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: Charles Portis’ DELRAY’S NEW MOON in 1996

When you’ve written one of the great American novels of the second half of the 20th Century and seen it turned into an Oscar winning movie, what do you do next?  You continue writing.

And if you are Charles Portis, you decide in the 1990s to try your hand at a play.  So in 1996, the Arkansas Rep offered a staged reading of Portis’ play Delray’s New Moon. 

Directed by Rep Artistic Director Cliff Baker, it was set in a honky tonk hotel halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. Most of the people there are senior citizens awaiting their next location whether it be a nursing home or a relative’s house.

The cast featured Scott Edmonds played a father being shuffled each month between his daughters played by Judy Trice and Natalie Canerday.  Others in the cast included Danielle Rosenthal, Jean Lind, John Stiritz, Michael Davis, Graham Gordy, Stacy Breeding, Angel Bailey, Rhonda Atwood and Tom Kagy.

The production ran from April 18 to 28.  The normally reclusive Portis participated in talkback sessions following performances.

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: The 1986 production of THE FOREIGNER

Blasny Blasny.  Larry Shue’s 1984 farce THE FOREIGNER made its first of four appearances on the Arkansas Rep stage in January 1986.

Directed by Cliff Fannin Baker, it featured Terry Sneed as the title character, a mild-mannered man who pretends to be a non-English speaking foreigner to avoid interactions with locals at a small-town hunting resort.

Others in the cast were Steve Wilkerson, Mark Johnson, Ron Aulgur, Scott Edmonds, Natalie Canderday and Jean Lind.

The production ran from January 16 through February 9 of 1986. It was so popular that it sold out its run. Standing room only ticket holders filled all available spaces.  Gov. Bill Clinton called for tickets and could not be accommodated.

It has subsequently been mounted at the Rep three times more: during the 1987/88, 1995/96 and 2008/09 seasons. It is the only play to have been staged that many times in the Rep’s history.

The 1988 staging featured Wilkerson, Sneed, and Johnson reprising their roles.

 

 

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1985 World Premiere of THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre set the American regional theatre world abuzz with its world premiere of a musical version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan.

Director Cliff Fannin Baker received many telephone calls from his colleagues who were surprised that the Brecht estate had given its authorization for a musicalization to a small professional theatre in Little Rock.

The songs were written by Arkansas native Michael Rice using as a libretto the Eric Bentley translation of the original Brecht work. Rice also served as music director, leading a seven member orchestra as it played the nineteen songs he wrote.

As director, Baker used many Brechtian techniques to stay true to the story. These included music, neon signs, and non-traditional costuming for some of the characters.  Speaking of costumes, Little Rock fashion designer Connie Fails designed the clothing for the production.

Others on the creative team included Michael R. Smith (a set that was described as “dazzling, trashily opulent”) and Kathy Gray.

The title character was played by Vivian Morrison (now Vivian Norman). Other leading roles were played by Mark Johnson, Terry Sneed, Dianne Tack, and Mychael McMillan (in drag).  Playing a trio of gods were Ronald J. Aulgur, Scott Edmonds, and Candyce Hinkle. Others in the cast included Jean Lind, Ruth Shepherd, Kathryn Pryor, Judy Trice, Carol Ann Connor (now McAdams), Ginny Pace, and Jeff Bailey.

The production took place at the Arkansas Arts Center Theatre instead of the Rep’s facility on 11th Street.  With a cast of twenty and extensive set changes, the production needed more space than the Rep’s home could accommodate.

The Good Woman of Setzuan opened on June 13 and ran through June 22.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1979’s DAMES AT SEA

Guy Couch kicks up his heels while swabbing the deck in DAMES AT SEA.

Take every showbiz cliche imaginable, mix it with a score that is a pastiche of Warner Bros. 1930s musicals, and throw in a bit of World War II nostalgia – you get DAMES AT SEA.  With a cast of six, it was a perfect selection for the Arkansas Rep in the autumn of 1979.

Directed by Cliff Fannin Baker, it featured Jeannie LeMay, Robert Boles, Phyllis Blumenfeld, Guy Couch, and Craig Fuller in the cast.  Also in the cast, as the newest full-time member of the Arkansas Rep company was a young actress/chanteuse named Sharon Douglas. Over the next decade or so she would become closely identified with the Rep.

Multi-talented Jean Lind (who often acted in Rep productions) played the keyboard and served as musical director leading a pit band of three other musicians.

Dames at Sea kicked off the 1979-1980 season.  It ran from September 27 to October 14.  That year the Rep also celebrated ownership of its building. Because of grants it had received, it was able to accelerate the financing for the purchase of the building. As an Arkansas Gazette article pointed out, because of the grant they were able to keep tickets to $5 instead of charging $14.80 for tickets to the shows. (The latter would be the equivalent of $49.97 in 2018 .)

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.)