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.”

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: ANGELS IN AMERICA (1996 and 1997)

In 1996, the Arkansas Rep presented Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.  It was one of seven professional theatres granted the rights to do the show that season.  The production ran from February 29 to March 17 of that year.

Directed by Brad Mooy, the production came about due to lobbying of the Broadway producers by Rep Artistic Director Cliff Baker.  There was skepticism in New York as to how Little Rock audiences would respond. And, to be honest, there was skepticism in Little Rock, too.  But the rights were granted, and Little Rock embraced the play.

The next season, the Rep brought Part I back to be joined by Part II for the opportunity experience a theatrical marathon.  The Rep’s production was unprecedented in Little Rock. It was not just a rarity for the Rep, such an undertaking had never been done by any theatre in town.

Directed by Brad Mooy, the 1997 dual production required five weeks of rehearsals (more than the usual amount).  Six of the eight actors from the 1996 production returned for the second go around.

As it had been in 1996, the cast was led by Rep favorite Steve Wilkerson. Others in the cast were Caitlin Hart, Jo Anne Robinson, Jonathan Lamer, Jonna McElrath and Ray Ford. The two new additions were Christopher Swan and Ken Kramer.  They played the roles which Barry Stewart Mann and Fred Baker had played the prior year.

The design team included Mike Nichols (sets), Don Bolinger (costumes), David Neville (lighting), Melissa Wakefield (properties), Rob Milburn (sound), and ZFX Inc. (flying).

Pulitzers Play Little Rock: ANGELS IN AMERICA at Arkansas Rep

AIA RepTwenty-five years ago (1993), Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was joined on Broadway in late 1993 with its second half Angels in America: Perestroika.

In 1996, the Arkansas Rep presented Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.  The next season, the Rep brought Part I back to be joined by Part II for the opportunity experience a theatrical marathon.  (The show is currently revived on Broadway and again offering audience members the chance to see both parts in one day.)

The Rep’s production was unprecedented in Little Rock. It was not just a rarity for the Rep, such an undertaking had never been done by any theatre in town.

Directed by Brad Mooy, the 1997 dual production required five weeks of rehearsals (more than the usual amount).  Six of the eight actors from the 1996 production returned for the second go around.

As it had been in 1996, the cast was led by Rep favorite Steve Wilkerson. Others in the cast were Caitlin Hart, Jo Anne Robinson, Jonathan Lamer, Jonna McElrath and Ray Ford. The two new additions were Christopher Swan and Ken Kramer.

The design team included Mike Nichols (sets), Don Bolinger (costumes), David Neville (lighting), Melissa Wakefield (properties), Rob Milburn (sound), and ZFX Inc. (flying).

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE continues at The Weekend Theater

Caroline-or-Change_smWinner of the Laurence Olivier Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for Best New Musical, Caroline, or Change centers its action on the Gellman family and their African-American maid, Caroline. It is now playing at The Weekend Theater.

It is 1963 in sleepy Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline is drifting through her life as a single mother of four working in a service job to a white family. A fragile, yet beautiful friendship develops between the young Gellman son, Noah (who has lost his mother), and Caroline. Noah’s stepmother Rose, unable to give Caroline a raise, tells Caroline that she may keep the money Noah leaves in his pockets. Caroline balks, and refuses to take money from a child, but her own children desperately need food, clothing and shoes.

Regardless of the circumstances, whether it is the death of President Kennedy, her daughter’s growing activism and misunderstood dismissal of what she perceives to be Caroline’s choice to remain a maid, her son’s enlistment in Vietnam, a fight with a newly college-bound friend, or a spin with the dryer, Caroline remains unflappable.

The show features a book and lyrics by Pulitzer and Tony winner Tony Kushner (who based it partially on his own childhood in Louisiana) and music by Tony nominee Jeanine Tesori.  It is directed by Matthew Mentgen and features music direction by Lori Isner.

The cast is led by Satia Spencer in the title role with Johnika Wright, Diondre Wright and Daveon Coleman as her kids. The Gellman and Stopnick families are played by Alex Harkins, Mary Ann Hansen, David Weatherly, Erin Martinez, Adam Smith and Drew Ellis. Caroline’s friends, both human and otherwise, are played by Antisha Anderson Scruggs, Katherine Yacko, Adriana Napolitano, Haley Coughlin, Kenneth Gaddie, Steven Young and Sarah Dailey.

The show continues Friday, Saturday and Sunday this weekend and next.

The 2014-2015 season for the Weekend Theater

WeekendTheaterThe Weekend Theater has announced its 2014-2015 season.  It will kick off next month with the Tony-nominated musical Caroline, or Change.  The season includes classic plays and musicals as well as more recent shows.

Caroline, or Change

Book and Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Score by Jeanine Tesori
June 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 2014
Directed by Matthew Mentgen
Music Direction by Lori Isner

Winner of the Laurence Olivier Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for Best New Musical, Caroline, or Change centers its action on the Gellman family and their African-American maid, Caroline. It is 1963 in sleepy Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline is drifting through her life as a single mother of four working in a service job to a white family. A fragile, yet beautiful friendship develops between the young Gellman son, Noah (who has lost his mother), and Caroline. Noah’s stepmother Rose, unable to give Caroline a raise, tells Caroline that she may keep the money Noah leaves in his pockets. Caroline balks, and refuses to take money from a child, but her own children desperately need food, clothing and shoes. Regardless of the circumstances, whether it is the death of President Kennedy, her daughter’s growing activism and misunderstood dismissal of what she perceives to be Caroline’s choice to remain a maid, her son’s enlistment in Vietnam, a fight with a newly college-bound friend, or a spin with the dryer, Caroline remains unflappable.

 


Next To Normal

Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
July 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, 2014
Directed by Ralph Hyman
Music Direction by Lori Isner

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Next To Normal tells the story of a mother, Diane Goodman, who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. This contemporary musical is an emotional powerhouse that addresses such issues as grieving a loss, ethics in modern psychiatry, and suburban life. With provocative lyrics and a thrilling score, this musical shows how far two parents will go to keep themselves sane and their family’s world intact.

 


The Beauty Queen of Leenane

By Martin McDonagh
August 22, 23, 29, 30, September 5, 6, 2014
Directed by Deb Lewis

Co-winner of the 1998 Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding play and set in the mountains of Connemara County, Galway, Ireland, The Beauty Queen of Leenane tells the darkly comic tale of Maureen Folan, a plain and lonely woman in her early forties, and Mag, her manipulative aging mother, whose interference in Maureen’s first and possibly final chance of a loving relationship sets in motion a train of events that leads inexorably towards the play’s terrifying dénouement.


A Quiet End

By Robin Swados
September 26, 27, October 3, 4, 10, 11, 2014
Directed by Ryan Whitfield

Written in 1985, A Quiet End was one of the earliest dramas to deal with the AIDS crisis in the United States. Three men, a teacher, an aspiring jazz pianist and an unemployed actor, are in a rundown Manhattan apartment. All have lost their jobs and are shunned by their families; they have AIDS. Their interaction with a psychiatrist heard but not seen throughout the play and the entrance of an ex-lover healthy yet unsure of his future provide a forum for exploring the meaning of friendship, loyalty and love. By celebrating the lives of men who, in the face of death, become fearlessly life embracing, the play explores the human side of the AIDS crisis.

 


Topdog/Underdog

By Suzan-Lori Parks
October 31, November 1, 7, 8, 14, 15, 2014
Directed by Jermaine McClure

Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Topdog/Underdog, a darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity, is Suzan-Lori Parks’ latest riff on the way we are defined by history. The play tells the story of Lincoln and Booth, two African American brothers whose names were given to them as a joke, foretelling a lifetime of sibling rivalry and resentment. Haunted by the past, the brothers are forced to confront the shattering reality of their future. Vibrating with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed, this play considers nothing less than the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States, the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa.

 


Other Desert Cities

By Jon Robin Baitz
December 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 2014
Directed by Ralph Hyman

A finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Other Desert Cities involves a family with differing political views and a long-held family secret. Brooke Wyeth returns home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence to celebrate Christmas with her parents, her brother, and her aunt. Brooke announces that she is about to publish a memoir dredging up a pivotal and tragic event in the family’s history—a wound they don’t want reopened. In effect, she draws a line in the sand and dares them all to cross it.

 


No Exit

By Jean-Paul Sartre
Adapted from the French by Paul Bowles
January 16, 17, 23, 24, 30, 31, 2015
Directed by Tommie Tinker

In No Exit, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre tells his story of two women and one man, who are locked up together for eternity in one hideous room in hell. The windows are bricked up; there are no mirrors; the electric lights can never be turned off; and there is no exit. The irony of this hell is that its torture is not of the rack and fire, but of the burning humiliation of each soul as it is stripped of its pretenses by the cruel curiosity of the damned. Here the soul is shorn of secrecy, and even the blackest deeds are mercilessly exposed to the fierce light of hell. It is an eternal torment.

 


The Sound of Music

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II,
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp

February 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, March 1, 2015
Directed by Elizabeth Reha
Music Direction by Lisa Petursson

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this final collaboration between Rodgers & Hammerstein was destined to become the world’s most beloved musical. When a postulant proves too high-spirited for the religious life, she is dispatched to serve as governess for the seven children of a widowed naval Captain. Her growing rapport with the youngsters, coupled with her generosity of spirit, gradually captures the heart of the stern Captain, and they marry. Upon returning from their honeymoon they discover that Austria has been invaded by the Nazis, who demand the Captain’s immediate service in their navy. The family’s narrow escape over the mountains to Switzerland on the eve of World War II provides one of the most thrilling and inspirational finales ever presented in the theatre. The motion picture version of The Sound of Music remains the most popular movie musical of all time.

 


Last Summer at Bluefish Cove

By Jane Chambers
March 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28, 2015
Directed by Lana Hallmark

Winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and seven Hollywood Drama-Logue Awards, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove is the story of a dissatisfied straight woman who leaves her husband to spend some quiet time by herself and who unwittingly and naively wanders into the midst of a group of seven lesbians at the beginning of their annual beachside vacation. She falls in love with the charming leading character who, unknown to her, is dying of cancer. The friendships, the laughter, the love, the fears of being outed, the difficulties of being gay and how it affects relationships with family, children, parents and careers, the demonstrations of what the painful price could be for a gay life 30 years ago in everyday America, had never before been told with such respect. Chambers’ comedic dialogue, sensitivity to human nature and tender treatment of her characters help the play transcend preconceptions and show the universality of these women’s journeys, whether straight or gay.

 


Karski’s Message

By Phillip McMath
April 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, 25, 2015
Directed by Ralph Hyman

A World Premier of local playwright, lawyer and historian Phillip McMath’s well-crafted story of how no one listened or helped when the genocide of the Jews was happening, Karski’s Message is the story of Jan Karski, a Polish World War II resistance movement fighter and later professor at Georgetown University. In 1942 and 1943, Karski reported to the Polish government in exile and the Western Allies, Britain and the United States, on the situation in German-occupied Poland, especially the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the secretive German-Nazi extermination camps. Karski personally met with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust. During their meeting Roosevelt asked about the condition of horses in Poland. Roosevelt did not ask one question about the Jews.

 


The Member of the Wedding

By Carson McCullers
May 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, 30, 2015
Directed by Margaret Pierson Bates

Winner of the 1950 Critics’ Circle Award as the best play, Carson McCullers’ report of a harum-scarum adolescent girl in Georgia is wonderfully—almost painfully—perceptive; and her associated sketches of a Negro mammy and a busy little boy are masterly pieces of writing. This is a study of loneliness is felt, observed and phrased with exceptional sensitivity. The Member of the Wedding deals with the torturing dreams, the hungry egotism, and the heartbreak of childhood in a manner as rare as it is welcome.