My wife and I went to the Intiman theater’s annual meeting after work last night, out of curiosity to see how a nonprofit organization like this is managed. It was a strange experience.
The vast majority of people there seemed to be either current, former, or pending board of trustees members. The audience was asked to vote on new and renewal board members, and a number of other things.
My wife and I dutifully joined in ratifying all the motions. But we were puzzled: were we actually eligible to vote? What was our role in this meeting as invited donors – but not trustees? Not being familiar with the business end of nonprofits – this is the first annual meeting of any we ever attended – we were somewhat confused.
Apparently annual meetings are really just for board of trustees members, even if ordinary donors like us are also invited. The evening seemed dedicated to celebrating their history and accomplishments in supporting the Intiman, and in inducting new members into the clan.
Judging by appearances and a few overheard conversations, members are recruited from a certain class of people of which my wife and I have little or no experience – wealthy, well-connected people who sit on multiple non-profit boards, and probably several for-profit ones too, and spend some of their time hosting house parties to raise money to meet the cash flow needs of their favorite theater – and since 2000 with the establishment of the Intiman Foundation, to grow its interest-bearing endowment as well.
Besides raising money from others of their class and contributing some of their own, certain individuals assume leadership positions on the board and serve as mentors and colleagues of sorts to their staff liaison, the managing director Laura Penn. They supervise the elaboration of mission statements, attend conferences and hit Broadway with the managing director, call her up to discuss specific parts of plays after showing up unannounced to catch them at odd times during the run, and of course oversee the hiring of a new artistic director from time to time – currently Bart Sher – when the position comes open.
It all seemed slightly out of character with the kinds of productions the Intiman prides itself on staging – Nickeled and Dimed, Native Son, The Grapes of Wrath (my account of which began this blog), and the annual Black Nativity. The Intiman is a theater that prides itself on its social conscience, yets its board feels like any other board, as I suppose them to be – clubby, eager, corporate, smug. While nobody mingles at the Happy Hour nights the Intiman stages before one performance per run for the more plebian of their patron – people quickly hit the buffet and the drink line, then go corral a table for private confabulations – these board members are like a moveable cocktail party, buttonholing each other and mingling not only with drinks and snacks after, but drinkless before.
I even seemed to detect a slight softening in Bart Sher’s account of all they’ve accomplished together leading up to the regional theater Tony last year, a lack of specificity what precisely their most successful local productions have brought, moving beyond Seattle’s borders, to the world – so that he reduced Nickeled and Dimed to the “living wage” movement, Cymbeline to a Shakespeare that impressed even the Brits, and Light in the Piazza to the best Broadway musical since he first became aware of them himself 40 years ago. Perhaps to be more specific would risk alienating some of these benefactors, raising issues they would prefer not to recognize in the very plays they support: the greed and exploitation of bosses both big and small, the nobility of the disenfranchised and lost, the sanctity of seemingly inappropriate marriages – perhaps, allegorically, even those between gay partners.
Or maybe not – maybe Bart is just not that good a critic of his own impressive and ever more successful work. And after Googling the board’s president, Susan Leavitt, this morning, maybe I misjudged the character of the Intiman’s board members overall: while last night she seemed merely a somewhat officious member of the ruling class a little too fond of organizing her peers, this morning I come to find she’s a social worker by trade, working for Swedish hospital, and her husband Bill Block recently quit his lucrative real estate law practice to direct projects for a local homeless organization.
True, he does draw a salary of $86,000 a year… – a mere pittance I suppose among these people, which he may very well dedicate entirely to charity or other worthy nonprofit causes – indeed, perhaps to the Intiman itself, given his wife’s leadership role.
But that’s just the problem, it seems to me: the kind of people who oversee the business end – and to certain extent the artistic side – even of left-leaning theater like the Intiman make more money annually than most of their audience members make – and make it even when they’ve left their formerly lucrative careers to take up charity work.
And when they invite ordinary donors to their annual meetings – but do not really expect them to appear – and ask them to ratify without consultation the continuing hegemony of their own class over the operations even of a left-leaning theater like the Intiman – controlled by the most liberal of rich people one could ever hope to find – well, they don’t even have the courtesy to explain what we’re doing there to us.
Do I have a second? All in favor?