THEY SET the stage for the future on a Tuesday afternoon, May Day. It was warm, 80 degrees. Shadows were beginning to go long, squat planters with pink flowers cast shadows longer than they were tall, and in the empty, cordoned-off space in front of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, a raised platform had been installed. As the brassy, rock-and-roll sounds of the Greasy Greens began to echo along the urban corridor, television trucks materialized in the parking lot across the street, as did candidates for local office. It all felt like the beginning of something.
To the left of the platform, a middle-aged woman in jeans clutched a Rep T-shirt to her chest that she’d just purchased from volunteers at a small white table. Looking along the stretch of Main Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets, which until just a few days before had been torn up and widened to accommodate new development, she eyed an empty, sand-filled hole where two little girls, bored by the rally, would soon be building sandcastles.
“Why, if they hadn’t cut down the trees, we’d have had some shade,” she said. Moving away from the theater’s blank black windows, she entered the growing crowd as the band struck up a rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl.” Taped to the glass where she’d been standing a moment before, you could see a single piece of computer paper with faint scribbled marks.
I love you, it read, in uneven handwriting. And I love the rep. And the money. Penney. Nickel. Dime. Quarter. Each coin had a corresponding drawing below, a little colored-pencil swirl to illustrate the denominations. It had been given to them by a little boy, a kindergartner named Carter, who the two women behind the fundraising table said had emptied his piggy bank for the Little Rock theater and given them the sign now taped to the glass.
For their part, adults had been helping as well. Just a week before, when news had broken that The Rep would be suspending operations—that they needed to raise $750,000 “immediately”—Skip and Billie Rutherford had been hosting an event at their house. As guests arrived, the Rutherfords heard them asking, Have you heard? What can we do? By the end of the evening, they’d decided to put together a rally—and in just a week’s time, as word spread and people had volunteered their time and resources for the beloved 42-year-old theater, all of this had come together.
It had no doubt come as a shock to many, several of whom spoke that afternoon about what the theater had meant to them. Among them was an actor in town with the national The Lion King tour, Mark Campbell, who’d gotten his start at The Rep five years before.
“Five years ago,” he said from the dais, “I was here on the stage. … My experience with The Rep in that show was absolutely magical—they brought together world-class talent and combined it with brilliant local artists. … I was proud every day to be on that stage. I’ve worked all over the country in regional theaters and I’ve been in the lead in many national tours, but that was among the finest artistic experiences I have ever had.”
“To create an institution like this, at this time of struggle for live theater, is a tall order,” he said a few minutes later. “Please keep alive the brilliant theater that is here—right now. The theater that’s talked about with fondness and respect in New York and around the country. Keep the value that you have—it makes Little Rock a much better place.”
While Mark and the other speakers earned their fair share of applause, the biggest response was reserved for a man who’d been there from the beginning, The Rep’s founding artistic director Cliff Baker. Dressed in white, with a star-shaped “I’m a Rep Fan!” peeking out of his front pocket, he stepped to the front of the crowd.
“Guys, thank you so much for showing up this afternoon,” he said. “It’s a shame to have to get attention this way. But the good thing is, I think that the community is becoming aware that all the nonprofit arts are very vulnerable, fragile organizations and they need constant care.”
“This is not the end of The Rep,” he said later. “This is the beginning of a whole new chapter for The Rep. You know, I sent a Facebook message out the day that we announced the suspension period of The Rep. And I said—and I really believe this, you guys—that out of every breakdown, that’s the path for a breakthrough. And I think that’s what it’s given us at the theater: which is a chance to regroup, rethink, re-strategize and come out of it with everything that you would hope for a professional theater in your city.
“You guys, I love you and respect you as an audience and I know The Rep is going to make incredible strides in the future, there’s no question about that. But right now, we’ve got to fix the boat, mend it, so that it can float again and your help will make that possible.”
By 6 p.m., an hour after the rally had gotten underway, the music was over and the crowd was starting to clear. At the table, all 50 shirts had been sold, another 27 had been ordered and $400 had been given in walk-up donations. Skip Rutherford held a basket full of checks that donors had been inspired to write. All told, it was later announced, more than $17,000 had been raised through their efforts that evening. The stage was being broken down. It wasn’t quite as warm. The roadblocks would still be up a while longer.
IN THE days that followed, the response to The Rep’s call was an enthusiastic one. A few days after the rally, the board announced they’d received two matching grants totaling more than $1 million—a $75,000 grant payment plus a $925,000 challenge grant from the Windgate Foundation, and a $25,000 challenge grant from the John & Robyn Horn Foundation, (The Rep would need to match the challenge grants to receive that money). By the third week of May, when this issue was getting ready to go to press, more than $170,000 had been raised from 532 people—their gifts ranging from $5 to $6,000.
Despite all of this optimism, however, it has to be said that a hard look at finances may be important in the months to come. Because while The Rep’s announcement might have seemed abrupt to onlookers, the theater had been hurting for some time.
“In our 42-year history, we’ve never been well capitalized, but the past few years have been particularly difficult for The Rep,” read the news release announcing the suspended operations. “We’ve experienced steadily declining ticket sales, capital needs on our buildings, and increasing competition for entertainment dollars.” An article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette mentioned that ticket sales have dropped sharply in the past few years, and that the theater had missed its budget on every 2017-18 production with the exception of Santaland Diaries, a black-box production.
But yet, a review of The Rep’s IRS filings since 2000 suggest the problem might run even deeper. Since 2000, their annual expenses have jumped from $2.5 million to $4.6 million in 2016. Although every theater has its own baggage, for the sake of comparison, we looked at four other theaters operating in the same revenue ballpark—or as close as we could find—to get a sense of where others stood, relatively speaking.
In Pittsburgh, the City Theater Co. spent $2.65 million in 2014 (up from $2.15 million in 2000). In Seattle, The Taproot Theatre spent $2.68 million in 2016 (up from $999,235 in 2000). (It should be stressed that those two operations don’t have the same revenue as The Rep: $3.01 million and $2.63 million, respectively, compared to The Rep’s $3.47 million in 2016.)
But even an operation like that of the Omaha Theater Company—whose 2016 revenue was $4.42 million—expenses were still considerably less: $3.98 million or roughly $700,000 shy of The Rep.
Come August, The Arkansas Repertory Theatre will be announcing the steps they’ll be taking for their Next Act campaign, a capital campaign that will seek to reestablish a firm foundation for the theater in the months and years to come. As Board Chair-Elect Ruth Shepherd told us, they’ll be taking a hard look at everything they do. Maybe shows will run for two weeks, rather than three. Maybe they’ll shift to three or four shows a year, rather than six or seven. Maybe they’ll stage more shows in the annex’s black box.
“We’re looking at everything as closely as we possibly can,” Ruth said. “And we’re saying it out loud over and over—nothing is sacred right now. There are no sacred cows right now. We’ve got to look at every single aspect of what we do to make sure we’re doing the best thing we can do.”
We can only hope, as has been often said in the past weeks and months, that what we’re seeing is not an end of The Rep, but an intermission.