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.

On “Little Shop of Horrors Day” remembering Arkansas Rep’s 1996 production

Because it is referenced in the script, September 21 is “Little Shop of Horrors” day.  That brought back memories of productions I have seen and in which I have been involved.

But it also brought back a memory of a production I nearly did not get to see.  In September 1996, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre was preparing to open its season with LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.  When horror struck.

During the Wednesday, September 4, preview performance, actor Kaleo Griffith injured himself severely enough that surgery would be required. He had no understudy.  The show was set to open on Friday, September 6.  The September 5 preview and opening night were cancelled.

Rep Founder/Artistic Director Cliff Baker, production director Brad Mooy and Rep staff sprang into action to try to find someone who could play the part on short notice. Howard Pinhasik, who had played the part before and was available, arrived in Little Rock, rehearsed with the cast, and the show opened one day late on Saturday, September 7.

Others in the cast were Joseph Conz, Kathrynne Haack, Tim Reynolds, David Johnson, Ericka Cooper, Tracey Lee and Tammi Phillips

The show played the rest of its run through September 29, 1996, without incident.  Well other than people getting fed to a talking plant every night.

Arkansas Visual Artists encouraged to apply for more Downtown Little Rock mural projects

Arkansas visual artists are invited to submit concepts and proposals for two new pieces of public art to be installed in downtown Little Rock this fall.

Downtown Little Rock Partnership released an RFP for each site-specific location. The first location is a roughly 900 square foot wall within the first floor of the parking deck at Scott and 6th Streets. The area is included in Baker’s Alley, behind The Rep on Main Street. The second RFP is for a “selfie wall” in SoMa, located at 112 Daisy Bates Drive.

“We are excited to be able to add two new pieces of public art to downtown Little Rock’s growing collection,” said Gabe Holmstrom, Downtown Little Rock Partnership Executive Director. “With the great response to Jason Jones’s “Playtime” mural at Capitol and Main, we want to keep the creative momentum going. We can’t wait to see what our incredible Arkansas artists come up with.”

The deadline to submit proposals for both locations is September 25. Completion of each art installation is set for October 30. To learn more and to submit applications, artists may visit http://downtownlr.com/pages/public-art/murals/.

These projects are an initiative of Downtown Little Rock Partnership’s Public Spaces subcommittee, which is chaired by Carol Worley. As part of its public art strategy, Downtown Little Rock Partnership is dedicated to collaborating with Arkansas artists to present public art that enhances the city’s imaginative capacity, enlivens neighborhoods, contributes to economic vitality, sparks civic exchange, and enhances community connection.

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 – Death of Cliff Fannin Baker

On September 6, 2018, Arkansas Rep founder Cliff Fannin Baker died after suffering a brain aneurism a week earlier in New York.

Patrons and actors from the Rep’s earliest days up to the current effort to reopen the Rep were in shock by the news. From the time the news about his hospitalization was announced on September 2, friends and fans alike came together to share their thoughts, love, prayers, bright lights, etc. in a wish for his recovery.

A memorial service was held in October at the Rep. It featured remarks from longtime colleagues as well as music by Vivian Morrison (accompanied by composer Michael Rice) in a song from PAGEANT and members of the cast of SISTER ACT, the last show Cliff directed at Arkansas Rep.

Cliff founded the Rep in 1976 and led it until 1999. He oversaw it as it went from a small group of actors in an abandoned church into a professional theatre. After retiring from the Rep, he would come back every season or so to direct a production.

Below are excerpts from what I wrote about Cliff upon the news of his death.

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.

[In 1976], 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.

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.

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

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.