Seattle’s Intiman Theatre has a simple mission: To present work that is relevant to our times and as diverse as the community itself.
Intiman recently hired a Broadway producer to help them achieve that goal.
Phillip Chavira took on the mantle of executive director earlier this year. He moved to Seattle from New York where, in 2016, he was a Tony-nominated co-producer of “Eclipsed” starring Lupita Nyong’o.
Chavira didn’t grow up in an arty family. He was born in Hurley, New Mexico, about an hour north of the Mexican border.
“It was a small mining town,” Chavira explains. “I grew up with a family that were miners, that were cowboys and ranch hands.”
Unlike most of the kids he grew up with, Chavira wasn’t interested in sports.
“My good Mexican mother said, ‘What am I going to do with a son who doesn’t play soccer?’”
She decided to enroll him in a musical theater class. Chavira was nine years old.
He remembers, “It was unusual, because nobody else was in the arts. It was a gamble my mother took.”
By high school, Chavira decided to pursue a theater career. He took a trip to New York where he saw his first Broadway show, "Rent." Based on Puccini's classic opera "La Boheme," "Rent" tells the story of a group of artists and their friends who struggle to pay the bills and come to terms with AIDS. Chavira was smitten.
“I quickly connected because there were people of color onstage. And I saw audiences embrace that,” Chavira says.
They were people like himself, and Chavira was more determined than ever to join them on stage. He pursued acting classes in college. But not long after Chavira arrived in New York, with “a dream and a dollar,” he realized he’d have more, and better, career opportunities on theater’s administrative side. He worked as a stage manager, then moved into production, a role he admits is not well understood by the general public.
"We help find plays we think audiences will adore," Chavira explains. "Then we find the money to put them on."
For Chavira, the role of producer also gave him more power to find plays that reflected his interests in racial equity and social justice. He sees theater as a great avenue for change-making.
“I don’t want to lecture, I want to engage,” says Chavira. “When I can marry entertainment with an audience that is craving substance, I’m drawn to that.”
He points to “Eclipsed,” the Liberian war drama he co-produced on Broadway.
“The entire cast was female, women of color. The director and playwright were female. It blew my mind.”
In a way, that production led him to Intiman Theatre.
Chavira had heard about Intiman’s dual artistic and social justice mission, and decided he wanted to work with the Seattle-based company. He actively pursued the executive director job. When he got the position, he became one of the few people of color in this kind of job.
Although many of his New York friends were puzzled at his decision to move from the center of the American theater world to Seattle, Chavira is convinced Seattle is the right place for him to help produce theater that will spark important conversations.
“I can’t make you feel anything, I can’t make you do anything,” Chavira says. “But I can bring a thought to your mind, and I’m always interested in where you go from there.”
Intiman Theatre opens its first play of the 2017 season, “Barbecue,” at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, on June 1, 2017.