The announcement today that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre was suspending operations was a sad, if not completely unexpected one.
Over the past months, the Rep has been struggling financially. Theatre is expensive. Professional theatre has expectations and requirements that make it even more expensive.
For 42 years, the Arkansas Rep has been presenting live theatre in Little Rock. First in an old church in MacArthur Park and then on Main Street in an old department store. These were the sites of first dates, anniversaries, birthdays, and celebrations. Sometimes they provided escapes from the stresses of daily life.
There is no argument that Arkansas Rep has contributed enormously to the cultural life of Little Rock and Arkansas. But that value has not always translated to dollars in the coffers.
And that is the problem.
Musicals tend to be more popular with Little Rock audiences. They are also much more expensive to produce employing more actors, musicians, more settings. The additional actors wear more costumes and carry more props. (Little Rock’s preference for musicals is not unique; most cities are that way.)
I’ve heard it said that a play can sell at about 80% of capacity and clear more money than a musical selling at 95%. Over the past few years the Rep has programmed more musicals (sometimes three out of six shows on top of a classic play with a large cast). Did that create more excitement in the community? Yes. Did it put more money in the Rep’s pockets? Apparently not.
Over the past year, I’ve heard finger pointing and bemoaning. Some have said the excitement over shows at Robinson have taken away entertainment dollars from local groups. Since it reopened Robinson has certainly seen more events — but the past few years have also seen Verizon Arena book a lot more large acts. This is a bonanza time for the touring industry. And because it alternates between feast and famine, when it is feast time, operators seize the day.
When the Rep started, there were only two other local theatres programming for general audiences – Murry’s Dinner Playhouse and the Community Theatre of Little Rock. Now the options also include the Studio Theatre, Weekend Theatre, Argenta Community Theatre, and Benton’s Royal Players. There are weekly improv performances at the Joint. Plus programming in Conway. Last weekend Praeclara presented Into the Woods. In other words, a whole lot of alternatives for live performances. Are the other alternatives the same types of theatre (non-profit, union professional theatre) as the Rep? No. But they are part of the mix when competing for resources. That is all a good thing. But it does mean that people have to make choices for their time and money.
The “Next Act” for the Rep will have to take this new environment into account. It can be a scary but also exciting time to see what happens.
As the Rep’s board reassesses its future, it is important for the Little Rock community to come together to support live, professional theatre in Little Rock. We must also redouble our efforts to support other cultural institutions. For people who came to Little Rock after 1980, they do not not remember a time without the Rep, the Symphony, the Arts Center, the Ballet. But there were times without them. We cannot take them for granted.
Over the years, many other cultural anchors in Little Rock have faced uncertain financial futures. This spring marks 50 years that the Arts Center faced closing its doors if it did not take drastic measures. To keep afloat, It dropped its unsustainable model (very expensive degree granting programs) which eventually gave rise to the establishment of the Museum School, the Children’s Theatre, and a combination of permanent and temporary exhibits. (When the degree granting program was underway, it basically took over all the spaces for academic purposes.) In 1968, there was much hand-wringing and uncertainty. But, as was pointed out in newspaper articles at the time, this decision allowed for it to return to its original mission. And look what we have today!
Other theatres across the country have taken these steps the Rep took to stop. Some have restarted. Most have not. (I don’t have numbers in front of me, this is based on anecdotal memory from about 30 years of reading many national theatre publications). It is up to us to put the Rep in the “Re Start” category.
I certainly hope this is a Reset for the Rep, not an RIP.