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Whither the Rep

Its destiny is not in the stars, but ourselves.

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BOARD CHAIRMAN BRIAN BUSH: He puts The Rep's secured and unsecured debt at "north of $2 million."
  • BOARD CHAIRMAN BRIAN BUSH: He puts The Rep's secured and unsecured debt at "north of $2 million."

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre last week produced the greatest drama in the 44-year history of the stage last week when it announced its debt was so deep it had to cancel its last play of the season and bring down the curtain indefinitely.

The news got a standing "Oh, no" from actors and audiences who knew that Little Rock — and Arkansas — had something special in its professional theater. The Rep has a reputation of great performances among theatergoers and as a great place to work among the many actors who've come to Little Rock. The idea that The Rep might close brought into sharp focus what that would cost Little Rock — fortunately, before it's gone, not after.

The drama has been building for quite some time, thanks to a dive in ticket sales and a faltering capital campaign. The course of theater never does run smooth, the Bard might say, but finding itself without the means to stage its final 2017-18 season production, "God of Carnage," which was to open in June, the theater's board of directors darkened the house.

The secured and unsecured debt — including $1.6 million in bank loans, including mortgages — is in total "north of $2 million," Brian Bush, chairman of The Rep's board, said last week. The board is trying to raise $750,000 to $1 million immediately to settle vendor debt and begin paying off the Bank of the Ozarks, which Bush said has been "cooperative and intimately involved in what's going on for at least six months." The board is also forming a group, "The Next Act," to talk about what form The Rep should take to be sustainable.

The Rep does have assets: Its theater at Main and Sixth streets and two apartment buildings for its out-of-town actors have been appraised at more than $6.5 million, Bush said. That makes it "real estate rich and cash poor," he said. Selling its real estate "is on the table," though the fact that The Rep has a place for its actors to stay has been one of the great draws for them to the Arkansas theater.

The Rep had raised $1.7 million during the quiet phase of a capital campaign the past couple of years, Bush said, but had hoped to raise $2.7 million during that phase. The total goal of $5.2 million would have retired all debt and created a cushion for the future, but with declining revenues — The Rep could only fill 47 percent its seats this season, Bush said, and campaign cash had to be spent to put on the plays.

The Rep's staff will be cut from 30 to 10 as of May 8. Producing Artistic Director John Miller-Stephany is among those losing his job. The theater education program, which breaks even, will continue through the summer.

There may be some good news: Potentially waiting in the wings is a $1.8 million grant The Rep has applied for from the Windgate Charitable Trust of Siloam Springs, which has made several multimillion-dollar gifts in the past few years to the arts, including $40 million last year to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to create an art and design district and $20.3 million to UA Little Rock and $15.5 million to UA Fort Smith for their fine arts buildings. Should The Rep receive the grant, it would have to match it.

***

"What I can tell you," actor Patrick Halley said last week, "is The Rep had a sterling reputation in New York as a wonderful and warm and incredibly artist-friendly place to work. The way I got my first audition there was a friend I knew had worked there — I begged him, 'Could you put in a good word for me?' " Since then, Halley has appeared in a number of Rep productions, including "The School for Lies" last October.

"What always set The Rep apart was, some places you would go and work in a metropolis with a ton of options as far as culture goes. The audiences at The Rep always stood out as excited and engaged and grateful and you really got a sense of the impact that your work was having in the community." Not every audience is like that, he said.

The Rep's staff of designers "are at the top of their game," Halley said, "and that's not always common. Folks like Linda Parlier [assistant to the production manager] and Alan Branson [sound design and engineer] and Mike Nichols [technical director and set designer], the costume shop — they had a world-class team."

Halley called Bob Hupp, the producing artistic director from 1999-2016, "an inspiring leader" and managing director Mike McCurdy "one of the kindest and sweetest men on the face of the earth."

Halley was in Fayetteville when the news The Rep would suspend operations got out.

EMPTY SEATS: Part of The Rep's problem is declining ticket sales: It filled only 47 percent of its seats in the 2017-18 season.
  • EMPTY SEATS: Part of The Rep's problem is declining ticket sales: It filled only 47 percent of its seats in the 2017-18 season.

"The Rep has been so good to me," Halley said. "When I got the news, it felt like someone has passed away. I was so very, very sad."

On Friday, the Friends of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre announced a Rally for the Rep to be held Tuesday, May 1, in front of the theater, with music by the Greasy Greens, and special friends of the theater, including founder Cliff Baker, the director from 1976-1998 and a guest director for the past 17 years, will attend. By Monday, 1,300 people had clicked the "Interested" button and more than 200 people had donated a total of $73,000.

"In a strange way," Halley said, "the level of outcry speaks to how special it was." As Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

Candyce Hinkle has been an actress for 40 years, and has appeared in plays at The Rep and other local theaters, as well as in such nationally released movies as the Coen brothers' "True Grit."

"The Rep has been my heart, honey, and this is just devastating," Hinkle said. "You can go anywhere in Central Arkansas and see talented people tell good stories, but when you go to The Rep ... . You don't realize how supported they are by technical artists. Mike Nichols' sets, the ability to create atmosphere by sound and lights. It's such a team effort to put on the shows that they do. That is what we don't get anywhere else. It's a professional jewel in our midst."

Hinkle is convinced that there is enough support for The Rep that it can reopen and stay open. "It doesn't have to come back as the grandiose giant it had become. Even if it comes back with a different flavor, but the same dedication to technical support and quality of performances: That's what we have to save."

The school must go on, as well, Hinkle said. "How many lives has that program changed? Just to give those kids that. They are treated professionally: It's not a babysitting opportunity. It's hard work: You hold a kid to a standard, and they're going to meet it. It's strictly professional, it's not just fun — it's work to get to the fun."

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"I took a couple of days of heartache and mourning," Cliff Baker said from his home outside Mayflower, but now he's ready for action.

Baker came to Arkansas from Missouri in the 1960s to enroll in the Arkansas Arts Center's bachelor of fine arts program, which in its short time drew national accolades and a visit from The Juilliard School at its closing to recruit some of its actors. After working in theater outside Arkansas for a while, Baker returned to visit friends "and they said, 'Let's do a play,' and I rented a storefront ... and they were all kinky plays," Baker said.

The Arkansas Philharmonic was also short-lived. Support for a new theater came from old-money folks who were thrilled to see a higher level of theater established in Little Rock. The Rep sold 300 season tickets at a fundraiser in the posh Edgehill neighborhood "and we didn't have a theater and we didn't have a season," Baker said.

The theater opened in what had been Hunter Memorial Methodist Church, across the street from MacArthur Park, and though the venue was humble, the theater staged ambitious productions, from the breakout gay-themed play "The Boys in the Band" (performed at the Arts Center before its Off-Broadway premiere) to musicals "Marat/Sade," "Threepenny Opera" and "Ain't Misbehavin."

The actors were young, the budget was a shoestring, and even if Baker rehearsed a play for two weeks, "If I knew it was going to be bad, we just didn't do it."

"In the nonprofit theater world, I don't think you ever feel like you are on your feet," Baker said. But in the 1980s, when the budget for The Rep reached $500,000 "and the actors weren't having to do everything," he decided it was time to look for a larger home. The Rep moved to its building on Main, with its larger theater and production space, in 1988. Its operating budget is $4 million.

"I think the idea of a professional theater made all the difference" to the Little Rock audience, Baker said. "And people felt like they may not always like a particular play, but they knew it was going to be well done and there would be elements they would remember — the performances or the design."

Baker doesn't believe people have lost interest in live theater. Little Rock and North Little Rock support The Weekend Theater, The Public Theatre, Celebrity Attraction productions at Robinson Center Performance Hall, the Argenta Community Theater, the Arkansas Arts Center's Children's Theatre and Murry's Dinner Playhouse. But those venues — primarily Celebrity Attractions shows in the renovated Robinson — also present competition.

Baker does think some of the excitement is missing. People can't expect a big "joyous hit" like "Sister Act," which Baker last directed at The Rep, every time they go to the theater. And a theater can't sustain itself by planning that the success of one big show will carry the others.

Now, with the "Second Act" strategizing, Baker is thinking about how to reopen The Rep in a model that would be sustainable. "That's where I'm focusing. I'm calling friends and colleagues and and asking what works, what doesn't work.

"It's an age-old dilemma for nonprofit theater. The Rep kind of overgrew and couldn't support it."

***

Ginger Pool, producing artistic director of Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Va., has felt The Rep's pain. So when Pool heard about The Rep's crisis, she called board member Ruth Shepherd and offered to help in any way she could.

In 2009, Mill Mountain, which had its roots in a playhouse established in 1964, found itself $860,000 in debt. Its debt wasn't related to real estate, but because for a decade it had over-produced, employed a fulltime professional staff of 23 with benefits, suffered high overhead and staged "a little bit of vanity theater, producing shows that Roanoke wasn't supporting. The quality never dropped, but when the audience is not listening to you ... ."

And so Mill Mountain ceased operations, keeping only Pool, the director of its revenue-producing education program. The fulltime staff and 16 contract employees and 12 interns were let go. It cashed in its Actors Equity Association bond.

So Pool got to work by meeting one-on-one with vendors, negotiating such things as payment plans and tax credits and "asking for forgiveness. ... It was the hardest work I've ever done, and the most rewarding." Within a year, all but $75,000 of the debt had been paid off or negotiated.

For a while, Mill Mountain's children's theater put on the only productions, on holidays. The theater realized "Roanoke hasn't given up on us yet," Pool said, when it was announced the youths would perform "Annie": The musical was a sellout before the play opened.

It took Mill Mountain four years to have a "soft reopening." A theater that once produced 14 shows on its main stage a season now produces three. The new business model, Pool said: "We have made a promise that each individual production will make money standing by itself. We are not in the frame of mind, do this giant show to pay for this riskier show. ... That's a slippery slope for theaters. ... So we look at what we're choosing, and if we have any hesitation if this show can't stand alone, we throw it out. We drill down to worst-case scenarios, really analyzing everything, before we announce [the season] to the public."

Mill Mountain still does theater that might be called art rather than entertainment, but does it in its small black box theater. It has also added Mill Mountain Music, twice-a-year concerts.

"I will say people don't donate money to pay off your debt. There are going to be angels in the community, but [their gifts are] not going to be of the magnitude that your problems are over," Pool warned.

***

Ironically, The Rep has been the anchor of development on Main Street, in what Mayor Mark Stodola calls the "Creative Corridor." Its educational program in a renovated historic building catercornered from the theater along with Ballet Arkansas's studio and a private gallery have supported the idea of a downtown arts district .

The mayor learned of The Rep's financial troubles a couple of weeks ago, he said. He said he'd approached Celebrity Attractions, which has a substantial marketing budget, about the possibility of the company's taking a Rep show on the road, and noted that the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau supports The Rep with a contribution of $50,000 a year. The city made a small contribution last fall by buying tickets for a group.

Stodola said The Rep had also broached the idea that perhaps the city could support the theater by buying the theater building and leasing it back to The Rep for a nominal sum, as is done in other cities. But Stodola said that idea was, for him, a no-go. "Other organizations that we support, they are city commissions, like the Arkansas Arts Center or the Museum of Discovery or the military museum," Stodola told the Times. If it were to become a commission, The Rep board would have had to give up its governance, Stodola said, which was something it was reluctant to do.

Board chair Bush said The Rep is open to collaborations with colleges and universities and other theaters.

***

Perhaps you are asking yourself, what sort of self-respecting city can't find the audience to keep its professional theater open? Former Producing Artistic Director Hupp, who is now artistic director at Syracuse Stage on the campus of Syracuse University in New York, said competition from the rise of local theater groups is a factor, if not the factor, for The Rep's woes.

"Celebrity Attractions has been performing [in the past], but they've never been able to bring in the tours they're bringing in now [thanks to the $70.5 million renovation of Robinson]. I mean, look at 'The Lion King,' 'Phantom of the Opera,' a tour of 'Les Mis' ['Les Miserables']."

"One of the things that's great about The Rep is the intimate relationship between the audience and the performers. So, that always played pretty well and distinguished The Rep from Celebrity Attractions. But the new model, and the amount of money the city put into the renovation of Robinson, definitely has an impact" on The Rep's ticket sales, Hupp said.

To those who are skeptical about competition's role in The Rep's trouble filling seats, Hupp insisted there is "legitimacy to the external factors."

Too, The Rep's real estate burden, which includes both debt and ongoing maintenance, is unusual, Hupp said. "The expense of owning those properties has always been a challenge for The Rep," he said.

The former director said he was saddened, but not surprised, by the news of The Rep's suspension. But he said The Rep can return.

FORMER DIRECTOR BOB HUPP: Says thriving arts go hand-in-hand with a thriving city.
  • FORMER DIRECTOR BOB HUPP: Says thriving arts go hand-in-hand with a thriving city.

"If there were some combination of grassroots support and either city leadership or private leadership that comes in and helps stabilize the theater, there is a path forward. There are people who feel very passionate about The Rep. You've seen the social media posts that have come out. That initial reaction of surprise and shock — if that can move beyond that initial emotional reaction to real activism, real organization, then The Rep has a great shot of sustaining itself in a reimagined form."

Here's how Hupp puts the question of what it says about a city that lets its professional theater fail this way: "I think the question people who live in Little Rock have to ask is, 'Is the situation with The Rep a canary in the coal mine?' Is this indicative of other, more challenging issues with the city?

"A thriving city should have thriving arts. And the arts organization has to be responsive and also provide leadership and vision for what the arts mean to the community. ... A healthy organization, wherever you are in the country, has to generate earned income and the city has to show its partnership in that equation through philanthropic dollars. And that's public support from the city itself and private support from those who have means and can help."

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