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.

Tonight’s the Night! Tony winner Victoria Clark headlines Ovation! at Arkansas Rep

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeupThe Arkansas Repertory Theatre is hosting “Ovation, An Encore Event” on Friday, Oct. 25. The evening celebrates the theatre’s supporters with dinner and a special performance by Tony Award-winner, Victoria Clark.

Ovation gives guests a behind-the-scenes look at the Rep, including props and costumes from previous shows and a seated dinner in one of the rehearsal spaces. Ruth Shepherd and Bill Rector, co-chairs of the event, bring their excitement from decades of volunteering with the theatre and are thrilled to share the space with attendees.

“Because we are hosting Ovation here at the Rep, it will have all the intimacy of a private party with all the pizzazz of a night on the town,” said Shepherd. “Suggested attire is ‘what makes you feel good,’ so put on some feathers or sequins and come on down.”

Victoria Clark earned a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical (The Light in the Piazza) and three additional Tony Award nominations. She has performed in 12 Broadway plays and musicals, several off-Broadway productions, and many well-known films and television shows.

“I can’t wait for this night to get here,” said Will Trice, Executive Artistic Director of the Rep. “It will be a true celebration of what The Rep is all about, with incredible music from one of the most renown performers in the country.”

Tickets range from $200 to $1000, giving guests the option to pick their price point and perks. To purchase tickets, contact Kimberly Miller at kmiller@therep.org or call (501) 378-0445 x 203

Still time to join Arkansas Rep for Ovation starring Tony winner Victoria Clark

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeupMillion Dollar Quartet may have closed yesterday, but there is still an electric performance coming up at Arkansas Rep in October.

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre is hosting “Ovation, An Encore Event” on Friday, Oct. 25. The evening celebrates the theatre’s supporters with dinner and a special performance by Tony Award-winner, Victoria Clark.

Ovation gives guests a behind-the-scenes look at the Rep, including props and costumes from previous shows and a seated dinner in one of the rehearsal spaces. Ruth Shepherd and Bill Rector, co-chairs of the event, bring their excitement from decades of volunteering with the theatre and are thrilled to share the space with attendees.

“Because we are hosting Ovation here at the Rep, it will have all the intimacy of a private party with all the pizzazz of a night on the town,” said Shepherd. “Suggested attire is ‘what makes you feel good,’ so put on some feathers or sequins and come on down.”

Victoria Clark earned a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical (The Light in the Piazza) and three additional Tony Award nominations. She has performed in 12 Broadway plays and musicals, several off-Broadway productions, and many well-known films and television shows.

“I can’t wait for this night to get here,” said Will Trice, Executive Artistic Director of the Rep. “It will be a true celebration of what The Rep is all about, with incredible music from one of the most renown performers in the country.”

Tickets range from $200 to $1000, giving guests the option to pick their price point and perks. To purchase tickets, contact Kimberly Miller at kmiller@therep.org or call (501) 378-0445 x 203

Tickets are on sale for Arkansas Rep’s October 25 special event OVATION!

Image result for victoria clark

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre is hosting “Ovation, An Encore Event” on Friday, Oct. 25. The evening celebrates the theatre’s supporters with dinner and a special performance by Tony Award-winner, Victoria Clark.

Ovation gives guests a behind-the-scenes look at the Rep, including props and costumes from previous shows and a seated dinner in one of the rehearsal spaces. Ruth Shepherd and Bill Rector, co-chairs of the event, bring their excitement from decades of volunteering with the theatre and are thrilled to share the space with attendees.

“Because we are hosting Ovation here at the Rep, it will have all the intimacy of a private party with all the pizzazz of a night on the town,” said Shepherd. “Suggested attire is ‘what makes you feel good,’ so put on some feathers or sequins and come on down.”

Victoria Clark earned a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical (The Light in the Piazza) and three additional Tony Award nominations. She has performed in 12 Broadway plays and musicals, several off-Broadway productions, and many well-known films and television shows.

“I can’t wait for this night to get here,” said Will Trice, Executive Artistic Director of the Rep. “It will be a true celebration of what The Rep is all about, with incredible music from one of the most renown performers in the country.”

Tickets range from $200 to $1000, giving guests the option to pick their price point and perks. Contact the Rep to purchase tickets or learn more about the event.

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.”

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).