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.”

Repertorium Praeter Theatrum

It was two weeks ago yesterday that the Arkansas Rep announced suspension of operations.  It was a week ago yesterday that the Rally at the Rep was held which raised money and community spirit for the Rep.

Supporters of the Rep have made a good start in donating over $113,000 towards the goal of $750,000.  The John & Robyn Horn and Windgate Charitable Foundations have generously extended matching grants to make donated dollars stretch even further.  It does not mean the money woes are eliminated. It just means there is a clearer pathway to reaching the goal.

Yesterday was the final day of employment at the Rep for many folks.  These are good people.  Some grew up here. Others came here to work.  All became a part of Arkansas in addition to becoming part of the Arkansas Rep.

A few staff members remain.  Even when operations are in suspension, there are still tasks to accomplish.

And excitingly the Rep’s Education Department is continuing its summer programming under the leadership of Anna Kimmell.  From June 18 through August 3, there will be a series of age-based sessions for kids ranging in age from kindergarten up to 2018 high school graduates.

The education programming illustrates a key reason the Rep is important.  Yes, the final two-week program is geared toward high school kids and offers a conservatory-style training. It is a wonderful opportunity for those who think they might be interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts.

But a key aspect of all the sessions is the use of the performing arts as forms of self-expression.  Even if the students never set foot on stage again, they have learned confidence. They have learned arts appreciation. They have learned to respect themselves and others.

This is what theatre does. This is what the arts do.

Last weekend, I was in the Rep’s auditorium for the Ballet Arkansas performance.  After it was over, I unexpectedly found myself lingering in the space.  I then realized why.  I wanted to soak in the atmosphere of the room.  So I went up to the lower balcony and walked around.  I snapped the photos which accompany this entry.

I hope I am back in the space for a performance in the coming months.  But I realized it could be even longer in the future.  So I relished the chance to wander around.  And wonder about the future.

In the coming weeks, key supporters of the Rep will be working out a vision for the future of the institution.  Many tough discussions will be had. Many difficult decisions will be made. What will the future look like? Only St. Genesius probably knows. And as the patron saint of actors and comedians, he is not yet telling.

It is said (though it is likely apocryphal) that the Roman Senator Cato the Elder ended each of his speeches with “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem delendam esse” or some variation. Meaning, of course, Carthage must be destroyed.

Since learning that fact from my mother sometime in elementary school (that’s what happens when your mother is a world history teacher), I have been fascinated by Latin phrases.   (When I grow up, I want to be Jed Bartlet who can spout the proper Latin phrase at the right time.)

I especially like the idea of a battle cry in Latin.  It somehow seems more forceful.

So I end this entry, and plan on ending future entries about the Rep with the Latin for “Save the Repertory Theatre” (sorry, Arkansas does not translate well into Latin.)

Repertorium Praeter Theatrum

2 Grants worth more than $1 Million Offered to Arkansas Rep

Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s Board of Directors has announced that they have received two matching grants worth more than one million dollars to fund The Rep’s Our Next Act campaign.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled about these challenge grants. They make it possible for those who love The Rep to double their gift!” Ruth Shepherd, Board Chair-Elect said. “With these gifts the Windgate and John & Robyn Horn Foundations have said loud and clear, ‘We believe in the future of a re-designed Rep.’ So now we need everyone to help us earn that match.”

The John & Robyn Horn Foundation •
The John & Robyn Horn Foundation approved a challenge grant of $25,000 designated for “General Support.”

Windgate Charitable Foundation •
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre received a challenge grant today for $1,000,000. • “I am pleased to notify you that the Board of the Windgate Charitable Foundation has approved a grant of $1,000,000, with an enclosed grant payment of $75,000 for operating needs,” said John E. Brown III, Executive Director of the Windgate Charitable Foundation. The balance of $925,000 is offered as a challenge grant for the Our Next Act Campaign. John E. Brown III concluded his letter, “We wish you great success in the coming year.”

Board Chair, Brian Bush said, “We are incredibly grateful to the Windgate Charitable Foundation and the John & Robyn Horn Foundation. This gives our public campaign the start that we’ve needed.”

Arts & Humanities Month: Arkansas Arts Center showcases Barnet, metal works

The Arkansas Arts Center’s newest exhibits have recently opened.


Will Barnet at the Arkansas Arts Center: A Centennial Exhibition celebrates Barnet’s 100th birthday. The exhibit highlights the museum’s vast array of works by this important 20th and 21st century artist.  The exhibit runs through January 15 in the Townsend Wolfe Gallery.

Tori Study #006 - Hoss Haley

Cast, Cut, Forged and Crushed: Selections in Metal from the John and Robyn Horn Collection showcases works cast in metal by over two dozen artists from the John and Robyn Horn collection.  It runs through January 15 in the Jeannette Edris Rockefeller Gallery.

Continuing at the Arts Center is the Museum School Faculty Exhibition: Past and Present which runs through November 13 in the Sam Strauss, Sr. and Stella Boyle Smith Galleries.

Other events at the Arkansas Arts Center this month include:

Sunday, October 16, 2011 – 6pm: Conversation with David Clemons – Lecture Hall

Thursday, October 20, 2011 – 6:30pm: Jessica Nicoll lecture “Will Barnet: A Life’s Work in Context” – Lecture Hall

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 – 7pm: The Arts in Motion Film Series: Ballets Russes