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 – 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.

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.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 2017’s SISTER ACT

Based on the 1990s film of the same name, Sister Act marked Cliff Fannin Baker’s final directing assignment at Arkansas Rep.

No one knew it at the time, which is just as well. It was a joyous uplifting experience which was what Cliff would have wanted people to have for his final Rep show.

The show was selected by Bob Hupp to be part of the transition season after his departure. Baker had previously indicated interest in directing the show if Hupp ever programmed it for the Rep.

So from January 24, 2017 through March 5, 2017, Baker’s production filled the Rep.  It had originally been set to end on February 26 but was extended a week.

The cast was led by Soara-Joye Ross with Tracy Bidleman, Erica Lutstig, Susan J. Jacks, Jennie Boone, Patrick Clanton, Monte J. Howell, Cornelius Davis, Ton Castellanos, and Darryl Winslow. Little Rock favorites in the cast included Vivian Norman, Kathryn Pryor, Jay Clark, Monica Robinson, Kelley Ponder, Erin Martinez Warner, Zachary Meyers, and Taylor Quick. KATV’s Alyson Courtney made a cameo as a 1970s TV reporter.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY in 2015

Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County closed out the Arkansas Rep’s 2014-2015 season.

Rep founder Cliff Baker, who starred in the Rep’s first production of The Threepenny Opera returned to the stage as an actor to portray the mysterious patriarch of the Weston clan.

Joining him were Susanne Marley as matriarch Violet and LeeAnne Hutchison, Kathy McCafferty and Brenny Rabine as their three daughters.  Marc Carver, Michael McKenzie,  and Mary Katelin Ward are family members of the three daughters.

Natalie Canerday, Richard Waddingham and Michael Patrick Kane played another branch of the family. Grant Neale and Cassandra Seidenfeld were two other residents of Osage County who are drawn into the family drama.

The design team includes Mike Nichols (set), Marianne Custer (costumes), Yael Lubetzky (lighting), Allan Branson (sound) and Lynda J. Kwallek (props).  Other members of the creative team include fight director D. C. Wright (and there is plenty of physical sparring in addition to the verbal sparring) and dialect coach Stacy Pendergraft.

August Osage Casto

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 2014’s CLYBOURNE PARK

The Arkansas Rep kicked off 2014 with the Pulitzer and Tony winning CLYBOURNE PARK.  Both a prequel and sequel of sorts to A Raisin in the Sun, it looks at the life of a house and a neighborhood.

In 1959, a white couple sells their home to a black family (the fictional Younger family from A Raisin in the Sun), causing an uproar in their middle-class neighborhood. Fifty years later in 2009, the same house is changing hands again, but the stakes have changed.

As neighbors wage a hilarious and pitched battle over territory and legacy, Clybourne Park reveals just how far our ideas about race and identity have evolved.

In 2014, Arkansas Repertory Theatre brought the play to Little Rock in a production directed by the founder of the Rep, Cliff Baker.  The cast included Shaleah Adkisson, Ryan Barry, Katie Cunningham, Lawrence Evans, LeeAnne Hutchison, Robert Ierardi, Jason O’Connell, and David Tennal.

The creative team included scenic designer Mike Nichols, costume designer Yslan Hicks, lighting designer Yael Lubetzky, sound designer Allan Branson and properties designer Lynda J. Kwallek.