Every year since 1976, on the basis of a recommendation by the American Theatre Critics Association, one nonprofit theatre in the U.S. has been awarded a Regional Theatre Tony Award. Not only has the honor long served as a high-profile industry acknowledgement of the recipients' achievements—say, nurturing new plays and playwrights, transferring productions to Broadway, or promoting the theatre in its part of the nation—but as funding for nonprofits has become scarcer, the award has served as a powerful boost to the group as it looks toward the future. No doubt that's why the impressive grant that accompanies the regional Tony—a $25,000 check from Visa, U.S.A.—is so highly prized.
Artistically, it's clear that this year's winner, Seattle's Intiman Theatre, is sailing into as bright a future as any of the 30 companies that have proudly claimed the honor before it. Focused equally on producing new plays and revisiting classics, Intiman was founded in 1972 by Margaret Booker, an American who had been a Fulbright theatre scholar in Sweden. Not only is "intiman" a Swedish cognate for "intimate," but Booker named her group after a small venue created back at the start of the 20th century by a visionary playwright named August Strindberg. It's hard to imagine a loftier provenance than that.
The company's mission underscores its faith in world-class drama: "Intiman Theatre produces engaging dramatic work that celebrates the intimate relationship among artist, audience and language and, through the exploration of enduring themes, illuminates the shared human experience of our diverse community."
But the Intiman typically exceeds expectations. Robert Schenkkan's 1992 Pulitzer Prize–winning epic The Kentucky Cycle—one of very, very few plays to receive that honor prior to a New York production—premiered here. Another work it premiered, Joan Holden's adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich's nonfiction bestseller Nickel and Dimed, about America's struggling working poor, is now one of the most frequently produced plays in America. Last year, Artistic Director Bartlett Sher's sensitive, dazzling production of Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel's musical The Light in the Piazza triumphantly opened at New York City's Lincoln Center Theater and was nominated for 11 Tonys, capturing six, including one for Guettel's ravishing score.
Back in Seattle, Intiman is widely respected for its innovative educational programming. According to its website (www.intiman.org), one program, called Living History, "helps develop critical thought and stimulate the imagination." Another, launched in 2004, is The American Cycle, a five-year series of "classic American stories, collaborative partnerships, and free public programs that explore the local resonance of themes and ideas generated by the works on our stage." How apropos: intimate, thoughtful, brilliant.