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.”

Rockefeller & Pryor: The New Generation is focus of Clinton School program this evening

The next generation of two longtime Arkansas political families will be the focus of a Clinton School program this evening (March 29).

The program, starting at 6pm, will feature a conversation with Will Rockefeller and Adams Pryor moderated by Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford.  It will be at Sturgis Hall.

Will Rockefeller works for Winrock Group Inc. in Little Rock and served on the staff of United States Senator John Boozman from 2011-2016.  He earned his B.A. in History from Rhodes College and an MBA from the University of Arkansas. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Real Estate Development from Georgetown University. He is the son of the late Arkansas Lt. Gov Win Rockefeller and the grandson of the late Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller.

Adams Pryor graduated from the University of Arkansas and is currently a third-year law student at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Following his law school graduation, he hopes to work for an international development NGO. He is the son of Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor and the grandson of Arkansas Governor and Senator David Pryor.

All Clinton School Speaker Series events are free and open to the public. Reserve your seats by emailing publicprograms@clintonschool.uasys.edu or by calling (501) 683-5239.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. in conversation with Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford this evening

Today (March 28) at noon, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. will deliver his first State of the City Address. This evening at 6pm at Sturgis Hall, he will be featured at the Clinton School as part of the Clinton School Speaker Series.

In January, Frank Scott, Jr. was sworn in as the City of Little Rock’s first elected African-American mayor after running on a campaign that promised unity and change.

Previously, Scott was an executive with First Security Bank and spent five years in leadership in the Office of Governor Mike Beebe, first serving as deputy policy director and later as director of intergovernmental affairs. Prior to his work on state issues, Scott was a distribution operations manager for Target’s Central Arkansas distribution center.

Scott served as a state highway commissioner and on the board of directors for both the Little Rock Port Authority and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Arkansas. Scott has focused his professional career on giving back to the community, city, and state that has invested so much in him.

The program will feature a conversation between Scott and Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford, offering a behind-the scenes look at the campaign, strategy, coalition building and victory of Little Rock’s first popularly elected African-American mayor.

All Clinton School Speaker Series events are free and open to the public. Reserve your seats by emailing publicprograms@clintonschool.uasys.edu or by calling (501) 683-5239

Skip Day! Happy Birthday to Skip Rutherford!

Though a native of Batesville (and a proud booster to this day), James L. “Skip” Rutherford has lived in Little Rock for many years. While he was a student at the University of Arkansas, he probably never envisioned the impact he would have on the cultural scene of Little Rock.

After moving to Little Rock, Skip (and his wife Billie) became civic boosters which often involved attending or promoting cultural events.  However, by the mid-1990s, this moved into a whole new realm.

Skip was one of the visionaries behind the creation of a Central High Visitors Center.  His interest in this project combined his interests in public service, public policy, and public schools. This was an extension of his work as an aide to Senator David Pryor from 1979 to 1983 and a Little Rock School Board member from 1987 to 1991.  As the 40th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High approached, Skip worked with Mayor Jim Dailey and others to plan the 1997 commemoration activities as well as the 1998 recognition of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

A few weeks after the Central High 40th anniversary events in September 1997, President Clinton announced that Little Rock would be the site of his Presidential Library.  As President of the Clinton Foundation, he was involved in the planning for not only the construction of the building but also the grand opening festivities.  Through his efforts, the City’s major cultural institutions all had events in conjunction with the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center.

In 2006, he followed Sen. David Pryor in the role of Dean of the Clinton School of Public Service.  Among his accomplishments in this role has been the expansion of the Clinton School Speaker Series. This free series of lectures and public discussions has added immensely to Little Rock’s cultural life. Topics range from foreign relations to domestic policy, from social services to community philanthropy, The lecture series has also focused on productions at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, guest artists with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, books by historians, and many other cultural topics over the years.

That he would oversee the expansion of this lecture program should not be a surprise.  He is also the founder (in 1983) of the Political Animals Club. While the original, non-partisan group still meets regularly in Little Rock, several other affiliates have been created in other portions of the state. He has always been one for civil, civic dialogue.

In April and May 2018, Skip was one of the civic leaders who stepped up to promote efforts to save the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. He was also involved in the planning and promotion of the Elizabeth Eckford Bench which was installed near Little Rock Central High School in September 2018.  Later that month, he presided over an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

Earlier this month, the Clinton School partnered with UA Little Rock Downtown for the a Clinton School program which discussed the 1930s mural which has been restored and now hangs in the new UA Little Rock space.  2019 will offer more opportunities for his civic and cultural boosterism, as well.

18 Cultural Events from 2018 – Arkansas Rep announces pause in operations

In April the Arkansas Rep announced it was immediately suspending operations. It cancelled the final production of the season and laid off much of its staff.  The 2018-2019 season which had been announced only weeks earlier was also cancelled.

The financial woes were a result of lagging ticket sales and donations coupled with raising expenses and mounting debt. The Rep had four pieces of real estate which caused a financial strain on the organization.

Longtime Rep Board members Ruth Shepherd and Bill Rector stepped in as unpaid practically full-time staff members to help run the theatre.  Rep founder Cliff Baker served as an artistic advisor.

A rally in early May, organized by Skip Rutherford, Stacy Sells, and others, not only raised some money for the Rep, but also rallied spirits.  Later in May, the Windgate Foundation announced a challenge match program for the Rep.

The Rep Board also worked to shore up its finances by selling off one of its properties and consolidating the debt.

Throughout the summer, a skeleton crew on staff continued to work.  The summer education programming continued which kept a literal sense of excitement going in the Rep’s facilities. (Kudos to Anna Fraley Kimmell and her merry band of cohorts!) By August, the Rep announced it had achieved some of its milestones and would be moving forward with announcing a 2019 season.  In November 2018, the plans for the 2019 season were announced.  More announcements about Rep staffing are forthcoming.

Just as the Rep was making headway, founder Cliff Baker fell ill and shortly thereafter died. There will be a separate entry about that later in this chronological countdown.