In July of 2019, Phillip Chavira, Executive Director of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, was worried. Securing enough funding to keep Intiman open was a month-to-month challenge, and he feared that long-term sustainability, both for himself and the organization, was becoming untenable. His worry may have surprised Seattle’s theater community because Intiman, after seven years, was finally debt-free. In addition, the theater was producing new, topical plays in different venues around the city, often to critical acclaim. Despite these accomplishments just two and-a-half years into his tenure, Chavira remained stressed. He said, "Fundraising keeps me up at night. We go to great lengths to ensure that grant-makers and philanthropists get to know and understand us, [but] everyone wants something slightly different in terms of reporting. [Fundraising] year by year bites at the time that we need to make the art or reach other philanthropists. I do have worries about my sustainability in this model. I think it breaks executives over time."
Artistic Director Jennifer Zeyl had assumed her position shortly after Chavira’s arrival. She was familiar with Intiman, having worked there first as a Scenic Designer and later as Artistic Producer. In collaboration with Board President Daniel Nye, the three leaders were in the midst of an endeavor that they believed could significantly increase Intiman’s donor and patron base. That endeavor was the Community Ticket Project (CTP), an initiative that made all tickets to Intiman’s production of the play The Events by David Greig free of charge. The intention was to remove traditional barriers to purchasing a theater ticket, such as internet access or credit card ownership. Nye was thrilled about what he saw as the CTP’s fundraising potential, "If we can put butts in seats, which free tickets will let us do, then we can get word of mouth going. We want to be like NPR or church: you can listen, you can participate, and then we’ll [give you the option of] paying for that pleasure, that experience [on your way out the door]. The hope is that this model, the Venmo-model , the pay-on-the-way-out model [will work]. We’re going to have to depend on our audiences to like what we do and to show us that there’s a different way to do this. But I’m terrified."
He was terrified because, in 2011, Intiman had closed following a much-publicized financial crisis. While the organization was now open and producing shows, it was still fragile. Chavira and Zeyl were the only full-time employees, the Board had eight trustees (see Appendix 1), there was a small cash reserve, and the annual operating budget was just over $1 million. If the CTP did not inspire new patrons, individual donations or major gifts, Intiman could easily close again due to a lack of funding.
Intiman’s leadership was thrilled with the buzz that the CTP was generating, but would it translate into the financial gains that theater needed? If it didn’t, how could it course correct? Would this be Intiman’s final act, or was there another way forward?
Publication Date: 2020-11-16
Citation: Eliza Orleans, "Intiman Theatre (B)," Yale Theater Management Knowledge Base Case 19-100b, November 16, 2020
Keywords: Seattle, Branding, Nonprofit Finance, Organizational Direction, Strategy