It’s my turn to hold the road-trip lemur.
Intiman Theatre honchos Andrew Russell and Jennifer Zeyl have already taken turns snuggling the sparkly-eyed pink plushie as we barrel down I-5 toward Longview, Wash., in Russell’s car (nickname: Biscuit). We’re en route to a run-through of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending by the Williams Project, Intiman Theatre’s first-ever company-in-residence. Russell, tattooed, with a swoosh of thick dark hair, perpetual half-smile and charming tendency to curse during opening night speeches, requires that everyone in the car hold the lemur at least once.
Russell is the producing artistic director of Intiman Theatre. The 32-year-old Midwesterner arrived in Seattle five years ago by way of New York, and this city has taken up residence in his soul. His baptism by fire at Intiman, which nearly folded shortly after he joined the staff in 2009, gifted him with a fearless, go-for-broke optimism when it comes to making theatre—a determined positivity with the force of a polar icebreaker.
Intiman’s brush with death changed more than the company’s producing format, from year-round theatre to summer festival. Like a burned pasture fertilized by the ashes of its former self, the new Intiman is regenerating. By investing in local artists and local work and combating the social inequalities that plague regional theatre with non-negotiable diversity requirements and a presence expanding beyond the company’s historic Seattle Center habitat, Russell and his team are remaking Intiman into an aerodynamic, mission-driven institution.
As dry, drooping fields and strip malls full of shiny marijuana shops whiz by, Russell glides through conversation topics, from inclusive casting policies to his intense childhood love of Whoopi Goldberg. Zeyl sighs. “He just says these desperately cute things,” she says. Zeyl is Intiman’s artistic producer and Russell’s right-hand-woman/formidable partner in crime. Russell laughs, but his casual approach toward Big Ideas makes him a force of nature—nothing flippant about it. Sometimes making change is all about deciding you’re going to make it and never looking back.
+ + + +
Russell grew into his upbeat manner. He describes his young self—a 4-H kid growing up surrounded by horses and cornfields in West Lafayette, Ind.—as “a classic middle child: super ornery and energetic.” He started doing church plays in first grade because his mother, who ran the church choir, often wrote or directed them. When his orneriness landed him in a classroom reserved for bullies in fifth grade, his parents put him in theatre camp instead of putting him on Ritalin. As “a little gay kid growing up in the Midwest,” community theatre and theatre classes became the perfect channel for his energy.
Russell went on to study acting at Carnegie Mellon University but switched his focus to theatre studies in his senior year to get a broader perspective on the world in which he wanted to live and work. He spent that last year of college interning at a casting agency in New York, which led to a post-college job at a talent agency. “My goal was to have health insurance and be able to expense theatre, because I’m a nerd,” Russell says. “And because I’ve been a grown-up since, like, eighth grade.”
A year into that job, he heard through the grapevine of the New York agency world that Pulitzer-winning Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner was looking for an assistant. Russell applied and got the gig. It didn’t start out a dream job—assisting a writer can be brutally solitary work, especially for someone as social as Russell—but he worked out a balance where he could split hours or work remotely so he could also assistant-direct plays on the side, which he did at prestigious off-Broadway venues like Second Stage Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club.
“There was a day that was truly a pinch-me, little hillbilly moment, where I was walking down Central Park West.” Russell says. “I had just delivered a script to Frank Langella for a reading of Lincoln that I helped organize with Steven Spielberg and his office, and I was on my way to the party to celebrate the fact that [Lynn Nottage play] Ruined had just won the Pulitzer. I was like this is ridonkulous.” Three and a half years working for Kushner wasn’t only a gold star on Russell’s CV, it also shaped his artistic worldview. “Tony was a big mentor in regard to how theatre needs to have an attachment to or a groundswell of real circumstances,” Russell says. “The risk is that people think of ‘political theatre’ as theatre with politics on it. But when you appropriately insert the stakes of politics, it heightens the stakes of the play.”
Ruined ultimately prompted Russell to leave his job for Seattle. After meeting director Kate Whoriskey through friends, he came on board as assistant director of the lauded play. When Whoriskey was tapped to replace Bartlett Sher as artistic director of Intiman, she asked Russell to join her as associate artistic director. He’d never been to Seattle but loved Intiman and what they were doing, and it was too good an opportunity to turn down. “I’d been directing some of my own stuff in New York but this was a giant leap of faith and also leap in career, a step up that was really exciting,” he says. In March 2010, after a year of working for Intiman on a bicoastal basis, Russell relocated to the West Coast.
By that fall, the Tony Award-winning, 38-year-old theatre company was more than $2 million in debt. “There were indicators, but it really hadn’t been communicated to us and I was too green to know how to look for it by simply looking at the books,” Russell says. “It all hit the fan really quickly.” The 2010–’11 season was already underway; Russell was scheduled to direct two shows. In April 2011, two days before Russell’s 28th birthday and two days before he was supposed to start work on a new play titled The Call, Intiman closed. “Literally the stage was already taped down for rehearsal,” Russell says. “So the stage manager wrapped up all the tape, handed it to me and said, ‘Here’s what’s left of your show.’”
Rather than hightailing it back to New York, Russell decided to enjoy summer in Seattle and plot his next move. He worked at Icicle Creek Theatre Festival in Leavenworth; he participated in Lincoln Center’s Directors Lab. Late that summer he was invited to pitch the Intiman Board on how he would re-organize the company. “My agent thought it would give me good practice with talking to a board,” Russell says. His ideas resonated and he was hired to re-launch the theatre as a summer festival with a repertory company.
Intiman has grown steadily in size and ambition since then. In the past three years, the company has produced 10 mainstage shows including last year’s spare, sweeping Angels in America double-header and two new play commissions, Dan Savage’s musical Miracle! and Stu for Silverton, a musical based on the true story of a transgender mayor in small-town Oregon, directed and created by Russell, writer Peter Duchan and one-named composer Breedlove. A third, John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter, starts on Aug. 18.
In 2012, Intiman had two full-time employees. Now they have eight year-round staffers and a seasonal contact sheet of more than 100. This spring Russell signed a three-year contract and Intiman snagged a half-million-dollar gift from Raynier Institute & Foundation to create the Craig G. Campbell fund, a financial reserve designed to increase their long-term sustainability. The company is on track to be debt-free in 2017.
“It’s kind of weird to have a three-year agreement and some capital and to feel like the world isn’t ending at every possible moment,” Russell says. “It’s nice because we’re being rewarded for our ambition. But we’re still figuring out the model. As we get more socially progressive it influences how we produce, where we produce, the ways we produce.”
Having no managing director means that Russell shoulders a two-fold burden of financial and artistic leadership. “The stuff that Andrew is capable of doing on behalf of this theatre company is nothing short of astonishing,” Zeyl says. “It’s interesting—and complicated—because we’re in this weird hybrid space: theatre for social justice meets a festival setting meets a long history of working as a regional theatre.”
“I do think that the days of the benevolent artistic director are over,” Russell says. “The creative entrepreneur is the new model, and we have to accept that.” He may not enjoy the constant grind of fundraising, but being a producer allows Russell to change Intiman’s creative model on the fly—this year alone, the company has launched several new programs: a company-in-residence, a Director’s Lab and the Emerging Artists program, which fosters new and diverse talent for free. How theatre is made is just as important as what is made—as Russell says, “the form is the art is the form is the art.” You can do a socially progressive play, but if you do it at a giant playhouse in the relatively cloistered Seattle Center, how progressive are you really being?
Having only a dedicated skeleton crew keeps the company incredibly nimble. This year Intiman instituted a policy: All casts will have at least 50 percent actors of color, and they’ve enacted it with a speed that few theatre companies could muster. Unlike a mid-level manager who must make a lengthy case for institutional change, Russell can attend an equity inclusion workshop one day and institute a 50/50 casting policy the next.
Russell has no time for arts executives who say they’d love to program progressively but worry that the quality and professionalism of their work will suffer. “I’m like OK, enjoy your monolithic dream structure,” Russell says. “I’ll tell people, ‘You have seven men writers and two women,’ or, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty white season,’ because I do think we take for granted how much power we [as arts executives] have.”
Having already closed and opened a theatre has focused Intiman on making theatre for the public good. Every season, Russell says, has to pass a litmus test. If this season closes the theatre because no one comes, would the Intiman team be OK with that? Would they be proud of the artistic choices they made? If the answer is yes, the season passes. Not because they want to shut Intiman down. On the contrary, they want it to thrive, no punches pulled.
That attitude also makes Intiman’s work feel eerily timely. John Baxter is a Switch Hitter, which Russell is co-writing with local screenwriter Ana Brown, is based on a true Seattle story of the 2008 gay softball world series, in which a team was accused of having too many hetero ringers. “There are layers of issues here,” Brown says. “There’s safety and culture, but there’s also privilege—being able to make the choice to be able to go and play in a gay league. But as a gay person that’s not necessarily your choice.”
“It’s exactly the conversation [the community is] having about Capitol Hill,” Zeyl says. “About a marginalized community creating their own safety and people wanting to be allies. Who’s in, who’s out? When are you on the margin? And you can’t really do anything right without sitting down and having a conversation like this about it.”
The season also includes Lillian Hellman’s 1934 classic The Children’s Hour, about an angry student at an all-girls boarding school who spreads rumors about the sexuality of two headmistresses, updated to 1980s Seattle by director Sheila Daniels. If John Baxter is about a minority that has fortified itself against the majority for safety, Russell says, this play is the inverse—the majority saying, outsider, stay out. A Director’s Lab production of Robert O’Hara’s semi-autobiographical Bootycandy, about growing up gay and black, finishes off the season.
+ + + +
Russell’s creative roots in Seattle are both deep and far-reaching. In addition to creating work through Intiman, he’s a member of the 5th Avenue Theatre’s Seattle Writer’s Group and a board member of Satori Group. He’s proud of the work that’s being made here and wants to give it a place at the national table.
“What I’m trying to do is opposite of the New York import,” says Russell, who takes advantage of Intiman’s seasonal nature to work outside of Seattle. He plans to take work that’s created here—Miracle!, Stu, hopefully John Baxter—and get it produced around the country. This fall, he’ll direct Oscar and Tony winner Mercedes Ruehl in a one-woman show about Diana Vreeland at the Old Globe in San Diego—and his team is largely from Seattle. Mark Mitchell is designing the costumes, Robert Aguilar the lights and Matt Starritt the sound. Zeyl would’ve done the sets were she not too busy with Intiman.
“Seattle is a dream city in relationship to other cities, especially major metropolitan cities,” Russell says. “You go there, you deliver your product and show them how awesome you are, and then you go back and you generate work in this beautiful space.”
Five years in, Russell knows there’s still work to be done. Diversifying Intiman’s board, staff and crew will take time, as will getting their audience demographics as diverse as their casting. But the wheels are in motion. “To me, the phoenix hasn’t risen,” Russell says. “We’ve been building the church, putting the pews in and people have been coming. We want more to come and we’re realizing what we want to preach about.”
The Intiman Theatre Festival runs through Oct. 3.