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Originally published Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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Intiman’s second festival has more to prove in 2013

Intiman Theatre Festival artistic director Andrew Russell is staging four summer shows that he says “create a conversation” about things like sex, race and money. Will they sell seats?

Seattle Times theater critic

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If Intiman Theatre builds it, will they come?

The resurgent 40-year-old drama company is hoping so, as it launches a closely watched second season as a summer theater festival.

One key lesson learned from the Intiman Theatre Festival’s first outing, in 2012:

In the Seattle summertime, comedy trumps tragedy.

“Last year our programming suffered from a lack of levity,” Intiman producing artistic director Andrew Russell notes wryly. “There was a lot of murder, dying, suicide on the stage. We realized we needed to offer more that’s uplifting, and fun, if we want to get people out of their boats and their gardens and into the theater.”

Russell and company have come up with an equally eclectic but more upbeat — and politically charged — bill of fare for 2013: 1) a classic Greek anti-war comedy (“Lysistrata” by Aristophanes); 2) an Italian farce about rebel housewives (Dario Fo’s “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!”); 3) a resurrected 1955 satire on race relations (“Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress); and 4) a topical new musical about a transgendered Oregon mayor (“Stu for Silverton”).

With that bait, Intiman needs to lure in many more ticket buyers than in 2012, when a hefty portion of seats were occupied (gratis) by the company’s former subscribers. The freebies were payback for patrons left hanging in April 2011, when Intiman suddenly shut down and canceled most of its five-play season.

Eyeball-deep in debt, leaderless after laying off the entire staff, and no longer basking in the public favor enjoyed during a history that included a regional Tony Award and the debut of the Broadway hit “The Light in the Piazza,” Intiman was on life support.

But a whirlwind reorganization and funding drive by a revamped board of directors, a new managing director (Keri Kellerman), and a committed, well-liked and tireless new artistic director — Russell — beat back the naysayers and rescued the Intiman brand.

When the company reintroduced itself last July, it was a leaner, looser, more youthful (Russell is 30) enterprise, overseen by a collective of artists who concocted a four-play festival at Intiman Playhouse. (The company no longer runs the 440-seat hall, but is renting the recently renamed Cornish Theatre for 17 weeks this summer from the new leaseholder, Cornish College of the Arts.)

On a tight, $1 million budget, the 2012 fest yielded a box-office hit — Dan Savage’s campy, R-rated “Miracle!,” (a drag-theater lampoon of “The Miracle Worker”), and a sure shot of Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet”). Interest ran high, attendance was strong, but reviews were mixed for a slate that also included John Patrick Shanley’s dispiriting post-9/11 allegory “Dirty Story,” and a glum take on Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.”

Financial housekeeping

Rising from the near-dead was in itself victory. But in a town packed with theaters vying for patronage and attention, the “new” Intiman still must project a more coherent artistic identity and long-term viability.

Board president Cynthia Huffman says the company is getting its financial house in order. As hoped, $700,000 was raised toward the $1.5 million, 2013 budget (up from 2012’s $1 million), mainly from hundreds of individual donors. Most major corporate and foundation donors are still adopting a wait-and-see-approach before pitching in. Boeing is an exception, and Boeing exec Nancy Beyer Cannon is on the board.

Expenses are tightly monitored, and there’s a year-round staff of just six (a fraction of the employee ranks in flush times). Kellerman moved on, and Russell now functions as both producer and artistic head, aided by a business manager. Huffman expects Intiman to retire its remaining debt ($500,000, down from $1 million in 2011) by next year, as it continues to pay back rent to its main creditor, Seattle Center.

But to stay afloat, and endure, the 2013 fest must also earn $800,000 in ticket sales and other revenue. The amount is on par with the national nonprofit-theater average of an earned-to-donated ratio of about 50 percent, according to a recent Theatre Facts report, published by the Theatre Communications Group.

Festival marketing is more aggressive this year, with bus ads and stepped-up social media. Ticket prices have notched up a few dollars. And discounted multi-show passes (starting at $70) are being pushed hard.

What’s on stage?

But what happens on stage, and the level of enthusiasm it generates among audiences and critics, is in the end what matters most.

Russell says he’s pondered mistakes made in the 2012 festival, and vows not to repeat them.

“We learned a lot on so many levels from last year — practically, philosophically and artistically,” he stresses. While the 2013 plays don’t seem, at casual glance, to share much in common other than a comedic and political bent, Russell contends they “create a conversation with each other” about subjects “it’s considered rude to discuss around the dinner table — sex, war, race, money.”

The 23-actor ensemble is again anchored by local stage veterans (Mark Anders, Burton Curtis, G. Valmont Thomas), working alongside less-experienced acting interns. Jennifer Zeyl’s unit scenic design will, again, serve all four shows. Valerie Curtis-Newton and Russell are returning directors (for “Trouble in Mind” and “Stu for Silverton,” respectively), while local favorite Sheila Daniels stages “Lysistrata” and Seattle newcomer Jane Nichols directs “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!”

The margin for error is still slim, as Intiman continues to reinvent itself from the ground up. And the freewheeling can-do/make-do, upstart/startup nature of Intiman today can seem miles apart from the slicker, more institutional image of Intiman past.

Audience expectations should be calibrated accordingly, suggests Valerie Curtis-Newton: “I think there’s a better articulation to the public this time of what the Intiman is becoming,” she observes. “I call it regional theater and fringe theater mashed up together.”

And Russell’s promise? “There will be a lot more laughs.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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