Tag Archives: Cliff Fannin Baker

The Twenty-First Day of the Month of September: A Remembrance of LITTLE SHOP at Arkansas Rep

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.

Advertisements

Scenes from Arkansas Rep candlelight memorial to Cliff Fannin Baker

Here are a few photos from the candlelight service at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre honoring the memory of Cliff Fannin Baker.

The attendees ranged from supporters dating back to the pre-Rep days all the way up to current students in the Rep’s youth education programming.  There were a lot of hugs, a few tears, some smiles and laughs, and a wonderful sense of community.

Arkansas Rep announces candle lighting tonight in memory of Cliff Fannin Baker

On Thursday, September 6, at 8pm (CDT), the Arkansas Rep will light a candle in memory of its founder Cliff Fannin Baker.

For those who are able to attend, the gathering in the Rep lobby will start at 7:30 pm. For others across the world, the Rep hopes they will feel the collective energy and love in support of this wonderful man and true artist.

A formal celebration of life will be scheduled at a later date.

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.

Update on Cliff Baker

Cliff Baker’s husband Guy Couch has posted the following update on social media:

Dear Cliff is not making any progress, so, after meeting with the doctors again today, we have made the awful decision to remove him from life support tomorrow. His family in Missouri and my family in Arkansas have been informed.

The doctors confirmed that the damage from his aneurysm last Monday was so massive that he could never recover or live a meaningful life. Cliff had an aortic aneurysm in 2012, and we had talked many times about his wishes, so I feel comfortable about this decision, as much as I hate it.

I’m sorry he can’t have visitors or greet you one last time, but he would want to be remembered in your heart as Cliff, the sweet, open-hearted guy who made the world go round.

Thanks. Take good care. We’ll celebrate when the time is right!

Arkansas Rep announces news about Rep founder Cliff Baker

Arkansas Repertory Theatre board chair Ruth Shepherd announced today (September 2) that Rep Founder Cliff Fannin Baker is in the hospital in New York City.

On Monday, August 27, while participating in a corporate workshop, Cliff collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he received surgery due to an intercranial brain hemorrhage.

Shepherd said, “Members of The Rep board, staff and all who love Cliff are praying for his recovery. His spouse Guy Couch, also a long time Rep employee, is with him. We ask that all respect their privacy at this difficult time.”

Since April 24, when The Rep announced suspension of MainStage productions, Baker has been serving as an artistic advisor and has been very involved in planning for the re-opening of a new season at The Rep in 2019.

orationes pistorum retrudi iussit in praeceps

 

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.