43 years ago, Arkansas Rep opened first show: THE THREEPENNY OPERA

On November 11, 1976, the curtain went up on the first Arkansas Repertory Theatre production.  It was the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera.  Rep founder Cliff Baker directed the show and played the leading role of Macheath aka Mack the Knife.

Others in the cast included local attorney Herb Rule, Jean Lind, Theresa Glasscock, Connie Gordon and Guy Couch.  Byl Harriell was the technical director and production designer while Donia Crofton was the costume designer.

The production took place in the Rep’s home which was the converted former home of Hunter United Methodist Church on the eastern edge of MacArthur Park.  (Harriell’s business Bylites is now in that location.)

Baker had previously worked at the Arkansas Arts Center theatre when it was attached to a degree granting MFA program. He had also directed shows in other parts of Arkansas.  He returned to Little Rock and founded the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre which performed in Hillcrest.  The Arkansas Repertory Theatre was a step forward with the establishment of a professional repertory company.

The first season of the Rep would include Company, Suddenly Last Summer, Marat/Sade, and Stop the World–I Want to Get Off. Season tickets for a total of seven shows were $30.

Baker served as Artistic Director of Arkansas Rep from 1976 until 1999.

Artober – Theatre. Arkansas Repertory Theatre experiences a reprise.

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.

42 Years of Arkansas Rep

On November 11, 1976, the curtain went up on the first Arkansas Repertory Theatre production.  It was the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera.  Rep founder Cliff Baker directed the show and played the leading role of Macheath aka Mack the Knife.

Others in the cast included local attorney Herb Rule, Jean Lind, Theresa Glasscock, Connie Gordon and Guy Couch.  Byl Harriell was the technical director and production designer while Donia Crofton was the costume designer.

The production took place in the Rep’s home which was the converted former home of Hunter United Methodist Church on the eastern edge of MacArthur Park.  (Harriell’s business Bylites is now in that location.)

Baker had previously worked at the Arkansas Arts Center theatre when it was attached to a degree granting MFA program. He had also directed shows in other parts of Arkansas.  He returned to Little Rock and founded the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre which performed in Hillcrest.  The Arkansas Repertory Theatre was a step forward with the establishment of a professional repertory company.

The first season of the Rep would include Company, Suddenly Last Summer, Marat/Sade, and Stop the World–I Want to Get Off. Season tickets for a total of seven shows were $30.

Baker served as Artistic Director of Arkansas Rep from 1976 until 1999.

An Appreciation of Cliff Fannin Baker

Two times Cliff Baker declined to hire me.

The first was, upon reflection, a “what the hell he thinking even interviewing me I was nowhere qualified for that job?!” situation.

The second time I had three interviews. Met the entire staff. And at the last minute some board members wanted to restructure staffing and go another direction.

I was disappointed. But because it was Cliff, I was not bitter.

I mean, that elfin grin. Those sparkling eyes. You could tell there were fifty-thousand ideas going through his mind at once. He was an encourager and a dreamer.

Cliff Baker willed Arkansas Rep into existence.  He had a merry band of players to join him.  But in the end, it was his vision, his determination, his blood, his sweat, and his tears that made the dream a reality.

The genesis for the Rep predates even the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre. It goes back to the theatre program of the Arkansas Arts Center during its degree granting days.  Cliff worked with Dugald MacArthur who led the dramatic arts section during most of the four years the school existed.   Cliff was part of Of Prisons and Men, the environmental staging production of a new play which was critical of the Arkansas prison system.  It was aborted due partially to the involvement of actual inmates in the production (to the dismay of some in prison leadership system). Though not publicly stated, there was also some discomfort with the tone and tenor of the play.

Earlier this year, Cliff and I talked about this play.  Sometime over the years, he had lost his papers on it.  But longtime Arts Center trustee Jeane Hamilton had hers and gave them to Cliff.   As the theatre production was cancelled and later the entire degree granting program dropped for budget reasons, Jeane had encouraged Cliff to keep dreaming of theatre for Little Rock.  When Mimi Dortch was helping Cliff launch the Rep, Jeane was excited to join in.  (And it was Jeane who recruited Ruth Shepherd to become involved with the Rep.)

I was fascinated to hear Cliff talk about the visits to the prison, the rehearsal process, and the disappointment for the way it ended.  But fifty years later, it was just one stop on his career providing anecdotes from his youthful baptism into the Little Rock theatrical scene.

As a child, I was taken to a production at Cliff’s Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre in Hillcrest.  I could not tell you what it was, nor do my parents remember.  One of my babysitters was in the play.  I may not remember the play or the plot (I was five or six), but I vividly remember the cramped space. There was an electricity to it.  And it showed that theatre did not have to take place in a large auditorium.

The next year, the Arkansas Rep was born in an abandoned church space adjacent to MacArthur Park.  Operating for the first few years as a true repertory company, the same core cadre acted, sold tickets, built sets, and cleaned the building. What Cliff was creating in Little Rock was rare at the time.  Professional theatre did not exist in cities of its size.

My first personal interaction with Cliff was at Arkansas Governor’s School.  They were touring the musical Quilters to campus.  Since I was in Drama at AGS, Cliff and some cast members visited with us.  I don’t remember anything profound he said, but I remember him treating this group of 21 seventeen-year olds with respect.  Later that evening, the light board was not cooperating. So the show actually started with only house lights until the light board started functioning.  Before the show, Cliff gave brief remarks about the show.  He apologized for the technical glitch, but “the show must go on.”  About 15 minutes into it, the theatrical lighting appeared.

Over the years, I saw many shows he directed. Cliff was at home in so many different styles of theatre.

Perhaps one of my favorite Cliff memories was a decade or so back when the Rep produced A Chorus Line. I and some friends were at an event which involved a behind-the-scenes talk about the production.  By this point, Cliff had been retired from the Rep (the first time) for several years but was directing the production.  He and I were sitting at the same table.  A friend of mine who was relatively new to town quite innocently asked, “So what is your connection to the Rep?”  I just about did a Danny Thomas spit take to the drink I was sipping.  Cliff very humbly said, “Well, I have been involved since the first days of it and am now back directing this show.”  He was not upset that someone did not know who he was. He was actually very glad to see many new people continuing to be involved with the Rep.

The Cliff stories keep coming back as I write this. We all have them. He had the ability to make people feel connected, to make you feel you were the most important person in the room.  It was that gift that made him a good director, actor, producer, and fundraiser.

My last conversation with Cliff was on the opening night of Gridiron.  We had chatted earlier in the evening.  Then after the show, I saw he and Guy, right after I had passed Herb Rule.  The three of them played the key male roles in the Rep’s first production: The Threepenny Opera. I teased Cliff that it was time for a revival of that production. He smiled and said, “It was such a fun show to do.” We shook hands and parted ways. I knew he needed to work the room. This was a space filled with people who wanted to support the Rep as it refreshed itself.

When the announcement of the Rep suspending operations was made in April, one of my first thoughts was, quite selfishly, “Damn, I won’t be able to see a Cliff Baker God of Carnage.”  It was the show I had most been anticipating from this season.  As the Rep was working to plan for a new season, I was hopeful that Cliff would be able to mount that production in the new season.  A very dark comedy, it is reminiscent of some of his best work.  Alas, just as the Rep is on the cusp of a new phase, Cliff won’t be there to direct.

But Cliff WILL be there.  He will always be a part of the Rep. It is more than him, but it is very much him.

For the rest of us – those who are left to mourn, to support Guy, to face life after Cliff, I keep thinking of a line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  In it, he said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work.” And there is much unfinished work.  The Rep needs to return to regular programming to be sure.  But it is more than that.  We need to all redouble our efforts to exhibit the compassion, the passion, the wit, and the sincerity he showed. To inspire others to be their best whether in the arts or whatever field they choose.

Cliff Fannin Baker was a Pied Piper, and we were all glad to follow along.

Little Rock Look Back: Arkansas Rep’s First Show

rep-firstOn November 11, 1976, the curtain went up on the first Arkansas Repertory Theatre production.  It was the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera.  Rep founder Cliff Baker directed the show and played the leading role of Macheath aka Mack the Knife.

Others in the cast included local attorney Herb Rule, Jean Lind, Theresa Glasscock, Connie Gordon and Guy Couch.  Byl Harriell was the technical director and production designer while Donia Crofton was the costume designer.

The production took place in the Rep’s home which was the converted former home of Hunter United Methodist Church on the eastern edge of MacArthur Park.  (Harriell’s business Bylites is now in that location.)

Baker had previously worked at the Arkansas Arts Center theatre when it was attached to a degree granting MFA program. He had also directed shows in other parts of Arkansas.  He returned to Little Rock and founded the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre which performed in Hillcrest.  The Arkansas Repertory Theatre was a step forward with the establishment of a professional repertory company.

The first season of the Rep would include Company, Suddenly Last Summer, Marat/Sade, and Stop the World–I Want to Get Off. Season tickets for a total of seven shows were $30.

Baker served as Artistic Director of Arkansas Rep from 1976 until 1999.  Earlier this year, he stepped in as Interim Artistic Director between the tenures of Bob Hupp and John Miller-Stephany.  He is currently preparing to direct Sister Act for the Rep in January 2017.

 

Arkansas Heritage Month – Cliff Baker

cliffCliff Fannin Baker is one of only two people to have been recognized with two Governor’s Arts Awards. He was honored at the first awards in 1991 with an Individual Artist Award and in 1999 with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

He has nearly a half-century of work in the professional theatre.   He was the Founder of Arkansas Repertory Theatre in 1976. He previously was associated with a professional theatre at the Arkansas Arts Center in the 1960s and the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre in the 1970s prior to his founding the Rep.

Baker has directed over 200 productions of every genre in cities as far flung as Beijing (Peking University) to Portland Center Stage, from Houston’s Alley Theatre to the Theatre of the Open Eye in New York. He has a particular passion for new plays, having directed or produced over thirty world and regional premieres.

For five years, he served as Creative Director of Wildwood Park for the Arts. When not directing, he is a corporate leadership consultant for Goss-Reid Associates in New York. Baker is a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and the Dramatists Guild.

Baker will return to the Arkansas Rep in July to be the Interim Artistic Director while a replacement for Bob Hupp is being selected.  He will also serve as the production director for Sister Act in the Rep’s 2016-2017 season.