The past several months have been full of emotional ups and downs for Ruth Shepherd, board chair for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
It all started on April 24, 2018, when the longtime Little Rock institution, known locally as the Rep, went dark and stopped producing shows. That day, Shepherd spoke to the staff and gave local media interviews letting everyone know that the capital city’s beloved theatre’s future was uncertain.
“It was an awful, awful day,” Shepherd remembers. “Tears all around.”
Going dark was heartbreaking, but the public rallied, hosting events to save the Rep, sporting “I heart the Rep” T-shirts around town, and most importantly donating money. Less than two years after going dark, the Rep has all but staged a complete comeback.
Indeed, while things are looking up, the organization remains in rebuilding mode. “It’s going to take us a bit to get through it,” concedes Will Trice, the Rep’s new executive artistic director, who took over in August. There’s an upside to an emergency, he notes. “A really exciting thing about coming into a leadership role in an institution that is in turnaround is everything you do has an immediate impact, every change you make, every evaluation of what’s been happening. There’s so much opportunity to improve on an operation. That’s exciting.”
Trice, a Little Rock native and three-time Tony-winning producer, identifies “the elephant in the room” as the question of whether the Rep can continue the fundraising momentum it experienced after announcing it would cease operations.
“Ultimately, will the philanthropy be there to support it?” Trice asks. “That’s obviously a crucial element, and part of improving our operations is investing in our fundraising apparatus. But, in the long term, we will see what the ultimate response is in terms of philanthropy.”
Arkansas Rep, founded by Cliff Fannin Baker in 1976, moved to its current location on Main Street in downtown Little Rock in 1988. A few years ago it became the cornerstone of a downtown revitalization project that saw other arts organizations, including Ballet Arkansas, relocate to the area, referred to as the Main Street Creative Corridor.
Historically the Rep had produced six or seven mainstage shows each year, often a mix of well-known musicals, family-friendly fare, works from new playwrights, classical theatre, comedies, and serious pieces tackling important issues of the day. Locals feel a sense of pride in the organization, and many have fond memories of attending shows in the intimate space of the Rep.
“It’s always been the expectation that what you see at the Rep will be beautifully produced, will meet the highest artistic standards that we’re all used to,” says Shepherd, who has been involved with the theatre for more than 40 years as a board member and also served as development director some years ago.
The theatre, which has a current operating budget of $4.5 million, stopped producing last year to focus on tackling its debts, which had been accumulating for several years. The Rep had more than $1.5 million in property debt, $750,000 in operating debt, and $350,000 in ticket liability, Trice explains.
Shepherd notes that fundraising for and operating a nonprofit theatre like the Rep in a midsize city like Little Rock has always been challenging, as there’s only so much wealth to go around. Little Rock has a population of less than 200,000 and a median household income of about $48,400, compared to $57,600 nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Rep had launched a fundraising campaign, Our Next Act, in 2015 with hopes of raising $5.3 million, which would have enabled it to pay off debt, create reserve funds for operations, artistic risk, and facilities, and finish capital improvements, including updating lighting equipment and replacing the roof on its scene shop.
Just $1.7 million was raised before the campaign was put on hold a year later, when longtime artistic director Robert Hupp resigned after 17 seasons. John Miller-Stephany took over as producing artistic director in August 2016, with the plan to restart Our Next Act. Shepherd says they couldn’t get the momentum going again, and fundraising remained stagnant.
Miller-Stephany’s first season, which Hupp had planned, featured three costly musicals, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Sister Act, and Godspell, and didn’t make back the budgets. The next season, 2017-18, Miller-Stephany’s first to plan, also didn’t do well. Five shows in, and the Rep was $650,000 below budget, Shepherd says. The theatre canceled the final show, God of Carnage, after estimating that it could add $40,000 more to their deficit.
That led to the April 2018 announcement that the theatre would cease prodution. “We just couldn’t go any further,” Shepherd remembers. “We just kept thinking, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay. This theatre has never ever had a margin. We’ve always just lived on the edge, so when all of those forces came to be, we couldn’t make our budget.”
Miller-Stephany resigned, and most of the staff joined him or were let go. But the theatre’s board wasn’t going to let it go gently into that good night. Shepherd, fellow board member Bill Rector, and Baker led the charge to bring the Rep back. All of their work was done as volunteers.
Emotions were high all around as they worked to figure out next steps. Shepherd admits that they were out of their depth at times, and figured things out one step at a time. “It’s that kind of, where there’s a will, there’s a way, because we just said, ‘Okay, we have to do this,’” she recalls.
The public response was overwhelming. As word got out, donations came in from more than 35 states; the Rep raised $1.25 million in just a few months. They also received matching grants from the Arkansas-based grant-making organizations Windgate Charitable Foundation ($1 million) and the John & Robyn Horn Foundation ($25,000).
“The community just went, ‘Please, we cannot lose the Rep,” she says. The Rep also held focus groups, public meetings, and online surveys to gauge public opinion and help plan for the future. The main takeaway was that the theatre’s mainstage—rather than its educational programs or smaller black box theatre located across the street—is what defines the Rep. So that’s where they decided to focus, says Shepherd.
As they planned to reopen, Shepherd says the board focused on three elements that make the Rep “sacred,” and that were a must for future sustainability: being affordable to attract audiences, producing relevant shows, and maintaining professional status as a signatory with Actors’ Equity Association, which sets it apart in the central Arkansas theatre community.
They also maintained their robust education programs even as they worked to rebuild the mainstage. The Rep is presenting a shortened four-show “Rebuild the Rep” 2019 season, featuring Chicago, Native Gardens, Million Dollar Quartet, and It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, which opens this month. The shows were chosen by the board and staff, and founder Baker was set to direct Chicago, but he died in September 2018, before the show’s February opening.
Despite that setback, Chicago (directed by Ron Hutchins) was a “hit by every standard,” meeting its revenue goal, Trice says. Native Gardens was well received, though it didn’t draw enough single ticket buyers to reach its goal, and Million Dollar Quartet was so popular that the Rep extended its run in October and at press time expected it to meet its revenue goal. The Rep also produced a student show, Willy Wonka Jr., on the mainstage in coordination with its education program, which was deemed a success despite its limited run and reduced ticket price.
To help get its financial house in order, Shepherd says the Rep has sold some of the properties it owned, which were contributing to the debt load, and is renegotiating the loan on another. They still own several apartments, but now rent them out to short-term visitors when they’re not occupied by visiting artists. Rights to a cell tower were also sold, and the theatre set up escrow accounts to put money aside. “We’re still really looking at our business model,” she notes. “We are not quite out of the woods.”
The Rep also finally restarted Our Next Act, which had been on hold with $3.6 million left to raise. As of early September 2019, the theatre was only about $415,000 shy of its total goal. And the Rep rebuilt its team; at its lowest point, it had a staff of just six. The next crucial element was finding a new leader.
Trice grew up attending the Rep with his family and was a cast member in the theatre’s production of Lost in Yonkers when he was in high school in the mid-1990s. When he heard about his hometown theatre going dark, he says, “I was just as shocked and dismayed as I think anybody.”
As an award-winning producer, with more than a decade of experience in theatre working in casting and production, Trice, who was living in New York City at the time, offered to help the Rep in any way he could. “I didn’t know what that would be—if they wanted to send me some numbers or talk through stuff or whatever,” he recalls. The Rep offered him a job instead.
The offer was “serendipitous,” says Trice, as he and his husband, John Pettengill, had been talking about relocating, and Trice says he was ready for the next phase of his career. Trice, hired in December 2018, didn’t fully assume the role until this past August. He acknowledges that he comes in with a few benefits that many artistic or executive directors don’t have.
“Being from Little Rock and having a head start on a lot of those relationships, and what seems like a lot of goodwill from the community and from seeing one of their own here, and just an automatic positive energy—that seems unusually beneficial for somebody stepping into a role like this,” he says.
The executive artistic director role will be a little different than the split leadership of many theatres, including the Rep historically; most have an executive or managing director and a producing artistic director, Trice explains. Unlike past leaders of the Rep, he has no plans to direct any productions.
“I see my role actually akin to what I was doing before as a producer, because as a producer, you see both sides of an operation,” he says. “You’re equally responsible for the artistic part, the product of the business, as you are for its operation and strategy.”
Trice has a long list of next steps to get the Rep fully back on its feet and well positioned for the future. He cites the “good art, well marketed” message of former Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser’s book The Art of the Turnaround. “I think that’s really the only thing we can do,” Trice says. “We produce things that we think are going to continue to excite people and go from there.”
He says he initially thought the theatre needed to scale back its productions to be more fiscally responsible. But a market like Little Rock faces several unique challenges. Its location in the middle of the country means there are fewer opportunities, outside the Rep, for professional performers and technical and design teams. So the theatre has to employ some professional technical staff and designers full-time, and bring in and house the required number of union artists for each show.
“We have to maintain a critical mass of programming to support that,” Trice says. “And with that amount of programming comes the need for additional fundraising, the need for additional marketing, the need for additional operations. And then abra-cadabra, we’ve got overhead.”
The competition for local entertainment dollars is another struggle. Little Rock is home to several community theatres and the city-owned performance hall Robinson Center, which attracts Broadway tours. And that’s not even counting the proliferation of at-home entertainment options.
“On the ticket sale side, there’s a smaller total population from which you’re trying to get X percent of,” he says, adding that “communicating the value proposition of an intimate space and something that’s freshly produced” can be tough.
For spring 2020, the Rep is planning three shows: Ann, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and Bye Bye Birdie. Trice is currently working on his first full season for 2020-21, which he’ll announce this spring.
Going forward, Trice says the theatre will consider title recognition, performer recognition, novelty, relevance, and entertainment value to attract ticket buyers. The Rep plans to focus on productions that engage the local community, multidisciplinary productions with other local institutions, co-productions with national and regional colleagues, and offering a unique live theatre experience.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, Trice admits. For now he tempers his excitement with pragmatism, saying, “I don’t want to belie my kind of enthusiasm and excitement for the potential here with all of those realities that we’re working on.”
Erica Sweeney is a Little Rock, Ark.-based writer who has attended shows at the Rep since childhood. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, HuffPost, Parade, and many other publications.