On a recent hot afternoon in downtown Little Rock, an SUV was parked along Main Street outside the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The folks sitting inside the vehicle were waiting for the driver, who was standing on the curb, buying tickets through a chain-link fence from a Rep employee.
When Bob Hupp, producing artistic director, talks about the abundant support The Rep receives from the community, this scene comes to mind. Even when it's undergoing a fairly significant renovation and is cordoned off from entry, folks just will not stay away from the place. The fence was added after work began back in late June. Apparently it was necessary because people kept walking in to buy tickets regardless of the fact that it was a construction zone.
Back in the fall of 1988 — when The Rep moved to renovated space on Main Street from a former church next to MacArthur Park — staff members were literally racing to finish up, bolting the seats to the floor shortly before the crowd arrived for opening night, Hupp said.
That was just shy of a quarter of a century ago, when the scrappy, relatively young theater group was making its move into a permanent home. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and the seats that were installed back when Reagan was still in office have been replaced, well ahead of opening night. The Rep renovation also added about 30 seats, bringing the total to 385.
When talking with Hupp and others involved with The Rep about the building's aesthetic condition in recent years, the word "shabby" comes up several times, especially with regard to the "the ugliest carpeting in the world," according to Catherine Hughes, chair of The Rep's board.
"When you would take somebody new to The Rep for their first time, you would just try to divert their gaze upward to the art on the wall or the stairwell or just anything but looking down," she said, laughing. "And I'm sure that carpet was beautiful 20 years ago, when it was first put in."
So how do the board members feel about the state of The Rep now?
"We are absolutely beside ourselves," Hughes said.
Cliff Baker, who founded The Rep and was artistic director for its first 23 years, said he's thrilled with the renovation.
"It started so modestly," he said of the organization. "We founded it in a little storefront, and now to see it settle in and have such a terrific audience base, it's really neat."
Besides the new seating and cosmetic upgrades, several other enhancements will make for a better audience experience, Hupp said. Sight lines, lighting and acoustics have been improved in the main performance space, and in addition to the new seats, another one of the most-requested improvements has been made: a larger women's restroom.
On the mezzanine levels, the back rows of seats were raised eight inches, which might not sound like a lot, but will afford a much better view of the stage. On the second level are four tables that can be reserved to accommodate food and wine before the show.
The mezzanine bar had to be closed three years ago, because "it was just a big mess," Hupp said.
"Literally, the floor was so wavy you felt like you were on a ship," Hughes said. "It was a wreck."
The room has been completely rehabbed and will now be called Foster's at The Rep after former chairman of the board Vince Foster. The bar will serve beer and wine, and it will open about an hour before shows start and will stay open afterward as long as people want to hang out, within reason. It will also be available to rent for special events and private parties and can accommodate about 65 people.
To ensure that The Rep has the money it needs for upkeep in the future, the organization is creating a building maintenance fund, which will aim to raise about $50,000 a year, possibly through a nominal service charge, Hupp said.
All this work represents the final — and most visible — of four phases of upgrades funded by the $6 million capital campaign. The first involved renovating The Rep's 17-unit apartment house, where it houses the actors who come to town for productions. In the second phase, The Rep purchased another downtown apartment building, as well as a warehouse on Izard Street that was remade into a shop where the scenic elements are built. The third phase, done between seasons last year, outfitted the main building with a new roof, a new HVAC system, some wall repairs and a new freight elevator (thus retiring the oldest operational freight elevator in the state). Phase four entailed the facelift components that were just wrapped up.
One of the biggest challenges with the renovation was finding donors for the project while also fundraising for normal operations, Hupp said.
"Our organization operates on a little over $3 million a year as an annual budget," he said. "Half of that $3 million is generated through ticket sales and the other half is generated through contributed income, through the generosity of corporations and individuals here in Arkansas."
The renovation capital campaign raised its goal of $6 million, but it was started at a less than ideal time — a few months before the near-collapse of the global economy back in 2008. While the economic conditions were challenging — and added about a year onto the campaign — everyone involved doubled down on their fundraising efforts, Hughes said.
The capital campaign "was a hard sell from an economic standpoint, but not from an entity standpoint," said Bob East, who chaired the campaign's steering committee. People appreciate the quality The Rep adds to life in the region and they're "generous with their donations," he said. "And I think we got that message out, that The Rep needed this desperately and needs to be kept downtown."
East is CEO and co-founder of East-Harding Inc., the general contractor for the renovation. Although the recession made fundraising difficult, it meant that construction costs — which had been escalating dramatically during the boom years — came down considerably. "That was one good thing about doing it at this time," he said. "We got a lot for our money."
Now that the renovation is complete, The Rep staff can devote 100 percent of its energy to what goes on in the space and to expanding the organization's partnerships with other nonprofit arts groups, including the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, The Arkansas Arts Center, Argenta Community Theater, TheatreSquared and others, Hupp said.
The Rep's popular Young Artists Program was hosted this year at Wildwood Park for the Arts. The program gives budding actors ages 10-22 the chance to perform in a main stage musical production.
Another Rep partnership that's in the works is with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Hupp said. "We're looking at all kinds of opportunities for the symphony and I know that [Music Director] Philip Mann is open to those possibilities and so are we," he said. "So we feel confident that we are going to be working with the symphony in many different ways." As far as when that might happen, Hupp said he couldn't say for sure, but that he's "hopeful that in the next 24 months we might be able to do something."
The Rep has been an anchor for downtown Little Rock, Hupp said. And he's hopeful that other Main Street projects, such as the recently opened Porter's Jazz Cafe, will also help solidify the area as an arts district.
"I think the Main Street corridor could be focused on cultural activities — the arts, visual arts, cafes and coffee shops and that would be an amazing complement to what already exists in the River Market," he said.