New energy at Seattle’s Intiman

Sheila Daniels helps Sher invigorate slate

SEATTLE — Sheila Daniels has a recurring arctic dream. In it, she hops from iceberg to iceberg, barely making it to the next before water swallows up the last.

No surprise this old dream would surface again during Daniels’ first year as associate director at Seattle’s celebrated Intiman Theater. After more than a decade on the fringe, she’s crossed over to the city’s big time.

Daniels first came to Seattle from Oregon in the mid-1990s. She connected with a talented group of young actors and held leadership positions at several scrappy fringe outfits, including Theater Schmeater and Capitol Hill Arts Center.

Critics praised her handling of everything from Shakespeare to 20th century classics to new plays. Her three-person “Crime and Punishment” — “a 90-minute shot out of a cannon,” according to Intiman artistic director Bartlett Sher — ran at CHAC for more than four months.

When the opportunity came to join Sher at Intiman, Daniels hesitated. She had a job she liked teaching at Cornish College and was able to pick her own directing projects. Intiman would mean higher budgets, higher stakes.She deliberated, but not for long. “I generally find if there’s something I’m terrified of, it’s something I should do,” Daniels says.

She entered Intiman at a critical moment. Sher’s national profile was continuing to rise, drawing him away from Seattle frequently. (Seven months after her arrival, he would win a Tony for his Broadway revival of “South Pacific.”) The company’s veteran managing director, Laura Penn, was planning her exit after 14 seasons. And as always, Intiman’s budget was balanced on a precipice.

Sher tapped Daniels in part for her ability to manage people and get the job done in adverse circumstances. But, he says, “Bottom line, if she hadn’t been a great artist, none of that would’ve mattered.”

If anyone doubted Sher’s assessment, they were silenced by Daniels’ first directorial outing at Intiman this summer, with “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Unfolding on an almost operatic double-decker set, Daniels’ production brought out all the poetry, passion and sometimes neglected humor of Tennessee Williams’ classic script.

Word got out, and “Streetcar” brought in nearly $85,000 more than what the theater had projected, placing it among Intiman’s top-selling productions.

Almost a year into her tenure, Daniels feels she made the right decision.

Of new colleague Sher, she says, “He has one of the most far-reaching intellects of anyone I’ve ever met.” Of Intiman: “It’s at the level of a Tony-winning theater, but it has the energy of a fringe theater — the feeling that ‘We’re going to do what we have to do to get this show going.’ ”

And with that sentiment, Daniels eyes the next iceberg: kicking off Intiman’s 2009 season with a return of “Crime and Punishment.”