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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Rep illustration. - Photo by Nikki Dawes

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre is withdrawing from the brink by going forward.

They've announced a four-show, January-December season while maintaining a dedication to raising the money it will take to keep it up and operating through 2019 and beyond.

The wedge for the renascent Rep will be a five-week run (including previews) of the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago, Feb. 19-March 24.

The schedule includes one other musical, one new comedy and a radio-play version of a classic film.

Board Chairman Ruth Shepherd and interim General Manager Bill Rector unveiled the 2019 Mainstage lineup Nov. 13 at the theater, at Sixth and Main streets, at the pivot point of downtown Little Rock's "creative corridor."

The season in general, and the choice of Chicago in particular, reflected the labors of Repertory Theatre founder Cliff Fannin Baker, who died Sept. 6 in New York a week shy of his 71st birthday.

Baker's decadelong attempt to get the rights to Chicago had finally come to fruition after being stymied several times because of Broadway revivals and national tours, the latest of which recently wrapped up.

"Cliff's fingerprints were all over this season," Shepherd says. And his loss does come hard: "There would never be a time when this could have been easy; Cliff was an icon, a visionary leader, just a good friend; it's never the right time to lose a friend."

Baker retired from the Rep for the first time in 1999, but he served as artistic adviser in the brief interregnum between the departure of his successor, Bob Hupp, for Syracuse Stage in June 2016 and the accession of Hupp's successor, John Miller-Stephany, whose appointment was announced that August and who took over in mid-October of that year. He left in early May in the wake of the board's April 24 declaration that critical cash-flow problems were forcing it to suspend all operations, canceling the final production of the 2017-18 season and the entire 2018-19 season.

Baker had once again stepped back into the spotlight as interim artistic adviser and was part of the troika, with Shepherd and Rector, that became the Rep's public face as the nonprofit theater tried to get back on its fiscal and artistic feet.

Baker was also slated to direct Chicago; Ron Hutchins will take over at the helm and will also be the choreographer. He is familiar to Rep audiences, having choreographed and directed shows there for more than two decades. Among his Rep credits: director/choreographer for Smokey Joe's Cafe in 2010; choreographer for Hello, Dolly! in 2007 and Beauty and the Beast in 2005; director for Ain't Misbehavin', also in 2005; choreographer for Children of Eden and co-choreographer for Dreamgirls in 2004.

Michael Rice, also a familiar name out of the Rep's past, will be the musical director. Rice, an Arkansas native who moved to New York in 1977 and was the original music supervisor for the off-Broadway hit Nunsense and conducted national tours, including one of Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby, co-created two shows with Baker during the 1980s: The Good Woman of Setzuan, a musical adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht play, and Pageant, with a script by Baker and six other American playwrights.

The season will also include:

• April 16-May 5: Native Gardens, a recent play by Karen Zacarias that questions whether, in fact, good fences make good neighbors. Shepherd describes it as "a very clever but very heartwarming comedy" about a young Hispanic couple (a lawyer for a big firm and his pregnant wife) whose laissez-faire gardening style brings them afoul of their white neighbors, whose garden is carefully manicured.

"All hell breaks loose," Shepherd says, with the neighbors insisting at one point on building a fence between them for which the young couple will be required to pay. The director will be Steve H. Broadnax III, an Arkansas native who appeared in Dreamgirls at the Rep in 2004 and currently heads up the master of fine arts degree acting program at Penn State University.

• Sept. 3-Oct. 6: Million Dollar Quartet (original concept and direction by Floyd Mutrux, inspired by the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins; book by Mutrux and Colin Escott). It was the closing show on the original 2018-19 lineup that Miller-Stephany had presented in February. The show, which has been through Little Rock on tour, focuses on the Dec. 4, 1956, Sun Records recording session with Presley, Cash, Perkins, Lewis and producer Sam Phillips.

Director Hunter Foster, who originated the role of Phillips on Broadway, has put together several productions and plans are to cast players who have previously done the show elsewhere. Cost advantage to the Rep: They supply their own instruments.

• Dec. 3-22: To end the year and the season, and for the season, a radio-play adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life by Joe Landry, based on the classic 1946 Jimmy Stewart film about a small-town stalwart who, when he gets into legal and financial trouble, gets a chance to see what a lousy place the world would have been if he had never been born. It'll have a small cast, Shepherd says, with the season's richest opportunities for local casting. The artistic team is still being put together.

Shepherd says the Rep will continue to operate under some level of agreement with Actors Equity, the theatrical union, which certifies it as a professional theater, but at just what level is still up in the air. And the Rep will pair with the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre for Equity auditions Dec. 3 and 5 and will hold Chicago-specific local auditions Dec. 8.

Also appearing on the Rep stage in 2019 are the following:

• Opera in the Rock's previously announced full production of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, May 17-19, with members of the Arkansas Symphony in the pit;

• The Education Classes and Junior Mainstage Show, Willy Wonka Jr., June 21-30, featuring an auditioned company of local actors 18 and younger;

• The Saints & Sinners fundraiser, at a date to be determined. The annual gala has been a huge moneymaker for the Rep, Shepherd said, outdrawing all but one stage production over the past two years.

And the theater has been made available for rental to outside organizations, including SoWright Productions, which is staging a show there called A True Definition: B.A.D. Chic with an all-black cast, Friday-Dec. 2.

WHAT'S MISSING, WHAT'S NEW

Some things did go by the wayside in putting this season together, Shepherd says: There's no hard-hitting drama, no new plays, no co-productions and no Shakespeare, none of which, however, has the Rep abandoned. "Not in this season," she adds, "but not off the table."

The board and a 65-member citizen advisory group, the "Our Next Act Steering Committee," listened intently to patrons and shareholders of all stripes in deciding "just what people want this theater to be," Shepherd says. "And as horrible as this has been, all of that trauma, this has actually been very healthy for the theater.

"We learned that we had to be three things: Professional -- paying actors, staying Equity, maintaining production values, we didn't want to become just another community theater; affordable" -- the board has already changed the ticketing structure to make it less expensive for patrons; "and sustainable. And we added two core values: to be relevant and to be diverse, in all levels and in all ways."

Shepherd and Rector are serving as unpaid staff during the interregnum -- Rector dealing primarily with management and budget and, Shepherd adds, "I get everything else, including public relations." Other board members have "really leaned in and served in more detailed tasks."

Rector notes that three-quarters of Rep's staff were laid off in the spring, when it was possible the production house would close altogether. Now, he says: "We are busily heading into next season and are interviewing for all the positions that we need to run the show." They've been rehiring some employees and putting new ones in place.

The size of the staff won't change significantly, however. "We've never been overstaffed," Shepherd says. "Last season we had 35 staff members, five of [whom] were interns. Next year we expect to have 34 staff members, including five interns again" -- 13 administrative, four education, 17 technical/artistic. There has been one significant change: Shepherd says they're turning over accounting and human resources functions to an outside firm.

Meanwhile, Rector says, "As I've been telling people, my job is to find my replacement." Shepherd says what they're looking specifically is a combination executive/artistic director, as is the case with a lot of arts organizations.

That differs from the model the theater has used since its inception. "The Rep has always been artistically driven; the artistic director has had final authority," she says, putting an executive director into a subsidiary position. Now, she says, they're hoping to hire "a management person first who would be our boss."

The Rep has had only three artistic directors in its four-decade-plus history -- Baker, Hupp and Miller-Stephany.

In the meanwhile, they have hired a production manager: Josh Marchesi, who for the past decade has held the same position at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif. He has an Arkansas connection: He's married to the former Leigh Ann Embrey Randall, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock graduate who has performed at the Rep and at Murry's Dinner Playhouse and who co-administered the now-defunct Shakespeare Festival of Arkansas with her late first husband, Jay Randall.

SAVING TO REBUILDING

Fundraising, meanwhile, continues. The emphasis has shifted: the motto of the "Our Next Act Campaign" is no longer to "Save the Rep," but "Rebuild the Rep."

The theater has received more than 1,700 gifts and pledges totaling more than $800,000 since April 24, with the potential of doubling that through matching grants from the John & Robyn Horn Foundation and the Windgate Charitable Foundation. And in September the board sold one of two apartment buildings it owned for actor housing, halving its property debt.

"But that is not to say that we are out of the woods," Rector says. "We have got to raise another $1 [million to] $1.5 million. We need to pay off the rest of the property debt; we need to create some reserves; we need to fix the roof of the scene shop -- there are a lot of things like that."

"We're still drinking out of the fire hose," Shepherd adds. "Our budget is $3 million for next year, down from $4.2 million, half of it will be raised revenue, half of it earned -- and we still have $1.2 million-$1.5 million to raise.

"We don't want anybody to think 'the Rep's fine.'"

Shepherd says they've been greatly encouraged by the support of the national theater community, a side benefit of the Rep having achieved a national reputation.

That includes donations to the Cliff Fannin Baker Artistic Director's Fund. Established at the request of Baker's husband, Guy Couch, the fund will go toward hiring "the best artistic directors from throughout the country as guest artists [and] support the new work and bold choices in programming that have made the Rep a significant part of the American theater scene," according to a news release. All gifts in Baker's memory will go into the fund.

And at the Nov. 13 season announcement, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola read a proclamation honoring Baker's memory by establishing the alley behind the theater as "Baker's Alley" with appropriate city street signs.

Those could also serve not only as a memorial but a sign of hope.

Season subscriptions are $155-$208, $88 for students. (Willy Wonka Jr. tickets are not part of the package.) There is also a Pay-Your-Age subscription option for young adults age 22-40. Single ticket sales open in January. Call (501) 378-0405 or visit the website, TheRep.org.

Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Cliff Baker fronted a number from Chicago during a recent Saints & Sinners fundraising gala.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Repertory Theatre founder Cliff Baker made one of his final appearances on the Rep stage in a fundraising plea during the 2018 Gridiron Show in late July and early August. Baker died Sept. 6 at age 70.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Board President Ruth Shepherd (second from left) and board member Bill Rector (second from right) have been heading up the theater’s fundraising effort and serving as unpaid administrators.

Style on 11/25/2018

Print Headline: Rep's resurrection: Theater company sets 2019 season with four productions

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