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Organizing Around Community: Intiman Theatre Festival

A Q&A with artistic director Andrew Russell.
Q&A | May 23, 2016 | By Jake Uitti

Ever since he took over the job of creative director for the Intiman some five years ago, Andrew Russell has made bold choices, improving on the theatre’s summer programming year after year. This year the Intiman will be producing and showcasing nearly 20 plays by black women from May 24 through October 2. We caught up with Russell again this year to ask him a few questions about the yearly showcase. [Note: the photos accompanying this article are by Alex Garland from a table read for Stick Fly, running from May 24 through June 19 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.]

The summer festival this year revolves around community and neighbors. Why was this important to the theater?
We are focusing on creating community-engaged professional theatre. What does that mean? It means deepening the relationship that Intiman Theatre has played in the Seattle community for over 40 years. It means finding new ways year after year to bring our professional theatre closer to the community by producing at different venues including the Central District, University District, Seattle Center and more, and by making sure that the stories onstage, as well as the producing methods to bring those stories to life, are forward-thinking, inclusive and progressive.

In 2016 we are celebrating great American playwrights who are black women. Over several months through training programs, mainstage productions, readings, summits and more, audiences will be exposed to almost 20 black women who have changed and are changing the face of American theatre and shaping culture. This includes another play by the legendary Alice Childress (writer of Trouble In Mind, produced by Intiman in 2013), which will be directed by our co-curator, Valerie Curtis-Newton, and Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond, a wickedly funny drama about a family and their secrets.

Community is the collective whole. There is “you” and “me” and then there is “us.” That “us” becomes something different; it has its own personality, and we all have a role in influencing that personality. Seattle right now is changing and redefining itself and we want to be a part of that. Intiman is a group of people—staff, donors, volunteers, artists, and so many more—who believe that theatre can change the world. And that it gives our community a chance to consider themselves and make sense of themselves. For me personally, my greatest loves are my community members who are friends and collaborators and makers. I learned a lot growing up in a small town in Indiana—very valuable lessons of what communities can do together. And I’ve learned the most about community here in Seattle.

What has it been like working with 2016 co-collaborator Valerie Curtis-Newton? What has she brought to the table that was maybe missing in prior years?
There is a quote [by Lorraine Hansberry] we are using regularly:

“If you want to do something, you have to do something.”

More and more at Intiman, we are trying to think and act like community organizers who organize our community and audience around incredible, moving and powerful theatre that generates conversation and progress. This year we have an incredible artist as a co-curator who has been making decisions with me from the very start regarding what we are making and how we are making it in 2016. This is an important step as it allows the entire organization to be influenced by Valerie’s incredible leadership, and means that our audiences get exposed to programming and methods of leadership that are not “traditional.”

Valerie is one of the first artists I met when I moved to Seattle and she has been a part of the Intiman community for longer than that. With my time at the theatre I’ve had the pleasure of producing her work four times including this summer’s production. Even though I am an advocate and an accomplice for racial, social, and gender equity for our theatre-arts sector, I am still a white man and have a very limited perspective when it comes to so many other storytelling perspectives in this world. Valerie is a major force who should be running an institution and I am proud and happy that we have found a way to authentically partner together to create work for our Seattle audiences.

We have indeed evolved dramatically since 2012.  Most important to note is that our audiences have responded to mission more than model, which means that we have followed suit to ensure that form follows function. When we started it was about our repertory company of actors in four plays, the Cornish Playhouse, the concentrated summer festival—remember, in 2012 all of the shows opened one after another in the same week—and now our audiences have made themselves clear: they want us to be as bold as possible, to produce in a way that allows us to fully live up to our mission-drive potential, even if that means at different smaller venues with less familiar plays. They will travel with us across the city (we tested this with last year’s Orpheus Descending) and we have programming that is more complicated than “just four plays.” We have training programs, summits, workshops, commissions, partnerships and more. In a way, the last five years—and yes, it has been that long—have been about listening to and celebrating our community.

Plus, in 2012 there were so many questions about our survival and our future. I’m proud to say that we have a robust cash reserve, are scheduled to be free of all pre-Festival debt in 2018 having accumulated no debt since 2011, and are being recognized not just for the fact that we survived, but because we have thrived. 

For more info on the Festival, which opens tomorrow, go here.