Intiman artistic director Jennier Zeyl (right) could be the only person standing at Intiman if the board gets its way.
Intiman artistic director Jennier Zeyl (right) could be the only person standing at Intiman if the board gets its way. Kelly O

The Seattle Times reports that Intiman had a pretty intense meeting about its future Wednesday night.

Here's the short version:

Senior members of Intiman's board are in crisis mode. They're saying the theater is out of cash and needs to drastically reduce staff by the end of the month or else close soon in order to gracefully exit the scene. The staff is saying the theater is not in crisis mode. In fact, they've got a plan that would solve the immediate financial need and start the new year with a surplus. They just need the board to approve that plan. But the board isn't buying the plan and won't budge. Now nobody knows what will happen to the embattled, nearly 50-year-old institution, which this year finally dug itself out from under $2.7 million in debt and earned an arts award from the Mayor.

After looking into the details and making a few calls, it seems like Intiman is being overly cautious, to say the least.

Intiman's board has delivered a budget showing the theater $7,475 in the red starting October 1, with $45,000 in a reserve fund. The original reserve was $350,000, staff has been bad about refilling it, and revenue is down this year. Plus the board claims the nonprofit's bylaws prevent it from taking on any debt. All of that makes the board "very concerned with our financial situation, as we have been for some time," according to Barbara Lewis, who has served on Intiman's board for five years.

They propose cutting all staff except for artistic director Jennifer Zeyl in order to stay afloat through the end of the year, and then enter a "reshuffling" phase to prolong some other staff longer. "Our intention is not to crash and burn," Lewis said.

In the company's emaciated state, Lewis said the board would continue looking for "solutions, partnerships, and changes in plans" that might enable the theater to "go forward" in some capacity. Lewis said she'd be "open" to selling, if anyone was interested.

Zeyl didn't immediately respond to a call. I'll update if I hear back.

Update: Over the phone Friday morning, Zeyl said she was "categorically uninterested" in the board's plan, which would have her "banging around like a ghost in the offices." She stressed that the board drew up and voted on this plan without her knowledge.

"If you cut the fundraising staff, the administrative staff, and the education staff, then I don’t know what the fuck we’re fighting for," Zeyl said. "We’re fighting for an institution, not the employment security of one human being who isn’t qualified to do the job of seven."

Zeyl backs a plan the staff collectively put together, which would set up the theater with a $150,000 surplus to start next year, some of which they'd use to refill their reserves.

Wesley Frugé, development and communications director for Intiman, believes the board is only in crisis mode because they don't have much experience in the nonprofit world. According to the Times, Lewis's five years give her the most experience on the board.

"Intiman has been in places recently and over the past years where they have had to raise vast sums of money very quickly," Frugé said. "It’s not an unusual place for a nonprofit of our size to be in, but it’s not an ideal place.”

Frugé thinks the board should use the reserve money to handle the theater's immediate financial needs, and then approve the staff's plan.

How is he going to raise the money he says he'll raise? Frugé points to the $70,000 the company raised at last year's November gala, a number he's confident the team can raise again at this year's November gala—if the board allows them all to make it to November. He also claims to have a $35,000 pledge that "could come in today" if only the board would approve the plan. Frugé notes that the board has fundraising responsibilities, too, and that they could pick up the phone if they wanted.

Moreover, in general, a theater company raising $54,000—the minimum Frugé says Intiman needs to stay alive through the year—in its last quarter is certainly not unheard of.

Nevertheless, Lewis remains skeptical. "Perhaps they can raise that money," she said. "We’re working to try to see that projections match reality. They haven’t for most of this year in terms of revenue, and that’s why we’re in the fix we’re in now."

"We have never been so close to running out before," Lewis added.

"The [fundraising] numbers that we've put forth to the community have not shocked anyone," Frugé said. "It's been frustrating to be the one talking to the community and then sharing that with the board and seeing they’re just not getting it."

In answer to the board's concern about declining revenues, Frugé said the new plan "has our budget cut in half, and it is already over 20% pre-funded." Judging by Intiman's proposed 2020 calendar, this plan keeps staff (with the exception of the front of house manager) but cuts solo productions of shows. Intiman will expand its Starfish Project, which teaches tech theater to high school students in the south-end, hold a series of "public convenings" to help plan Intiman's future alongside the public (and increase the number of board members, presumably), plus put on two big-time productions in partnership with another company. They're also working on new ways to bring in revenue, according to Frugé, such as offering corporate training programs and other non-theatrical services.

Frugé thinks Intiman's particular qualities—it's debt-free, it has good name recognition and good people, and it's not tied to a building—put the company in a good spot to take the year and explore structures beyond the regional theater model, which he thinks will set the company up for success in the coming years. And it doesn't seem wild to bet on a company that paid down $1.8 million of its debt over the course of 7 years by basically doing what it's doing now—slimming down on productions and getting creative about bringing in new audiences.

Lewis maintains her skepticism. "I don’t see how the structure brings in the money long-term," she said.

Frugé argues the new plan gives the company an opportunity to re-imagine their future. "Let’s take it, and let’s take it alongside the community to dream together to see what's next," he said. "If they don’t want to do that, that’s okay. But then let us do it with the people who do want to."