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7 Lessons Learned at Intiman this Summer
After closing a successful, inaugural theater festival at Intiman, artistic director Andrew Russell reflects on a whirlwind year.
1. Holy "F" That Was Fast
We voted on February 6, 2012 to move forward with the festival, starting rehearsals April 30. That gave us less than three months to cast the shows, design and build the sets and market the festival. Then we opened the festival after having only two months to rehearse four shows.
It was all hands on deck, and the sweat and tears of the entire company are forever lodged in the foundation of this new festival.
I smiled watching Allen Fitzpatrick, one of Seattle’s heavyweight actors, who has performed all over the country and on Broadway, rehearse a scene with a young actor, Quinn Franzen, while sawdust swirled nearby in a frenzy to get the set done.
2. Sometimes the Rules Don’t Make Sense. Play Anyway.
I remember the first tech rehearsal for Dirty Story. We transformed Intiman’s rehearsal studio into a black box that sat 100 people, and even though it felt like we were producing in someone’s garage, it was a union house and we couldn’t touch anything. If I wanted to move a two-by-four, I had to call a union crew member.
Once during the epic tech-storm, I looked over at sound designer Matt Starritt who smirked like a very happy zombie and pointed out that in a single day he had jumped between three productions in two different theaters. I immediately asked him what type of espresso he’d like from Cafe Zingaro.
3. Take Advantage of Diversions
You have to remember to breathe and take it easy - it's just theatre! In the off hours, to blow off a little steam, the staff played badminton in the courtyard, preparing for the Badminton Royale at On The Boards, a competition they take very seriously.
The gentlemen organized a poker night and a Robyn-pop-music-infused Miracle! night warm-up. There were designated napping stations, several happy hours, and, because this is Seattle theater, after all, designers and directors alike pumped out the stress on their bike rides home together.
4. There is No Life on Any Planet Without Interns
This year’s festival employed almost 30 interns, who had the chance to run right alongside professionals throughout this insane marathon. Dan Savage, writer/director of Miracle!, chose to cast both John Pyburn (as Helen Stellar) and Drew Highlands (as Bailey Legal; ah, the irony); and Jonathan Crimeni landed Benvolio in "R and J." Angela Rose Sink and Tsige Tafesse (shown below) tore it up every night at the fictional bar “Acres of Clams” in material they wrote themselves for Miracle!
And, that’s just the interns on stage. The lines between “professional employee” and “intern” were blurred, creating a big family of mentors, big brothers and sisters.
Resoundingly, one of the most positive memories the company has taken away is the chance to work closely with a younger generation. As actor Shawn Law said: “I’ve been working in this town for 14 years and I’ve done a lot of work with people older and greater than me. Seeing the interns’ bright eyes and their earnest interest – it’s giving me a fresh perspective.”
5. Take a Chance on Me
It’s not about what works and what doesn’t, but cultivating a an environment where the sheer act of taking the chance is thrilling enough. Miracle! is a parody of a deaf-blind American icon rated well over NC-17. Dirty Story features S and M, a live electric saw, and complex allegories. Hedda Gabler danced for six minutes as part of her suicide in Ibsen's classic. And we tore up the stage with dangerous fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet.
We learned not to underestimate Seattle’s audiences: from the 74-year-old who loved Miracle!, to a patron who said the thrill of Hedda Gabler reminded her of the film Reservoir Dogs (I still don’t fully know what this means). We learned not to assume anything and now accept the mandate to take some chances on stage. As Leonard Bernstein used to say, if you’re going to fall, fall from the highest rung of the ladder.
6. Scary is Good.
Imagine you’ve produced a play that has a deaf-blind drag queen struggling to perform to “I Will Survive,” while wearing a dog’s electric-shock collar. Imagine then that, in a sold out performance, you have over 20 deaf audience members watching this same story with two ASL interpreters trying to keep up with the foul language and offensive jokes.
Nothing like this has ever happened at the Intiman before, and I daresay anywhere else. Dan Savage’s energy was a thrill to have at the theater, and somehow he created a story that was as heartwarming as it was terrifying, as funny as it was touching, and just a damn good time.
During one talk-back after the show and later on the Slog, Dan nailed the point that we are touched and moved by this story only because we were unsettled:
“Drag and camp have the power to make any story seem new and strange. And by making the story strange and unfamiliar, by refusing to treat this particular play with unnecessary reverence (the play itself, not the person whose story we're riffing on), we forced audience members to actually sit up and pay attention. Since they didn't know what was coming next, or where we were going, audience members couldn't check out. And when we get to the "Yes, Helen, water!" scene—it's "Yes, Helen, vodka!" in Miracle!—the moment sneaks up on our audiences and they are genuinely moved.”
7. Humility Saves the Day
Once you start, the momentum takes you away and you can’t stop. There was so much that we couldn’t know, and had to learn by doing, and it required a lot of saying—to the actors, to the stage management, to artists—“Yes, you are right, we should do it another way. We will get this better for 2013.”
We made no pretenses of having the “right” answer—in fact often we didn’t—but were clear about that from the beginning. For example, our schedule was an amorphous beast that demanded too much from our company and didn’t maximize tech time due to the constant shifts between shows. And we asked our actors to perform without understudies, which is taking a chance. I recall losing my patience once during the tech process when I exploded at an actor “What do you want me to do? Do I look like God?” We are all to the best of our abilities simply human, and we want to create a sustainable and healthy festival that’s in it for the long haul.
Whew. This summer was a success. We did everything we said we would do, met our goals, and are already deep in planning for 2013 (performances scheduled for June 21-August 25).
Throughout this process, I marveled at the absurd mix of fringe and regional theater styles, the mashing of generations, and the complete and utter jump-in-heads-first attitude of those involved. We got a lot right, we got a lot wrong, and now we push forward.
I could fill this page with hundreds of names of theater makers and thousands of theater watchers and supporters who have complete ownership of this summer, all of whom are responsible for stirring up the ephemeral experiential shared floating and fleeting wonderstorm we call theater.
But for now, we just want to say: so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, and see you next summer!
Follow the future exploits of Intiman Theatre at intiman.org