Theater boasts high tix sales, opens doors to opera

SEATTLE — Bartlett Sher’s stock has been rising steadily since he took over artistic leadership of Seattle’s Intiman Theater. In five years, he’s boosted single-ticket sales, presided over successful New York transfers and crossed over to the world of opera.

But Sher’s market value hit an all-time high June 5 when his production of “The Light in the Piazza” bagged six Tonys — the most for any show this season, and an especially impressive haul for a director making his Broadway debut on a chamber musical with lofty artistic ambitions.

Lincoln Center announced an extension of “Piazza” to Jan. 1 and a tour of the musical also may be forthcoming. Other promising projects are in the works as well: On June 15, Sher debuted Craig Lucas’ new translation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” before a passel of his peers — regional theater pros in Seattle for Theater Communications Group’s biennial conference.

“It’s crazy,” Sher admits. But he’s embracing the excitement, and hoping it will pay off in big dividends for Intiman.

Sher explains: “The way we shepherded ‘Piazza’ from Intiman to the Goodman to Lincoln Center is a kind of path which (we’ve now shown to be) cost-effective and artistically effective. Hopefully that will attract people to us that are interested in a similar path.”

Among future projects Sher envisions are plays adapted from unusual literary sources — “as we did with (Barbara Ehrenreich’s nonfiction book) ‘Nickel and Dimed,’ ” he says.

But whatever’s in store for Intiman, you can bet playwright/associate artistic director Lucas will be a part of it.

“Craig is one of my dearest friends and one of the best writers in America,” Sher says. “We did ‘Singing Forest’ here and at Long Wharf, and are hoping to do it at the Public, not this season but the following one. And we’ll work on a small musical at Juilliard this fall, with Michael Torke,” composer of musical “House of Mirth” and ballet “Italian Straw Hat.”

Also this fall, Intiman will continue its ambitious five-year American Cycle with Frank Galati’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The first installment — last season’s “Our Town,” starring Tom Skerritt — turned out to be the second-best selling show in Intiman’s 33-year history (after “Angels in America”). Even better, nearly 70% of the show’s single-ticket buyers were Intiman first-timers.

But as in Grover’s Corners, life at Intiman is not always as carefree as it appears. The theater has dug itself $800,000 in the hole over the past five years (though it’s currently operating in the black). And the fight for patrons and donors is about to get fiercer. Seattle Repertory Theater’s recent hiring of David Esbjornson as artistic director introduces a new level of “sportsmanlike competition” to the local theater scene, Sher says.

Esbjornson “has got a lot of world premieres coming in, and interesting artists showing up (including Ariel Dorfman and Ping Chong). We’re right next door, and it would be weird to pretend we aren’t working to kind of influence each other,” Sher notes. “But the more the merrier. A thriving, attractive theater community is what we want.”

As for the burden of fund-raising, Sher insists it’s not a chore for him. “I like talking to people about why theater is important,” says the affable 46-year-old. “I like asking people to support the arts with their cold, hard cash. These are usually very interesting people who are not in the theater who are good at what they do.”

Still, Seattle theatergoers, and Intiman’s board members, are not naive. The city has lost successful artistic directors before to the bright lights of Gotham. Daniel Sullivan left Seattle Rep in 1997 for a successful freelance career, after helping the theater win the regional Tony and transferring a number of shows to Broadway.

For the moment, though, Sher — who lives in Seattle with his wife and child — doesn’t sound like a man looking to cash out. “All of my heroes in the theater had homes,” he says. “Garland Wright, Bob Woodruff, Giorgio Strehler … I like having a community, and I’ve already freelanced plenty. Having a home where you can investigate projects that are not necessarily commercial in relation to larger works is critical to keeping an artist in balance.”

Does Sher protest too much? Just read on the dotted line: This past April, he renewed his contract at Intiman for another three years.

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