Intiman Theatre sheds debt as it focuses on social justice

The Intiman Theatre has focused on productions with social justice themes in the past few seasons, including “Native Gardens” in the 2018 season. (Photo by Naomi Ishisaka.)

The Intiman Theatre, which announced last week that it has emerged from the debt that nearly crushed the company, continues its focus on social justice in its upcoming season.

The season is titled “WILD WICKED WOKE,” and its three shows center on inequity and injustice.

The season begins with “Caught” by Christopher Chen, which touches on social justice and cultural appropriation, telling the story of a Chinese dissident artist imprisoned in a Chinese detention center. “The Events” by David Greig follows the lone survivor in the wake of a mass shooting, on her path to overcoming her trauma. “Bulrusher” by Eisa Davis is about a clairvoyant multiracial girl in predominantly white town discovering her personal identity.

Since it was founded in 1972, The Intiman Theatre has put on over 230 productions. The theater, which decades ago established a national reputation, is no stranger to productions that focus on political themes — it was one of the first regional theaters to produce “Angels in America” in 1994.

But in the past few years, the theater’s focus has been specifically on issues of social justice and inequities within our community, both nationally and locally.

The Intiman also recently adopted a new mission statement, specifically stating that “Intiman Theatre wrestles with American inequities.”

The theater has also worked to combat inequity through its educational program. The Intiman Emerging Artists Program (IEAP) provides diverse artists with professional training at no cost.

Sara Porkalob, an Intiman Trustee and artist, is leading that training.

“In our Western ideology, we assume that if we extend education opportunities to individuals then it is an automatic cure for social injustice,” Porkalob said. “But if the people in control of those educational institutions and curriculum uphold systems of oppression influenced by a history of white supremacy, those educational tools are useless.”

Porkalob said in the development of educational curriculum, the theater wanted to do more than simply highlight artists of color, but rather create opportunities to create artist-activists, she said.

The Intiman Theatre also began the Starfish Project in 2017 to implement after-school, technical theater training in Seattle Public Schools. The program is free, and centered around professional mentorship and a social justice approach. It is funded through the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, the Satterberg Foundation and Intiman’s donors.

The primary reason of pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion work is not limited to just representing groups that are traditionally not shown on stages and screens, said Leticia Lopez, a former Intiman board and staff member. All of us benefit from the increase in diverse voices and stories in that it shapes how we relate to other people.

The survival of these programs is aided by Intiman’s retirement of $1.8 million in debt, and the forgiveness of $900,000 in debt, which is announced last week. The theater’s financial situation in 2011 almost forced its closure. The prestigious theater’s fiscal woes were covered by The New York Times.

The organization’s debt was retired through a combination of fundraising and scrutinizing its costs, said Phillip Chavira, the Intiman’s executive director.

“We took financial responsibility,” Chavira said. “The board took time to examine where money was coming from and how it was being spent. They literally took ownership of the checkbook.”

As of today, Intiman doesn’t owe money to anyone, Chavira said. Increased fundraising from donors like the Gates Foundation allowed for Intiman to continue producing shows and holding education programs. Redefining the mission around an understanding of American inequity has been central to the broader organizational reform.

“Over the decades of partnership with Intiman, it shows what our community can do, but more importantly what are community can be,” said Robert Nellams, the Seattle Center Director. “The re-emergence of Intiman is like a re-emergence of our community.”

Jennifer Zeyl and Phillip Chavira announce the retirement and forgiveness of all Intiman Theatre debts.(Photo by Ryan Phelan.)