A standing room only crowd at the Clinton School of Public Service’s Sturgis Hall this afternoon was guided through the latest chapter in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s “Our Next Act,” the plan to revitalize (and restructure) Little Rock’s professional theater after its suspension of operations in April.

Armed with a 12-page pamphlet on the theater’s history and current standing (and, I couldn’t help but notice, preceded by Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” playing over the lecture hall’s speakers) Board Chair Ruth Shepherd guided the crowd through the developments to come for a “reimagined Rep.”

The timing of the talk was a little poetic; this week would have been opening week for the final production in The Rep’s season, “God of Carnage,” and today would have been the day a panel of Rep crew and cast gathered at Sturgis Hall to discuss and contextualize the production.

Most immediately, The Rep will sell the 16-unit Peachtree Apartments it owns on East Sixth Street, which it used to house acting talent from outside the state. That will, said Shepherd and board member Bill Rector, “cut the property debt in half.” Shepherd reiterated the theater’s financial standing as “property rich, but cash poor,” and noted that the real estate debt ad been consolidated. Former Artistic Director Bob Hupp said earlier this year had that debt had “always been a challenge for The Rep.”

Advertisement

“For years,” Shepherd said, “we staged [one] show to pay for the next show, but for the last few years, we’ve staged [shows] to pay for the last show,” and described a precarious few seasons in which an ice storm — and the loss of a few performances — could do irreparable damage to the company’s annual budget.


What will take the place of the Peachtree Apartments? Rector says it’s not off the table for the theater to consider contracting with one of many new housing developments in the area, or even to partner with patrons for the use of private, temporary guest housing. As far as options for reviving The Rep, the theater’s Education Director Anna Kimmel said, “As of now, everything’s on the table.”

What might that include? Kimmel noted that the board will hold “community conversations” in which it listens to local actors in community theater organizations. Rector added that the reinvented Rep may be an occasion for reconsideration of its Actor’s Equity negotiations and that The Rep may rethink the way it handles set and costume design, renting costumes from other companies and renting out its own costume assets. That’s not new for The Rep, said Shepherd and Kimmel; much of the set and costuming involved in 2016’s “Spamalot” was rented from another theater, and The Rep’s own costumes for “The Little Mermaid,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Beauty and the Beast” had been rented to other theater companies. Shepherd also discussed potential programmatic changes, re-evaluating its program choices to accommodate “more provocative, less expensive” shows in The Rep’s black box theater, and to take into consideration the choice of plays in its 2017-18 season, of which Shepherd said: “A lot of folks just weren’t turned on by what we put on stage.”

Later this summer, the Interim Leadership’s Team will re-open the theater’s doors for “Gridiron,” a century-old project of the Little Rock Bar Association whose satire has graced The Rep’s stage since 1990. The production will open July 31, with tickets for opening night at around $60-$65 (with an included cocktail and hors d’ouevres) and tickets for subsequent performances at $30-$35. Shepherd and Rector noted that the production is expected to be staffed by a few of the same staff members who were laid off in April when The Rep made the “drastic and incredibly painful decision” (Shepherd’s words) to suspend operations.

Since the suspension in April and subsequent rallying on the parts of patrons and community, The Rep has raised $275,455 which, when matched by challenge grants from the Windgate and Robyn & John Horn Foundations, will come out to about half a million, leaving The Rep $150,000 shy of the $750,000 the theatre company says it needs to “get back to even,” Shepherd said. After that, the board will continue the campaign it began in 2016 to raise an additional $2.5 million to “create an operating reserve, pay off property debt and an operating deficit.”

A video projector played a short montage of quotes from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Hamlet,” “Les Miserables” and other stage staples, ending with a single light illuminating a dark theater, captioned by the words “The show must go on.”

Advertisement

“We expect to have a plan for our next season by mid- to late August,” Shepherd said. And, Shepherd relayed a quote from Cliff Baker, former artistic director and current interim leadership team member Cliff, who had intimated via email that audiences “can expect smaller, more intimate and community-centric” performances.