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Seattle's Intiman Theatre declares fiscal emergency; former Pasadena Playhouse executive blamed

February 11, 2011 |  5:25 pm

WhoriskeyKate2005SCRFrancineOrr The Intiman Theatre of Seattle on Friday became the latest major arts organization to put out an emergency appeal for cash, announcing that the season scheduled to open March 18 with Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" could be jeopardized if it doesn't raise $500,000 by the end of March, plus an additional $500,000 by the end of September.

In what it called “an open letter to the Seattle arts community,” the Intiman shared the “unsettling news” that $1.4 million in budget cuts and the $874,000 it has received in cash donations since November won't be enough.

Kim Anderson, Intiman board president, said in an interview Friday that company leaders have studied how the Pasadena Playhouse handled its crisis a year ago, when it laid off all but four employees and went dark for eight months. The Playhouse went in and out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy to shed debts and raise money, and began staging shows again in October.

"Right now we have rejected the notion of going dark," Anderson said, but if the $1 million doesn't come through, shows may have to be dropped. In all, she said, the Intiman needs to take in $5.3 million this year -- more than half of it in donations -- to stage its five-play season and pay off its debts.

Intiman officials placed the blame for the crisis squarely on Brian Colburn, the former Pasadena Playhouse managing director who moved to Seattle in late 2008 to head up the Intiman's business operations. Colburn began working at the Playhouse in 1997 and became managing director in 2007. He resigned suddenly and unexpectedly from the Intiman on Nov. 1, citing personal reasons.

In a written fact sheet, the Intiman said that financial problems uncovered after Colburn’s departure “[put] the theater into crisis mode.”  There is no evidence, Anderson said, that any "financial self-enrichment" at the company's expense took place.

Among the problems listed: The Intiman’s board didn’t have a clear picture of its financial position because of “misrepresentation and nondisclosure” of information; Colburn failed to get required board approval before transferring funds earmarked for specified, restricted purposes into the general operating fund; there were “severe inaccuracies and a months-long backlog” in accounts,  “mismanagement and misrepresentation” of how negotiations with outside co-producers would affect the theater financially, and “mismanagment” of two key pledge agreements, leading to lost revenues.

Stephen Eich, the Pasadena Playhouse's executive director since June 2009, has said that while audience-building efforts had lagged before he arrived, the nonprofit playhouse's 2010 crisis had its roots in a lingering debt burden dating from the mid-1990s, predating Colburn's tenure. 

Launched in 1972, the Intiman is one of three major nonprofit regional theaters in Seattle, along with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which had a $10.4 million budget in 2008-09, and ACT -- A Contemporary Theatre, which spent $6.5 million in 2008, according to the last available tax statements for each company. The most recent Intiman statment showed $6 million in expenses and a $518,000 deficit for 2008-09. 

LightPiazzaAhmanson06LKHo Intiman highlights have included a 2006 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater, the 1991 world premiere of “The Kentucky Cycle,” Robert Schenkkan’s epic historical drama that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, and the 2003 world premiere of Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s musical adaptation of “The Light in the Piazza,” (pictured on a 2006 tour at the Ahmanson) which went on to win six Tony awards in 2005.
   
Kate Whoriskey, known to Southern California audiences for her frequent directing work at South Coast Repertory (following a brief tenure as associate director of the La Jolla Playhouse), became the Intiman’s artistic director last year, succeeding Bartlett Sher, who won a best director Tony in 2008 for his Broadway revival of “South Pacific.” Whoriskey's credits include helping playwright Lynn Nottage research her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Ruined," in Uganda, then directing its premiere.

In 2009, Colburn ruffled feathers in his old hometown when he told the New York Times, "One of the reasons I came to Seattle was because there's a theater scene here unlike most other cities….There's probably as much theater here as in the city of Los Angeles, but the population is one-sixth the size. You can walk from theater to theater here, meet friends or colleagues at a cafe."

That prompted a rejoinder commentary from Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty: “Stereotypes stick in your craw because of their willful obliviousness. One that I've had to contend with as the theater critic for The Times is the notion that L.A. isn't a theater town.”

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Colburn responded, “I certainly apologize to any of my former colleagues who may have taken offense at the notion that I was trying to elevate Seattle over Los Angeles. I did not mean to say in any way that I came here because it is a better place for theater. Having worked in Los Angeles for more than a decade, I am very aware of the sensitivity about Los Angeles not getting the recognition it deserves. I think Los Angeles is one of the most exciting places in the world, and of course I think the same of Seattle. I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in both places.”

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-- Mike Boehm 

Photos: Kate Whoriskey directing in 2005 at South Coast Repertory; Elena Shaddow and David Burnham in "The Light in the Piazza" at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2006. Credits: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times (Whoriskey); Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times ("Piazza").

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