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.

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.

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: 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.