This season may be the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's most ambitious and challenging in all of its 33 years. The theater is midway through an $8 million capital campaign. It's also set to begin a major remodeling of its historic home later this year. At the same time, artistic director Robert Hupp is busy preparing an impressive line-up of performances that starts with what might be the theater's biggest production ever, Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schonberg's “Les Miserables.”
The remodel means big changes in the coming months for the Rep's staff. Its first three shows will remain in the current theater, but spring performances will be staged at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's University Theatre and at Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts.
The Rep debuted in 1976 in a Hillcrest storefront. Ten years later, the company spent $1.7 million renovating the Galloway building at Sixth and Main streets, its home for the last 22 years. The latest renovation is intended to improve the look and comfort of the theater space.
“We explored several options and alternatives before deciding to renovate this space,” Hupp said. “When you have a building that is over 100 years old and 75,000 people coming through every year, it wears out.”
A quick tour through the building's lobby shows the kind of wear and tear Hupp is talking about. Carpets are stained and walls could use a new coat of paint. The planned changes aren't just cosmetic, though.
The number of seats in the theater will increase from 345 to 390. The building's freight elevator, the oldest of its kind in the state, will be replaced. The HVAC systems need an upgrade. Other plans include installing a wine bar and upgrading dressing rooms to meet union standards.
In addition to the Galloway building revamp, the theater has renovated the nearby Peachtree apartments, where out-of-town actors are housed.
According to Hupp, the Rep has been planning the capital campaign for several years. Last year's staff cutbacks were partly in preparation for coming changes, something Hupp admits has been difficult.
“We reduced staff size and re-evaluated to position ourselves to go through a period of renovations. This is a relatively small operation. Anytime you have to make changes like that it's going to be disappointing.”
In addition to raising money for the theater's remodeling, the capital campaign includes a $2 million endowment for upkeep and ongoing operations. The campaign has raised roughly half of its $8 million goal, according to Hupp.
“If you think about what the Rep is doing right now with the capital campaign, the renovations and our ongoing operations, each of those activities is exhilarating and challenging. To be doing all of those things at the same time makes this a very active place with a charged atmosphere,” said Hupp.
Big work for “Les Mis”
Those ongoing operations include preparations for “Les Miserables,” based on the novel by Victor Hugo. This year, fewer than 30 regional theaters have been issued licenses for the hugely popular production. For such an iconic show, the Rep team is working hard to make the production distinctive.
“We're trying to create Les Mis in a way that fits our intimate space,” said Hupp, who's directing.
With the help of a grant from the Stella Boyle Smith Foundation, the Rep was able to double its usual number of musicians for this production, from six to 13. Orchestration, Hupp says, is essential to bringing the musical to life.
The rest of the production is equally ambitious. Hundreds of costumes have been designed and made from scratch in the Rep's costume shop. Costume designer and production manager Rafael Castanera said preparing for “Les Mis” has been particularly challenging. “When we did ‘Full Monty,' Savers [the resale store] was my best friend. But with this show, you just can't pull from stock.”
Castanera says a production like “Les Mis” requires striking a balance. “It's a tricky show because it's so well known and well loved. Everybody is coming at it with a set of expectations.”
To help with the cost of the musical, the Rep partnered with the Phoenix Theatre in Arizona. The two theaters will share the cost of creating costumes and props, though all will be done at the Rep.
Cast as the obsessive and tortured Javert, actor Christopher Carl says that the Rep's production is attempting things that have not been done before. Broadway's production of “Les Mis” is famous for a spinning barricade, or turntable, used to highlight student uprisings in 19th century France. Instead of the turntable, the Rep will use staircases.
“In the original staging of ‘Les Mis,' there were certain times that it became all about the turntable. When you decide not to use that it presents challenges that people in theater look forward to,” Carl said.
“Les Miserables” runs from Sept. 12 to Oct.12 on the theater's main stage.
In November, the Rep will produce “If You Sing It, They Will Come (Songs from the Silver Screen),” cast with members of the Rep's Young Artists program. Conceived and directed by Nicole Capri, it will include songs like “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffany's” and “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic.” It runs from Nov. 5-16 on the theater's main stage.
Hupp also directs this year's holiday production, “It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play,” written by Joe Landry and based on the original screenplay of the film. Complete with commercials and sound effects, the set will replicate a 1940s living room. It runs on the main stage Dec. 5-28.
After the first of the year, the Rep will move its productions to the University Theatre for “Looking Over the President's Shoulder,” a one-man show starring Lawrence Hamilton about an opera singer who's taken a job as a White House butler. It runs Jan. 30 through Feb. 15.
A reprise of the Rep's most popular show, Larry Shue's “The Foreigner,” runs at Wildwood from March 13 through 29. Rep founder Cliff Baker directs a stage adaptation of “The Elephant Man” April 24 through May 10. It'll also be staged at Wildwood, where Baker serves as artistic director and CEO. The Who's rock opera “Tommy” closes out the Rep's season at Wildwood, June 5-28.