to solve complex problems that can't be solved by just one or two people." Sometimes those problems are about money, he said, but they're often about (or should be about) other functional matters as well. "In theaters, there's a persistent pattern of boards abdicating two sorts of information. One, artistic information, which they appropriately abdicate to artistic directors. On the other hand, we find many people who love theater and the idea of theater and they abdicate financial matters to one or two board members they've dubbed as financial experts. They look to that expert, who takes off his reading glasses and says, 'Everything's fine,' and everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief and their eyes dilate and they get on to the next matter of business."
So one consistent problem is boards that don't do enough until it's too late—the Intiman Problem.
The other problem is boards that do too much—the ConWorks/Giant Magnet Prob-lem. In both of those cases, relatively new board members led campaigns against longtime artistic directors with serious institutional memory and credibility in the community and eventually got those artistic directors fired. Then both organizations, which depended far more on their artistic leaders than the boards ever recognized, collapsed.
Lane Czaplinski, artistic director of On the Boards—which is widely admired for the healthy dynamic of its board, though it's had its share of rocky moments with past artistic staff—says organizations can avoid this problem by having serious orientations for new board members and mentorship programs, where a new board member is paired with a more experienced member.
"I don't want to use a bad hazing analogy," Czaplinski said, "but orientation is about making people feel like they're wanted, but they also understand their place in the organization. If you don't orient new board members or get them on the same page—well, it's why fascism surfaced, right? People got lackadaisical and they weren't paying attention and some strong personalities arrived who weren't held accountable and things can go south really quickly. A newbie can come in and make a lot of assumptions about 'You don't know this' or 'You haven't thought about this.' That person comes in with the best of intentions and says, 'We need to clean out the staff, rename the organization, and change the whole mission!'"
And that's when things get really fucked up.
In Andrea Wagner's case at Giant Magnet (formerly known as Seattle International Children's Festival), she was told that she was being fired in part because the board feared that her relationship with longtime collaborator Brian Faker was too volatile, according to both Wagner and Faker. They thought that if they didn't fire her, Faker would quit. Faker calls this a "tragic, tragic misreading" of their working relationship, which—like many working relationships in underfunded and creative organizations—was both volatile and loving. ("That'd be like some stranger coming to a Stranger editorial meeting, seeing you have a fight with your editor, and then assuming that the editor needed to be fired," said Richter, "which is crazy.") The board that fired Wagner never once asked Faker whether their assumption was correct. "Andrea and I are like brother and sister," Faker said. "We have always had a volatile, but loving, relationship."
The board (allegedly, according to yet another anonymous source) told a remaining staff member that they had fired Wagner as a "surgical strike."
"You know," the staffer fired back, "your analogy of a surgical strike is more apt than you know. You gathered faulty intelligence and twisted it to your own needs to invade an organization whose customs and people you don't know the first thing about; you expected to be greeted as heroes, and, as usual, the ones who will suffer for it are the children."
Here's another example of the cluelessness of the Giant Magnet board: A few representatives took Wagner out of the building "for coffee" and abruptly asked for her resignation. Wagner was stunned, but remained calm. "Well, you know payroll is today," she remembers telling them. "What are you going to do about that?"
"Oh, right, right," she remembers the board members saying. "Um, would you come back to the office and sign the checks?"
"And it's the end of the quarter," Wagner added. "Do you have a plan for the taxes?"
"Uh, no," she remembers them admitting. "Could you also come and take care of that?"
Wagner agreed to sign the payroll checks—"In 30 years as an arts administrator, I've never missed a payroll," she said defiantly—but passed on doing the taxes.
As for Richter, he says he was fired suddenly after the board of Consolidated Works got worried about a former employee who had quit. Said employee would flip out from time to time (about people moving chairs without his permission, who mopped what when, garbage bags, etc.), and he and Richter had a generally stormy relationship. After one of those flip-outs, Richter decided not to talk the disgruntled employee out of quitting. And that was the beginning of the end. Guy quits, board convenes, Richter's fired, and after lurching along for a little while longer, organization dies.
That's no way to run a major cultural institution, is it?
The board/staff relationship is fundamentally flawed. Boards do too much or too little. They either don't raise enough money to keep an organization going or complain that they don't feel enough sense of participation. Sometimes the board members don't even attend the performances of the organizations they're ostensibly there to oversee and support. (That was a problem at ConWorks and Giant Magnet.)
Sometimes board members try to apply the lessons they've learned in the business world to their arts organization, typically with disastrous results. "The board is there to support us in doing things that don't make sense in the business world," Czaplinski said. "Putting weird art onstage is not going to make you a lot of money, but boards are there to help you do it anyway, because we enjoy it and we value it. And if we have a show with naked people onstage and the public gets riled up about it, it's an opportunity for the board to do some arts advocacy."
"Nonprofits are creatures of market failure, by definition," Linzer concurred. "They're nonprofits. But some board members try to transfer their experience in the corporate boardroom to the nonprofit boardroom, and it's like they went to the wrong boot camp." It's presumed on too many boards that if you're wealthy, you must be smart, and if you're smart, you can tell a theater how it should be more like T-Mobile.
And that just doesn't make any fucking sense.
So what's the way forward? How do we avoid another preventable failure like Intiman, Giant Magnet, ConWorks, or Empty Space? While working on this story, I heard "there's no answer" about as often as I heard "best of intentions." Some say the nonprofit model is broken, some say the model is fine but boards just need better education, and some say regional theater is in a long decline and this board/staff problem is merely a symptom of a structural problem. The regional theater movement is less than a century old and might prove to be a failure, especially since corporate and government funding for the arts—the revenue that the regional- theater movement is predicated on—is gone for the foreseeable future.
But we can't even begin to answer those questions or solve those problems until we admit that we have a problem—and begin talking about it.
And we can only begin talking about the problem when people find the courage of their convictions and go on the record.
This article has been updated since its original publication.