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.

Advertisements

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).

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: KENNEDY’S CHILDREN in 1977

Since October 3, 2018, marks the 55th anniversary of JFK speaking in Little Rock, it seems an appropriate day to feature the 1977 Arkansas Rep production of Robert Patrick’s KENNEDY’S CHILDREN.

The play takes place in a NYC bar on Valentine’s Day 1974 as its denizens speak in intertwining monologues about the 1960s and coping with the disillusions they feel from that earlier decade.  The title comes from the sense that the 1960s after November 1963 were a reaction to the loss of JFK and his idealism.

One of the characters, who was played by Jean Lind at Arkansas Rep, is obsessed with the Kennedy Administration. Others in the cast were Jean Hendrickson, Phyllis Blumenfeld, Scott Edmonds and Barry Carter.  Guy Couch played the important, but non-speaking, role of the bartender who plies the quintet with drinks throughout the play.

In the original production, there is a jukebox which plays musical interludes as transitions. In a nod to director Cliff Fannin Baker’s ingenuity, that role was played by Frank Gordon on jazz clarinet. It actually added a sense of humanity and added soulfulness to the production.

The bar in which the action took place was designed and lit by Byl Harriell.  The physical presence was described by Bill Lewis in the Arkansas Gazette review as a “masterful sleezy bar.”

The production ran from December 1 through 17 in 1977. Tickets were $5.00 a person. (This is the equivalent of $20.80 today.)

31 Day of Arkansas Rep: THE RUNNER STUMBLES in 1979

Pat Brown, director of THE RUNNER STUMBLES

While he directed most shows at the Rep during the early years, Cliff Fannin Baker would bring in guest directors from time to time. One of these was Pat Brown who helmed the February 1979 production of The Runner Stumbles.

A co-founder of Houston’s Alley Theatre, Brown also had connections to Little Rock; she was a niece of Little Rock businesswoman Mae Horn (who dressed ALL the best-dressed men.)

Though Brown had worked all over the US, this was the first time she had directed The Runner Stumbles. This Milan Stitt play had run for 396 performances on Broadway from 1976 to 1978. The Arkansas Rep was one of the first regional theatres to produce the play.  (Side note: the original Broadway production was directed by Austin Pendleton who would later direct A Loss of Roses at Arkansas Rep.)

In his Arkansas Gazette review, Bill Lewis called the production “one of the strongest yet” for the Rep.  He described it as a “compelling, somber drama” that was “impeccably directed and acted with highest octane virtuosity.”  Lewis was not one to mince words, so when he gave praise it was deserved.

The cast for A Runner Stumbles included Craig Fuller, Jean Hendrickson, Scott Edmonds, Jean Lind, Ron Aulgur, Ken Klingenmeier, Jeannine Le May, Robert Boles, and Phyllis Blumenfeld. The show was designed by Byl Harriell.  Guy Couch assisted with set decoration and props.

The production ran from February 1 to 18 of 1979.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: THE THREEPENNY OPERA

October is Arts and Humanities Month.  This year, each day a different past Arkansas Repertory Theatre production will be featured.  This is, in part, a tribute to the late Cliff Baker, and also a countdown to the Rep’s re-emergence.

Up first, is the first Arkansas Repertory Theatre production: 1976’s 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.

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!