Artober – Theatre. Arkansas Repertory Theatre experiences a reprise.

October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month. The penultimate feature is Theatre.

At the age of four, my parents took me to the theatre. It was a production of Oliver! A year or two after that, I went to a play produced by the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre in Hillcrest. (Neither of my parents can remember the title of that production.)

It was this theatre that gave rise, in 1976, to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.  Cliff Fannin Baker was the founder.  He had first come to Arkansas in the 1960s to work with the theatre program of Arkansas Arts Center School of Art and Theatre. Once that disbanded in 1968, Baker continued to direct theatrical productions for a variety of community and education theatres throughout the state.

Opening on November 11, 1976, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre was Arkansas’ first non-profit professional theatre. It was housed in an old Methodist church building next to MacArthur Park.  Occasionally it would present performances in other spaces including the UA Little Rock theatre or the Arkansas Arts Center theatre.  By the mid 1980s, the Rep was outgrowing its original location.

In 1988, Arkansas Rep moved to Main Street and served as an anchor for a downtown redevelopment project.  While that project may not have taken hold, the Rep did.  Cliff continued to lead it for over a decade on Main Street until his retirement in 1999.  He was succeeded by Bob Hupp, who came to the Rep from Off Broadway’s Jean Cocteau Theatre.

Hupp led the theatre until 2016.  During that time, he also oversaw a refurbishment and renovation of the Rep’s facility on Main Street.  When he left to take over Syracuse Stage in 2016, Baker returned to the Rep to be the Interim Artistic Director.  A few months later, John Miller-Stephany from the Guthrie Theatre came to Arkansas Rep.

By 2018, Arkansas Rep was facing a mounting financial crisis brought on by lagging donations, weakened ticket sales, increasing production costs, and debt related to real estate the theatre owned.  In April 2018, the Rep suspended operations and most of the staff were laid off.

Baker returned again to be an artistic advisor during this period. He worked with two long-time Rep board members who were serving as volunteer staff: Bill Rector and Ruth Shepherd. The community rallied to “Save the Rep” and responded to some challenge matching gifts offered by the Windgate Foundation. In addition, the Rep was able to restructure the debt.

As Baker was starting to consider shows for a rejuvenated Rep, he died while in New York in September 2018.  The Rep pushed forward and announced four shows for the Rep’s “REPrise” season during calendar year 2019.  In January 2019, it was announced that former Rep actor and Tony winning producer Will Trice was coming back to his hometown to assume the role of Executive Artistic Director.

As the Rep is winding down the season of the four shows announced in November 2018, Trice has announced three new shows for the spring and summer of 2020. In September 2020, the Rep will return to the traditional autumn through summer season schedule.

While F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that “there are no second acts in American lives,” thankfully that does not apply to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. It is currently in Scene 1 of the Second Act.  Let us hope this act has many many more scenes.

Happy Festivus!

In honor of Festivus 2018, here is a photo of Jason Alexander (aka George Costanza) when he was at Arkansas Rep in January 2016 to conduct auditions for the play WINDFALL which he directed at the Rep.  He is pictured with Bob Hupp, who was then Producing Artistic Director of Arkansas Rep.

 

 

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: LES MISERABLES in 2008

The 33rd season of Arkansas Rep opened with its most expensive and expansive production to date – the Tony winning LES MISERABLES.

Rep Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp helmed the production.  With a cast of 29 actors, most of whom played multiple parts, there were over 500 costume pieces, designed by Rafael Colon Castanera. The expansive musical was properly fitted into the Rep’s intimate space due to the scenic design of Robert Kovach.

Douglas Webster and Christopher Carl led the cast as Valjean and Javert, respectively. Maria Couch, Chris Newell, Jeanine Pacheco, Evan Shyer, Nina Sturtz, Mike Accardo and Catherine Smitko played other principal roles.

The cast also included Shelby Kirby, Julia Landfair, Molly Russ, Gracie Stover, Kelsie Adkisson, Michael Bartholmey, Conly Basham, Dustin Beam, Susan Belcher, Luke Bridges, Hannah Bruce, Andrew Buck, Kyle Huey, Mark Ludden, Jeremy Matthey, Laura Medford, Rick Qualls, Matthew Tatus, Pittman Ware and Tyler Whiteside.

Others on the creative team were M. Jason Pruzin (sound), Michael Eddy (lighting), Lynda J. Kwallek (props), Robert Harper (choreography), and D. C. Wright (fight choreography).

The production ran from September 12 through October 12 of 2008.  In March 2014, Webster and Carl returned to the show at Arkansas Rep, again directed by Hupp.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: PROOF by LR Hall Alum David Auburn

Fourteen years after graduating from Little Rock Hall High School, David Auburn received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play Proof.  In September 2002, Arkansas Repertory Theatre produced Proof while the original Broadway run was in its final months.

The production at Arkansas Rep was directed by Producing Artistic Director Robert Hupp.  The cast featured Amy Tribbey, Scott Barrow, Jessica Henson and Curt Karibalis.  (Barrow met his future wife, the former Amy Sabin, while in Little Rock during the run of this show.)

The set, a very realistic craftsman house back porch, was designed by Mike Nichols.  On opening night he was lauded because the production marked his 20th anniversary with the Rep. (In 2018, Nichols is still serving as Technical Director and Resident Scenic Designer for the Rep.)

Auburn was unable to come to Little Rock to see the production. His wife was set to give birth to a child during the run of the show.

When Auburn was growing up in Little Rock, he and his brother were active with the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre which is across MacArthur Park from where the Rep was at the time.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: GYPSY in 2003

In June 2003, the Arkansas Rep went back to the dying days of vaudeville when it presented Gypsy.  Written by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this musical fable looks at the end of vaudeville and the rise of Gypsy Rose Lee.  It was directed by Rep founder Cliff Fannin Baker.

Baker said he had long wanted to do the show, but credited Bob Hupp (his successor as the Rep’s Producing Artistic Director) with figuring out a way to make it happen.

Mary Robin Roth took on the role of Mama Rose. She had previously played Miss Hannigan in Annie at the Rep.  Broadway vets Trista Moldovan and Joyce Chittick played Rose’s daughters Louise and June. In real life those grew up to be Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc.  Others in the cast of approximately 30 included John Kudan, Nicholas Dromard, and Steve Wilkerson.

The creative team included Mike Nichols (scenery), Margaret A. McKowen (costumes), David Neville (lighting) and M. Jason Pruzin (sound). Ron Hutchins choreographed, and Eric Alsford was the musical director.

Even before opening night, the production was extended a week and ended on July 6 instead of June 29.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: ANYTHING GOES in 2001

The Arkansas Rep concluded its 25th season with the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes. Directed by Rep founder Cliff Fannin Baker, it featured an onstage orchestra led by then-Arkansas Symphony maestro David Itkin.  (Rep Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp and Itkin had been trying for a while to find a project for collaboration.)

This shipboard romantic farce featured a book by Guy Bolton & P. G. Wodehouse which was revised before the 1934 opening by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse in their first collaboration. In 1987, Timothy Crouse (son of Russel) and John Weidman updated the script for a Lincoln Center Theatre production. It was that version which the Rep presented.

The cast was led by Rep newcomers Heather Ayers and Pat McRoberts. Kelly Vivian, Thomas-David McDonald, Rick Cox, Julie Conners, Marlene Toth and Steve Wilkerson also were featured.

Others in the cast included Bob Hulsey, Amy Curnow, Annie Mistak, Allison Stodola, Sarah Squire, Miranda Vannoy, Pamela Crane, Buddy Reeder, Case Dillard, Christopher Brown, Don Hill, Daryl Minefee, Matt Crowle, Christopher Crane, Scott Duquette and Joe Terry.

Ron Hutchens was the choreographer. Others on the creative team included Mike Nichols (set), Yslan Hicks (costumes), Japhy Weideman (sound), and Leland Jones (lighting).

The production proved so successful that even before its June 1, 2001, opening night, the run was extended a week. It closed on June 24, instead of the original June 17.