The Legitimacy Paradox, or: What to do about Intiman

02.17.11 | 11 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, funding and support, major regional theatre, non-profit theatre, supply / demand

Up here in the Northwest, the crisis du jour has been all about Intiman Theatre’s recent public cry for help… they need about $1 mil by summertime or they are going to need to close their doors.

Suddenly, Rocco Landesman’s provocative statements about the American theater being oversupplied had a poster child/test case. Was Intiman, in fact, one of the companies that should be allowed to fail in order to re-allocate their artistic and audience assets to other, suddenly better-resourced arts organizations? What was lost if Intiman were to fail? And what, exactly were the replacement costs?

Provocative questions. Particularly considering that there’s nothing hypothetical about it. Real, living, breathing artists and administrators would lose their livelihoods. A real living, breathing audience would lose its artistic home. But in theory the audience would relocate; the donors would give the same amount, just to another organization; and funders would be able to allocate their resources in larger (or at least different) chunks to other Seattle area organizations. The best of the administrators would land on their feet at other organizations that could use their skills. Some might decide to pursue other lines of work.

Plus, there is a strong economic argument to be made that the dot com boom of the nineties encouraged a non-profit bubble in Seattle… all that new Microsoft money looking for tax shelters and a place to do something meaningful with their wealth pushed all sorts of nascent arts organizations from hungry to huge, practically overnight. Back then there was a sense that there was just money, you know, lying around.

A lot of that money evaporated when the boom went bust. The young rich microsofties who remained started having kids, changing hometowns and generally using their wealth in different ways and in different geographic regions. When bubbles burst in any market there are casualties. Perhaps Intiman was just a decade late in feeling the effects of that *pop*.

Then there’s the issue of reputation. As someone who lives in the NW but not in Seattle, my knowledge of Intiman as a theater company is as much a function of the industry rumour mill as it is their official communications (or even the analysis of the official press). And through that rumour mill, I must admit, I had gotten the impression that Intiman has been helmed, for some time, by Artistic Directors of high quality who were, perhaps, a little cavalier in their relationship with their own Seattle-based audience. The story went that their eyes were on tonier climes, and Intiman was simply a wet mossy stepping stone on the march to Broadway, or at least Steppenwolf. I have no idea how accurate this last assessment is, and I feel absolutely un-qualified to assess its accuracy myself. But the fact remains that this has been said about Intiman. Many times. By many people. Of varying levels of credibility . In marketing terms, what many people “know” about your company is part of your brand, whether it is actually accurate or not. And this notion, that Intiman has not connected with Seattle well because of too much focus on the national scene, has been bandied as a key reason for its current troubles and a chief justification for allowing it to fail.

The argument from some Seattle artists circles has been, “They don’t care about us. Why should we care about them?”

So should they be allowed to fail? What (if anything) is ultimately lost if they do? Perhaps a Seattle without Intiman would have the space to organically grow a better arts institution that was more responsive to its own audience?

In search of my answer to that question, I find myself stepping away from the facts and figures of institutional economics and instead recalling a conversation I had with David Loehr on #2amt a year or so ago. We were discussing the barriers that new plays have to overcome in order to be read, produced, and ultimately shared with the world. Set aside quality, for a moment, which every play needs. Let’s assume we have two plays of equal quality. What factors determine whether a play gets produced and has a life in the American Theater?

These three came to the top in our reckoning:

1. Visibility (people had to have heard of it)
2. Recommendation (it needed to be recommended by someone of trusted reputation)
3. Relationship (a personal relationship the playwright has with the institution)

All three fell under the umbrella idea of “legitimacy.” A new theatrical work must be in some way legitimized if it has a chance to make it to first production and beyond. It’s an absolutely critical resource, and the trajectory of any new work can be measured by the legitimizing influences that speed it along its path. Have I heard of it? Do I know someone who recommends it? Do I know the creator him or herself? What other orgs have done the piece? Are they of the same quality as us?

Perhaps you can see where I am going with this.

Intiman, the Tony -Award winning regional theater with artistic directors who went on to direct on Broadway and a stellar reputation for stewarding plays and productions that have gone on to national prominence, is a hugely legitimizing force in the Northwest theatrical scene. It has arguably been a legitimizing force for the national scene, when you look at the plays (like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined) that have started there and gone on to national prominence. The relationships its artistic directors have cultivated, and the brand it has built for successful new work development are a critical resource for both the regional and national arts ecology.

And the tricky part about legitimacy as a resource is that it is not tranferrable like other organizational assets. Once a company is dissolved, the value of its advocacy on behalf of the art it champions can’t be passed down to new, smaller organizations (although any individual organization might ultimately claw its way up to the level of legitimizing influence that Intiman enjoyed). That lost legitimacy could take decades to recoup. In the mean time, both regional and national artists lose the visibility, resources, and access to national relationships that the Intiman has historically provided.

Plus, the failure of one legitimizer has unintended consequences for the whole field.  Intiman’s reputation helped burnish the reputation of the entire arts community in Seattle. It helped make the Pacific Northwest a more viable place to make a living in the arts. And its loss would potentially shake the confidence of the entire Seattle arts community; and the artists, funders and audiences it serves.

Let me tell you from personal experience what happens when an organization like Intiman reaches the brink of failure: the press and the public go digging under the floorboards of every other arts non-profit in the area, looking for bodies. If a Tony Award winning theater can fail, the thinking goes, then perhaps all of our arts organizations are more vulnerable than we imagined.

So quibble all you want over the hows and whys of the Intiman’s current precarious situation. But when you ask whether or not an organization like Intiman should be saved, be sure you are looking at the whole costs.

Ironically, the complaint that makes some resistant to assisting the Intiman in its time of need (that it has been more focused on national relationships and reputations than on cultivating its relationship with its own community) is paradoxically the exact reason it should ultimately be saved. Those national connections, that stellar reputation, are priceless intangible resources that Seattle can ill afford to lose.

Could those resources be put to better use in service of the community it calls home? Absolutely.

But you have to conserve those resources to be able to re-direct them effectively.

Don’t worry though: Any company that goes through a “dark night of the soul” like the Intiman is currently experiencing (and lives to tell the tale) steps into the future keenly aware of the deep debt it owes to audiences and community that helped to save it.

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  • I know this isn’t the point of your article, but whoever was on the Finance Committee (assuming they had one) should be tossed off the Board.

  • Pete Miller

    The intangible thing you talk about disappearing if the Intiman goes away is what business people mean when we talk about “good will.” It can account for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of a billion dollar corporation, and as you say it is difficult to impossible to transfer to a new entity. Great post.

    • Trisha Mead

      Thanks Pete!

      And Aaron, I agree.

  • Anonymous

    Here is what I am wondering. Couldn’t Initman’s brand be preserved while the organization is dissolved and rebuilt? A sort of re-opening. Let the old model fail and use that failure to seed the ground for an organization that can, as Paul Mullins calls for, make Seattle a world class theatre city as a lab for new, better business models in making theatre. Couldn’t the brand and resources of the Initman be put in the hands of the local artistic community to be run as a space that co-produces the work of local smaller companies? Couldn’t the space be reconfigured to follow Travis Bedard’s #neverbedark principles….providing a home for the local arts-lovers to gather together with the local artists. Couldn’t the failure of the Initman be used to create a real, genuine community hub that creates and legitimizes the brilliant work coming from its local community?
    I’m not saying it would be easy. Funders would have to be convinced. The institution would need to be gutted and rebuilt. But if the community came together, put aside all egos and worked to birth a beacon of hope for the arts in this country, we could all benefit. Perhaps the new organization that comes out of the failure of the old Initman could be a real home for cultural R&D, not only artistically but also exploring new horizons cultural entrepreneurship and strengthening the future of the arts in the US.
    Or perhaps I’m dreaming. But if I’m not, count me in to do whatever it takes to make this a reality.

    • First, you know that I love everything you said. (And I know you know that.) And I do think a certain amount of that is possible, maybe even most of it.

      But it wouldn’t be the same brand. It might have the same images & logos, it might look similar in the end, but if you gut the institution and hand it over to a different group, it will be different. It would need to establish its own legitimacy–and it very well might–but it wouldn’t have the continuity of the previous iteration of the brand.

      Think about Banana Republic. Once upon a time, it was a fun store with wonderful clothing & products, cleverly written & entertaining catalogs, and a firm grasp on its brand. Then the Gap bought it. At first, they refined it into Safari Gap. Then they evolved it further to be their high-end clothing line. It bears no relation to the original store and concept. The name doesn’t mean anything now, it doesn’t connect to the products or the ethos & aesthetic.

      A better example might be the burgeoning trade in defunct product lines. Products that ceased to exist years, even decades, ago are coming back to life with new manufacturers buying up the rights to the name. Their theory is that people will recognize the name, even if only in passing. One recent phoenix is Eagle Snacks, which Anheiser Busch started in the mid-80’s (as I recall) and folded a few years later. Another company has bought the name, which originally had meaning because A-B’s logo is an eagle. The product line is different, the name has no connection to the owners, it has nothing in common with the original Eagle Snacks. Of course, a danger in leveraging a brand like that is the baggage that comes along with it. A failed line of snack foods is a failed line of snack foods.

      Or consider Joe Boxer, hipper than thou clothing for men. Until it became K-Mart’s house brand. Looks the same, has the logo, has something of the sense of humor, but it couldn’t maintain the aura around the brand. When the brand becomes too disassociated with its origins, it loses something. (The same could be said for a theatre–or any organization–and its mission, but that’s another conversation.)

      Of course, the other problem–at least in terms of Seattle–is that what you’re describing is what ACT is already doing there. (As I type this, I note from my “there’s a new comment” email that Trisha has AGAIN read my mind. And she’s also reading my mind about the thought of a clearinghouse for models like 360 & other easily replicated & produced programs…we need to have a chat soon, Ms. M…)

  • Trisha Mead

    Mr. E Punk,

    Can I call you Mr. ePUnk? Cause I’ve been wanting to for a while now…

    I think the model you propose is intriguing, and needs a little disentangling.

    The short answer is that, yes, there’s an option to retain the Intiman name and radically transform its business model (once they are unburied from their mountain of debt). Yes I think that business model could potentially be framed to better serve Seattle artists while maintaining the strong relationships the organization has nationally.

    But the specific model you describe (sheltering/presenting other arts orgs, #neverbedark, etc.) is already being employed to great good effect by ACT in Seattle. They did precisely as you describe when they underwent their own existential crisis a few years back, and now they have cool membership programs that allow people to see everything in their building (not just the work they themselves produce) for cheap. They are becoming (so I hear) a community hub.

    So the question would be, since we are discussing brand in particular, would it make sense for Intiman to create those things when another theater company has already staked a claim on those models in the Seattle market?

    The marketer in me says no. Intiman will need to find its own model that conserves what was truly positive about its reputation while developing a more personal relationship with its audience. And I suspect it will have a curatorial approach, like Steppenwolf’s First Look program or such like.

    But it does make me feel that we need to create a clearinghouse for theater business models… someplace where we can document and share programs other companies are doing that could be applicable in other markets. Obviously, #360storytelling is one such cloneable program. What are others?

  • Patrick Lennon

    “It has arguably been a legitimizing force for the national scene, when you look at the plays (like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined) that have started there and gone on to national prominence.”

    Ruined did not start at Intiman, it was imported from NY and used most of the original NYC cast. Aside from Light in the Piazza, I’d love for you to name a single play that actually started at Intiman and went on to national (aka New York City) prominence. “the brand it has built for successful new work development ” simply doesn’t exist.

    While I get where you are coming from, and appreciate your argument, I’d have to say that it isn’t relevant here. What Seattle needs is an organization with a theatrical identity, a commitment to local artists, and leaders that enjoy being a part of our community. At the moment, Intiman has none of those. And if they aren’t willing to change, then there are plenty of companies in Seattle in a position to take over the Playhouse and begin the process of growing into a regional theatre.

  • Trisha, I ran into another interesting “legitimacy” argument recently, employed by Tony Woodcock (president of the New England Conservatory) to talk about the Detroit Symphony strike. I tried to do a little mash-up here: http://bit.ly/eaVqqU

  • Trisha Mead


    I will be the first to admit that, not living in Seattle, I am speaking from a combination of research and hearsay, not direct experience. As Barry so rightly points out in his post on Arts Dispatch, legitimacy is a two way street. Before Intiman can do the work of legitimizing Seattle on the national arts scene, it must first be legitimized as a valid representative by its own community.

    What I am hearing from many of my Seattle area colleagues is that the latter may trump the former in the conversation about Intiman.

    The question I would have would be similar to Max’s- namely, if Intiman were able to conserve its national outreach and contacts but rebuild a more community responsive internal organization, would it be worth saving, in your opinion? Or do the wounds go too deep?

  • Trisha Mead


    You sent me scurrying to figure out where I had gotten the impression that Intiman had, in fact, premiered “Ruined,” and I found it.

    This, from the LA Times article on the crisis, “Whoriskey’s credits include helping playwright Lynn Nottage research her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, ‘Ruined,’ in Uganda, then directing its premiere.”

  • Patrick Lennon

    “Before Intiman can do the work of legitimizing Seattle on the national arts scene” … these are the types of comments that drive me up the wall, frankly. I don’t care what the national arts scene thinks of us. If we have a thriving theatre community, it doesn’t matter to me whether New York recognizes that or not. So conserving Intiman’s “national outreach and contacts” (aka Bart Sher’s Tony awards) isn’t a goal that is even on my radar.

    This is a difficult discussion for me, because I have friends that work at Intiman, and the last thing I want is for them to lose their jobs. But, in my opinion, Intiman hasn’t been artistically interesting for a while. I’m not interested in throwing a million dollars into a black hole (literally – this money will do nothing new or interesting, it will merely keep Intiman on life support), when there are a plethora of local companies that could take a fraction of that money and actually use it to grow and take risks.

    It might be different if they were running this emergency campaign differently. But a) scapegoating Brian Colburn, b) pretending that they haven’t been sinking deeper and deeper into debt for a decade, and c) refusing to offer any sort of systemic change, is a slap in the face to the Seattle theatre community. I have no desire to enable them further.

    Death and change are part of the life cycle of any community. If this community *needs* Intiman, then Intiman will live. But if we don’t, then we need something else, and the money and energy behind Intiman should go towards those endeavors, whatever they may be.

    Side note: Kate Whoriskey did in fact direct the premiere of Ruined, far away from Seattle and long before last summer. Ruined was a brilliant play, but Intiman’s role was essentially nothing more than that of a presenting house, which any company in town could have done. Would Ruined eventually have been produced here, regardless of whether Kate Whoriskey was leading Intiman? Yes.