October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month. The penultimate feature is Theatre.
At the age of four, my parents took me to the theatre. It was a production of Oliver! A year or two after that, I went to a play produced by the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre in Hillcrest. (Neither of my parents can remember the title of that production.)
It was this theatre that gave rise, in 1976, to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Cliff Fannin Baker was the founder. He had first come to Arkansas in the 1960s to work with the theatre program of Arkansas Arts Center School of Art and Theatre. Once that disbanded in 1968, Baker continued to direct theatrical productions for a variety of community and education theatres throughout the state.
Opening on November 11, 1976, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre was Arkansas’ first non-profit professional theatre. It was housed in an old Methodist church building next to MacArthur Park. Occasionally it would present performances in other spaces including the UA Little Rock theatre or the Arkansas Arts Center theatre. By the mid 1980s, the Rep was outgrowing its original location.
In 1988, Arkansas Rep moved to Main Street and served as an anchor for a downtown redevelopment project. While that project may not have taken hold, the Rep did. Cliff continued to lead it for over a decade on Main Street until his retirement in 1999. He was succeeded by Bob Hupp, who came to the Rep from Off Broadway’s Jean Cocteau Theatre.
Hupp led the theatre until 2016. During that time, he also oversaw a refurbishment and renovation of the Rep’s facility on Main Street. When he left to take over Syracuse Stage in 2016, Baker returned to the Rep to be the Interim Artistic Director. A few months later, John Miller-Stephany from the Guthrie Theatre came to Arkansas Rep.
By 2018, Arkansas Rep was facing a mounting financial crisis brought on by lagging donations, weakened ticket sales, increasing production costs, and debt related to real estate the theatre owned. In April 2018, the Rep suspended operations and most of the staff were laid off.
Baker returned again to be an artistic advisor during this period. He worked with two long-time Rep board members who were serving as volunteer staff: Bill Rector and Ruth Shepherd. The community rallied to “Save the Rep” and responded to some challenge matching gifts offered by the Windgate Foundation. In addition, the Rep was able to restructure the debt.
As Baker was starting to consider shows for a rejuvenated Rep, he died while in New York in September 2018. The Rep pushed forward and announced four shows for the Rep’s “REPrise” season during calendar year 2019. In January 2019, it was announced that former Rep actor and Tony winning producer Will Trice was coming back to his hometown to assume the role of Executive Artistic Director.
As the Rep is winding down the season of the four shows announced in November 2018, Trice has announced three new shows for the spring and summer of 2020. In September 2020, the Rep will return to the traditional autumn through summer season schedule.
While F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that “there are no second acts in American lives,” thankfully that does not apply to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. It is currently in Scene 1 of the Second Act. Let us hope this act has many many more scenes.