The Rep looks to re-emerge in 2019
August 13-19, 2018
By Jay Edwards
For the many people involved in the production of a play, from playwrights to box office staff, from directors to ushers, the phrase, “going dark” can be an unwelcome one. Many citizens of Little Rock may have heard it for the first time last April 24, when the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Arkansas’ longest running nonprofit resident theatre, announced in a press release that it would be immediately suspending operations. This came with one remaining production, “God of Carnage” left on the season’s calendar, with those ticket holders receiving a tax receipt for the ticket value.
“This did not happen overnight,” acting board chairperson Ruth Shepherd said recently from The Rep’s administrative offices at 6th and Main in downtown Little Rock. “We were having a cash flow problem last fall. I don’t consider myself a fundraiser, but I, along with other members of the board, began making phone calls asking our friends for help.”
The response was good, Shepherd said, and in the spring everyone was hopeful that the big musical “Mama Mia” might salvage the year. But that didn’t happen.
“When we went dark, we owed $280,000 in trade payables,” said Bill Rector, who along with Shepherd and Rep founder Cliff Baker make up the leadership team that is implementing a plan to ensure The Rep returns. They are joined by a staff of seven that includes Director of Development Fran Carter and Director of Education Anna Kimmell.
“The strong community monetary response after we went dark is cause for optimism,” Rector says. He adds that the progress over the last three months has been enough to expect that as many as three productions will take place after the first of the year and into the spring.
“People were surprised, shocked really, when the announcement was made last April,” Rector said. “But the response has been phenomenal. We have received over 1,000 individual gifts, which total just shy of a half a million dollars. It is very heartening. People have given what they can, as little as three dollars and all the way up to $25,000.”
The new gifts, along with matching challenge grants from the John and Robyn Horn Foundation and the Windgate Charitable Foundation, for over a million dollars, has allowed The Rep to get up-to-speed with all their creditors.
All of this, along with the recent sale of the Peachtree Apartments, which The Rep owned, has allowed the nonprofit to pay off half of the property debt.
A long history
Forty-two years ago this Nov. 11, the curtain rose on the first Arkansas Repertory Theatre production. It was the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical, “The Threepenny Opera.” The Rep founder Cliff Baker directed the show and played the leading role of Macheath, aka Mack the Knife.
Others in the cast members were 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 old Hunter United Methodist Church on the eastern edge of MacArthur Park. (Harriell’s business Bylites now resides in that location.)
Baker had previously worked at the Arkansas Arts Center Theatre when it was attached to a degree granting MFA program and had 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 The Rep from 1976 until 1999. He stepped in as Interim Artistic Director between the tenures of Bob Hupp and John Miller-Stephany.
“In the beginning, and for years, it was a full time repertory theatre,” Rector said. “There were six actors, all full-time employees, who did every show. They did whatever was needed to make the thing go. And it was interesting seeing people like Scott Edmonds and others in different roles.
“In the recent past we have garnered an excellent reputation nationwide for the quality of our shows. So when we go to cast a show in New York, hundreds come out to audition. People who have been in many Broadway shows want to come here because of that quality. That’s what I’d like to get across to those in the community who have yet to experience this. What a great thing it is, and it’s right here.”
A sustainable future
Rector, a long time Little Rock Realtor, and one of the forces behind reviving Main Street back in the ‘80s, said the money was raised to buy the building that currently houses The Rep, in 1987. He has been involved with The Rep since the beginning, just slightly longer than Shepherd, who says her current role came about from “being in the right place at the right time.”
“I feel fortunate to be doing something I feel is incredibly important,” she said, “and it’s something I really treasure.”
She began the task by getting a group of current and former board members together. “We then asked ourselves, ‘Alright, what are we going to do now? What is really important and is it all worth it?’”
From those early meetings they came up with three main points.
The first was to make it a professional theatre. “We said we would have an agreement with Equity [the professional actors union] going forward,” Shepherd said. “And that we would maintain the high quality in all our productions.”
The second thing they decided on was to make it affordable, which means continuing the current pricing model from the recent past seasons.
Third, it must be sustainable, which, all agree, is crucial. “We will determine what we can earn and raise in donated income before making any final determinations going forward,” Shepherd explained.
Rector added, “I know there is more money out there that will come from people once they hear our plan.”
And that plan is being formulated daily, using information and feedback gained from the town meetings and eight different focus groups.
Shepherd adds that there are talks with UA Little Rock Associate Professor Yslan Hicks to offer opportunities to her performing arts students. “We have had a contract in the past with UA Little Rock to share resources and hope to do this again.
“Every time I talk to someone, they say, ‘I love the Rep,’ or, ‘we have to have the Rep.’ […] My job is to keep reminding people that we need their help. And my message to them is to stay tuned, intermission is almost over.”
Donations may be made online at www.therep.org, or by calling 501-378-0445.
(Photos 1 and 2) In the summer of 2016, the World Premiere of “Windfall” written by Scooter Pietsch, and directed by Jason Alexander, took place on the Arkansas Repertory Stage. (Photos courtesy of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre)
(Photo 3) Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, The Rep’s 2015 Christmas Show.