A Rep-trospective

It was one year ago today, on April 24, 2018, that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre announced it was cancelling its last production of the season and suspending operations.

Most of its fans were in shock.  Some had heard rumblings that not everything was copasetic financially.

As supporters worked through the stages of grief, they asked: “How had this happened?” “Is there a path forward?” “What can we do to Save the Rep?”

In the coming days it was confirmed that the situation had not happened overnight. As with many other businesses and people, the Rep had been living off of future proceeds. And when those failed to materialize from ticket sales and donations, something drastic had to be done.

And many things were done.

After the decision to suspend operations and lay off most of the staff (with the remaining staff having no assurances of continued employment come Labor Day), longtime supporters Ruth Shepherd and Bill Rector stepped in as part of a volunteer interim leadership team.  Together with Board members and other supporters they were able to map out a strategy to stem financial losses which gave the organization a modicum of breathing room in order to assess more permanent next steps. (Incidentally, Rector’s father performed much the same function for the Arkansas Arts Center fifty years earlier in 1968 when it had faced a similar situation.)

Rep founder Cliff Fannin Baker stepped in to as interim artistic director to help determine options for moving forward, provided that finances stabilized.

The John & Robyn Horn Foundation approved a challenge grant of $25,000 designated for “General Support” and the Windgate Charitable Foundation provided a challenge grant for $1,000,000, with an initial payment of $75,000 for operating needs. Unlike some challenge grants, Windgate did not withhold payment until the entire $1,000,000 had been raised.

Community leaders including Skip Rutherford and Stacy Sells staged a “Save the Rep” rally which drew hundreds of people to Main Street on a sweltering May evening and raised money for the Rep.

Education offerings continued at the Rep’s annex on Main Street and, in fact, were expanded under the leadership of Anna Fraley Kimmell.

One of the Rep’s problems had been it owned four properties which made it real estate rich, but cash poor.  In August, the Rep sold an apartment building used to house visiting actors.  The sale cut the property debt in half and offered some much-needed financial assets.  Also that month, the biennial Gridiron show pledged all of its proceeds to support the Rep.

Focus groups and community meetings garnered input from patrons throughout Central Arkansas.

Then, just as it appeared the Rep was hitting its stride on the way to renewal, the unthinkable happened.  Baker suffered an aneurysm and died a few days later.  In addition to working on setting the season, he was set to direct the first show of the rebooted Arkansas Rep.

Through grief, the Rep continued to push forward.  In November, the new season was announced. It would be four shows plus a youth show running throughout 2019.  A few weeks later, the Rep’s new leadership was announced.

Tony winning Broadway producer Will Trice, a Little Rock native who acted on the Rep’s stage in the 1990s as a teenager, would become the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director.  While he won’t be in Little Rock as a full-time resident until the summer, he is already on the job as he splits his time between New York City and Little Rock.  The staff is gradually getting built out, as well.

Native Gardens opened last week as the second production of the season (following February’s run of Chicago).

Whither Arkansas Rep in the future?

Long-term financial stability is still a goal, not yet a guaranteed reality.  Finances are in better shape, to be certain.  But the fact remains – theatre is expensive. Even though the Rep has a leaner structure, there are basic levels that cost.  There still is the ever-present balancing act of offering productions that audiences will want to see yet are economically feasible.

The influx of money that was given over the past year must be maintained…and grown. Each year! There is not an apartment building to sell for $750,000 this year.  While there are ticket sales, unlike this time last year, those sales are not pure profit. And the profit margin on musicals is traditionally smaller than on plays.

Audiences cannot lapse into the “Arkansas Rep has reopened, all crises averted” fallacy.  Their attendance, their money, their passion, their excitement, their word of mouth, their money (yes it is that crucial that it bears repeating) is needed.  In non-profit theatre, ticket sales NEVER cover all the costs. This applies to Rep, for certain. And while no dollar amount is too small, moving it forward will require people to increase their investment.

And the Rep’s financial need is not occurring in a vacuum. Major cultural institutions and smaller organizations are also needing financial support.  Area universities are struggling because of declines in student enrollment (due partially to dropping birth rates two decades ago) so they need increased donations to sustain operations. Few large Arkansas-based businesses are able to provide substantial contributions.

When it comes to the Rep and other cultural entities, it cannot be either/or. It must be a both/and mentality.

So…. Where is Arkansas Rep today?

Certainly better off than it was a year ago.

It has defied the odds and come back from the suspension of operations. Many, if not most, theatres that take a pause never resume.

There is a lot of work left to do. But with a collective effort, it is possible.

To quote from Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America, which the Rep produced in the 1990s, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. … More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

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18 Cultural Events from 2018 – Arkansas Rep announces pause in operations

In April the Arkansas Rep announced it was immediately suspending operations. It cancelled the final production of the season and laid off much of its staff.  The 2018-2019 season which had been announced only weeks earlier was also cancelled.

The financial woes were a result of lagging ticket sales and donations coupled with raising expenses and mounting debt. The Rep had four pieces of real estate which caused a financial strain on the organization.

Longtime Rep Board members Ruth Shepherd and Bill Rector stepped in as unpaid practically full-time staff members to help run the theatre.  Rep founder Cliff Baker served as an artistic advisor.

A rally in early May, organized by Skip Rutherford, Stacy Sells, and others, not only raised some money for the Rep, but also rallied spirits.  Later in May, the Windgate Foundation announced a challenge match program for the Rep.

The Rep Board also worked to shore up its finances by selling off one of its properties and consolidating the debt.

Throughout the summer, a skeleton crew on staff continued to work.  The summer education programming continued which kept a literal sense of excitement going in the Rep’s facilities. (Kudos to Anna Fraley Kimmell and her merry band of cohorts!) By August, the Rep announced it had achieved some of its milestones and would be moving forward with announcing a 2019 season.  In November 2018, the plans for the 2019 season were announced.  More announcements about Rep staffing are forthcoming.

Just as the Rep was making headway, founder Cliff Baker fell ill and shortly thereafter died. There will be a separate entry about that later in this chronological countdown.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: OVATION! in 1999

Upon his retirement (the first time) from Arkansas Rep, founder and artistic director Cliff Fannin Baker was feted with a special performance celebrating his career with the Rep.  The entire evening was called “Ovation!” and included a pre-performance reception, a special revue celebrating Cliff’s career, and a performance of As Bees in Honey Drown, which Cliff directed.

Ruth Shepherd and Helen Buchanan co-chaired the evening, which took place on September 21, 1999.  Jana Beard was involved in the conception and direction of the performance.

The program started with a welcome from Mimi Dortch, the first Rep Board chair; Bill Rector, a former Rep Board chair who had been instrumental in the move to the Rep’s Main Street location; and Carol Corley, who was the 1999-2000 Rep Board chair.

The performers included Michael Davis, Don Bolinger, Shannon Farmer, Vivian Morrison Norman, Candyce Hinkle, Debbie Rawn, Jana Beard, Debbie Weber, Mary Twedt Cantrell, Mark Johnson, Judy Blue., Jean Lind, and Phyllis Blumenfeld.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sent a videotaped message that was played and followed by a video which highlighted Cliff’s career.  Lt. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller presented Cliff with the 1999 Governor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement.  Also that evening, longtime Rep staffers Lynn Frazier and Guy Couch were presented with Cliff Fanning Baker Awards for extraordinary service to the Rep.

After a brief intermission, the evening continued with As Bees in Honey Drown. The show was directed by Cliff and was the final show of the Cliff Fannin Baker era (Part I).

Arkansas Rep reports much progress as they continues steps to their Next Stage

Two months since the Arkansas Repertory Theatre announced it would suspend productions due to significant cash flow issues, fiscal year end reports show significant progress being made in efforts to save the state’s largest nonprofit, professional theatre.

“As of June 30, The Rep is now current with all of its trade vendors and has secured operations and current staff through August 14,” said Ruth Shepherd, Rep board chair and interim leadership team member.

Reporting an emergency deficit of $750,000, The Rep Board of Directors decided earlier this year to suspend productions, resulting in the layoff of two-thirds of its administrative and artistic staff, as well as the cancellation of the final show of the theatre’s 2017-2018 season.

Now concentrating on rebounding from the current financial crisis, Rep leadership has pledged to reassess, refocus and revision a theatre which is professional, affordable and sustainable. The board of directors has appointed an interim leadership team consisting of Shepherd, fellow board member Bill Rector and Rep founding artistic director Cliff Baker.

Since “going dark” on April 24, The Rep has received almost 900 gifts totaling more than $422,000 and has secured two challenge grants – one from the John and Robyn Horn Foundation and another from the Windgate Charitable Foundation – valued collectively at $1,025,000.

The theatre has also finalized the sale of Peachtree Apartments, a 16-unit complex used for actor housing that has been among The Rep’s real estate holdings for more than 30 years. Proceeds from the sale will effectively cut The Rep’s property debt “almost in half,” according to Rep interim leadership team member Bill Rector, who negotiated the sale for The Rep with Rick Freeling of RPM Group representing buyers Mark Brown and Jill Judy. The sale closed on June 20.

Shepherd said a steering committee comprised of more than 60 community and business leaders are working with the Rep Board of Directors to develop a plan targeted for presentation in mid-August for the future of the 42-year-old beloved Arkansas cultural institution.

“Continuing campaign goals include creating board-directed funds such as operating and facilities reserve funds and a subscription escrow,” said Shepherd. “Such funds will enable The Rep to operate with a more fiscally sound business model moving forward. At this point, every gift to The Rep is about our future.”

“So, while the news is good, it is not yet great,” said Shepherd. “There is still a lot of hard work to be done, but we are certainly feeling more confident that with the continued support of our audiences and community, we will ultimately come out of this unfortunate situation with a stronger and more resilient theatre.”

Arkansas Repertory Theatre was founded in 1976 with a mission to produce a diverse body of work intended to illuminate the human condition through great storytelling and is the largest non-profit professional theatre company in the state. Having produced more than 350 shows (including 40 world premieres), the 377-seat theatre is located in downtown Little Rock where it serves as the anchor of the city’s Creative Corridor.

Future of The Rep focus of Clinton School program today at 12 noon

Arkansas Repertory Theatre is the state’s largest nonprofit professional theatre and one of the most critically acclaimed performing arts organizations in the region.

Since The Rep announced it was suspending operations on April 24, a groundswell of support has emerged from the community. Volunteers hosted a Rally for the Rep on May 1 directly in front of the theatre.

Ruth Shepherd has been involved with The Rep for more than 40 years. Shepherd first served as chair of Friends of The Rep before joining the theatre’s staff for three years as Development Director in the 1980s. She chaired the committee that hired Bob Hupp, who served as producing/artistic director for 17 years, and was serving as chair-elect when the theatre announced its plans to go dark on April 24.

Shepherd, along with long-time board member Bill Rector and Rep founder Cliff Baker, are serving as an Interim Leadership Team as The Rep reimagines itself to be Arkansas’ Theatre that is professional, affordable, and sustainable.

All Clinton School Speaker Series events are free and open to the public.

Repertorium Praeter Theatrum

An Update on Plans to #SaveTheRep!

Since the Arkansas Repertory Theatre made the announcement on April 24, 2018, that the theatre were suspending operations, several important steps have been taken.

Overall, they can be summarized by the mantra which is guiding the Rep leadership during this time:  PROFESSIONAL, AFFORDABLE, & SUSTAINABLE.

  • Within just the first few weeks since the news broke, the Rep has received more than 550 gifts totaling almost $220,000.  Every dollar given right now is being matched by the Windgate Charitable Foundation, and monthly and multi-year pledges make it possible to be even more generous with giving.
  • The Rep Board has appointed a volunteer Interim Leadership Team consisting of Rep founder Cliff Baker and Rep board members Bill Rector and Ruth Shepherd.
  • The Rep has formed an “Our Next Act” Steering Committee of board and community leaders who are examining every facet of Rep operations and make recommendations to The Rep Board for action. The aim is to have a plan by mid-August about how to reopen The Rep after this brief intermission.
  • The theatre is in the process of selling the building which was used as actor housing.  That will reduce our property debt by nearly half.  There are many more options for housing actors downtown near the Rep than there were when those apartments were originally acquired.
  • The Rep is planning community listening sessions to get Little Rock’s best thinking and ideas. Check soon on the Rep’s website to learn how you can participate.  (Also, make plans to attend the Clinton School presentation on the future of the Rep featuring Ruth Shepherd on Thursday, June 7 at 12 noon at Sturgis Hall.)
  • The education programs will continue throughout the summer with programming for rising K-12 students. There are still a few slots left, so check the education section of the Rep’s website for class information.

While much progress has been made, the work is far from over.  The Rep still needs support from the public, financial and otherwise.

Repertorium Praeter Theatrum

Little Rock Look Back: May 31, 1968 – a day of transition for the Arkansas Arts Center

AAC Logo in 1963

An arts organization in financial crisis.
Programming abandoned
Summer education programming for students
Staff laid off
A challenge grant from donors
A community fundraising drive

Sound familiar?

In January 1968, the Arkansas Arts Center made the decision to cease operating a degree-granting education program effective May 31 of that year.  Sixteen faculty members lost their jobs, though a couple were retained for other positions within the organization.

After opening in May 1963 and beginning the degree-granting program in September 1964, the Arkansas Arts Center found itself operating at a deficit each year.  While Jeannette and Winthrop Rockefeller made up the deficits, it was not a sustainable model.  (Mrs. Rockefeller had been the president of the AAC board for several years after she and her husband played leadership roles in the statewide fundraising efforts to establish the AAC.)

Though the degree-granting programs were bringing national recognition to the AAC, they had essentially taken over the entire facility.  The theatre was rarely available for children’s programming or community groups. The galleries were given over largely to the displaying the works of the students and faculty.  What had been envisioned as a facility melding world-class arts with community arts, was not functioning that way.

As such, the statewide membership program was suffering. Without the creation of programming in Little Rock, it was difficult to take any substantial arts offerings out to the membership clusters throughout the state. This resulted in the decline of memberships being purchased.

Following the announcement of the cessation of the degree-granting program, the AAC Board sought ways to more fully engage the public.  Part of this was due to the fact that the Arts Center had a deficit of $295,216 (the equivalent of $2.15 million today).  The only profitable part of the AAC operation was the gift shop.  With that level of deficit, the permanent closure of the AAC was certainly a possibility on people’s minds.

A committee studying the future of the AAC decided to focus on five (5) areas.  (And of course, AAC founding mother Jeane Hamilton was part of this effort.)  The areas were Education (community classes for children and adults), Exhibits (a return to a mix of permanent and traveling exhibitions), Theatre (partnerships with Community Theatre of Little Rock and the creation of children and teen theatre productions), State Services (refocusing the Artmobile to include educational instruction), and Membership. This would result in a net budget of $260,000.

In April 1968, a fund drive was announced led by former Little Rock Mayor Byron Morse.  The goal was $130,000, to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Rockefellers.  As of May of that year, it had raised $108,731.

There are many parallels between the AAC in 1968 and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s current predicament. While the causes of the financial woes may be different, the cures are very much the same.

Then, as now, the citizens of Little Rock and Arkansas had to step up and financially support an arts organization in financial crisis.  Whereas the Rockefellers were matching gifts in 1968, the Windgate Foundation is matching gifts now.  Just as the Arts Center renewed its focus on the community and redefined the way it did business, the Rep is now facing these same processes and predicaments.

What the future Rep will look like in terms of numbers and types of productions remains to be seen.  But the core leadership team is touting a mantra of Professional, Affordable, and Sustainable.  All of these are laudable. All are attainable. But all will require continued community commitment year in and year out.

An interesting side note: a key Arts Center Board member in 1968 was William Rector, the father of longtime Rep Board member Bill Rector who is currently part of the interim leadership team at the Rep.  Let’s hope Bill has the same success in his endeavor as his father did.

Viva Center Artium
Repertorium Praeter Theatrum