Seattle’s sher thing

Intiman Theater a.d. shakes up Shakespeare

“Setting Shakespeare in three weeks is crazy,” says an exasperated Bartlett Sher, as he blocks a complicated scene change for the Intiman Theater’s new “Titus Andronicus.”

But Sher, the 43-year-old a.d. of the Seattle nonprofit, is no stranger to crazy. And neither is the Intiman, for that matter, which took a gamble three years ago when it hired Sher.

Intiman’s fortunes have risen and fallen over its 30-year history. It was founded in 1972 by Margaret Booker, who named it after August Strindberg’s theater in Stockholm (“intiman” meaning “intimate” in Swedish). Its two main competitors, the Seattle Repertory Theater and ACT Theater, are much bigger in terms of total number of seats, and Intiman has had some trouble establishing its identity in their shadow.

But it also scored some major successes under the leadership of Warner Shook in the ’90s, who brought such plays as Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” to Seattle.

Intiman’s selection of Sher to succeed Shook was “not a slam-dunk,” says managing director Laura Penn. He was not a proven administrator or fundraiser, but an artist, temperamentally prone to big, risky ventures. In the end, the board of directors was won over by the power of his artistic vision and his sheer chutzpah.

So far, Sher has delivered on his promises. This is a guy, after all, who had the guts to bear the Bard to England last year, as head of the first American company ever to present a Shakespeare play at the Royal Shakespeare Co. in Stratford-upon-Avon. And he did it in high style, with his whimsical, iconoclastic version of “Cymbeline.”

“I was very nervous,” Sher recalls. “We really thought they were going to kill us. There were 120 people in the audience, and 40 were critics.”

But Sher and company were the killers that day; it was the critics who were slain. “A glowing, entertaining reillumination of this rare play,” sang the Financial Times. “A delightful blend of robust jokiness and dreamy delicacy,” harmonized the Independent. The reviews were not all enthusiastic — small wonder when there are so many — but the New York Times joined the chorus in January, when Sher’s “Cymbeline” set up shop Off Broadway, calling it a “colorful, witty and deceptively simple production.”

The international success of “Cymbeline” has been a boon to Intiman, which hopes to continue the trend with “Titus Andronicus” as the theater embarks on its 30th-anniversary season. Perhaps most critically, it has helped the institution clearly define its brand in Seattle’s highly competitive market.

Years ago, one might have described the city’s three major resident theaters like this: Seattle Rep was the big, mainstream house in town that presented large-scale, contemporary and classic plays; A Contemporary Theater (now ACT Theater) produced more adventurous work; and Intiman specialized in intimate stagings of classic plays.

Over the years, these lines began to blur, as all three theaters competed for the same scripts: premieres of Broadway-bound plays by major American writers.

Sher’s interest in reimagining the classics has steered Intiman back toward its original niche — but in a new way.

Sharon Ott, who has observed Sher’s tenure at Intiman from her post across the street as the Seattle Rep’s artistic director, says she’s happy to have Sher next door, because she no longer has to worry about “tangling over rights,” the way she did with Shook. But she’s also pleased to see Sher drawing good audiences with stagings of such plays as “Cymbeline” and “The Servant of Two Masters.”

“The rule is, a happy theatergoer at one theater is more likely to attend the other rather than less,” she says. “We’re excited when any theater in the city has success.”

Ott also is the first to point out that Sher’s idea of “the classics” is not always strictly classical. She notes, “Bart’s way of doing the classics is much, much different than the old Intiman, which approached them in a, shall we say, mustier way.”

Penn, Intiman’s managing director, explains: “Bart is able to embrace the classics without limiting us, because of what Warner did (with new-play development). That is what has excited our audiences a great deal. They can still come and see riskier new work, new classics — for example, Craig Lucas’ ‘The Dying Gaul’ last year — and also enjoy the deeper classics. Bart’s brought all that together.”

Consequently, “Intiman re-logoed and branded the company in the fall of 2000,” Penn reports. The new tagline: “Classically unexpected.”

Of course, a new image can only do so much. There’s still the daunting challenge of keeping a resident theater afloat in bad economic times.

Seattle has been hit particularly hard by the high-tech bust and Boeing’s recent decision to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago.

“The range of emotions at the theater is unbelievably broad right now,” Penn says. “We’re thrilled about the work, but financially it’s hard. We’ve held pretty steady with subscriptions (at about 8,000) and single-ticket sales are up. But contributed income’s been tough. It’s held steady in some areas, but there are fewer smaller gifts.”

Presenting shows like “Titus Andronicus,” with a cast of 18, can’t help. But that was the deal Intiman signed up for when it hired Sher.

“The board was very intentional in hiring Bart. They decided they wanted to hire a brilliant artist,” Penn says. “When you start wanting the artistic director to be everything, you start compromising something. They chose not to compromise artistry. And in fact, as a fabulous artist, (Sher) is by his very nature supporting the other things we want done.”