Photographs by Jeff Mitchell
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre at 601 Main St. in Little Rock has seen declines in ticket sales, contributions and grants, and lacks the cash to finish its current season, its board chairman says.
Friday, August 10, 2018
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre has raised enough money to resume operations and begin planning new productions for the first of the year, Ruth Shepherd, the Rep board's chairman-elect, said Thursday.
The professional theater at 601 Main St. in Little Rock suspended operations in April and canceled the remaining 2017-18 shows and its previously announced 2018-19 season because of significant declines in ticket sales and charitable contributions.
A fundraising effort has brought in more than $500,000 in donations from about 1,000 people in 30 states, Shepherd said, with matching grants from the Windgate Charitable Foundation of Siloam Springs, which said it will match up to $1 million, and the John & Robyn Horn Foundation, which will match up to $25,000.
Arkansas Business reported Wednesday that the theater had raised enough money to resume operations.
Shepherd said the money raised will cover the cost of keeping the theater running through Dec. 31, including the hiring or rehiring of employees to help plan for productions that she expects to resume in 2019. She said the theater will announce in mid-September details on the number and types of shows it will produce.
"We're leading with the fiscal plan, so nothing is set in stone, but we've also heard a lot of things from people who care about the theater," she said. "Making shows of the highest quality and with the best talent available is still intact. The quality is something we are determined to maintain. That's what sets The Rep apart."
"That's the tricky part," said Rep founder and interim Artistic Director Cliff Baker. "In some cases, we're waiting to find out if we get the rights" for some of the shows they're looking at. In one case, Baker said, the rights are probably available, "but they told us we'd need to wait to announce it until the first or second of November."
The Rep's financial crisis has essentially changed how the theater will do business henceforth, he said.
"We're having to choose a season to find out whether the rights price out or not. And the method is now, how much do we expect to make on ticket sales, and if we don't think we can make that, we adjust the show rather than adjust the ticket-sale goal. It's a real exercise, but much healthier."
In addition, they are changing their 12-month budget year to begin in January instead of July. It makes sense, Baker said, and he expects that to remain in place for the foreseeable future.
"Whoever eventually takes over the management should keep it this way," he said. "It makes fiscal sense. But who knows?"
Plans are to start rehearsals in January or February. The theater will have less overlap between productions. In the past, "the minute a show went up, the next show was in rehearsal," Baker said. "That won't happen again."
Baker said the theater is renegotiating its agreement with stage union Actors Equity for a new status level that would still keep the Rep as an Equity theater but require fewer Equity cast and staff members per production than it employed before it hit the financial skids.
"The union has been very helpful," he said. "They don't want to lose work for their constituency," so "they've been showing us some models of how it might work."
The theater had been operating under what is known as a LORT-D agreement with the League of Resident Theaters. Smaller options include a letter of agreement, similar to the one under which the Rep first operated when it became an Equity theater, and "SPT" -- "small professional theater" -- status, similar to the agreement under which TheatreSquared, an Equity theater in Fayetteville, currently operates.
"It agrees to certain LORT principles, but not at the same level," Baker explained.
Baker said he sees this as an opportunity to cast "more people from our talent base here," including Equity and Equity-eligible actors who live in the area but who have not necessarily been working at the Rep.
Shepherd said patrons can continue to expect provocative and diverse productions that can be attended at an affordable price. Baker said he's not yet willing to be pinned down on just how big a season the Rep can handle, but assuming things go as they have been, a six-show mainstage season is not out of the question, "and for me, it would be more," he said.
That would include second-stage and spotlight shows that the Rep could mount on a much smaller scale, and range from collaborations with TheatreSquared and the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre in Conway -- also operating on a smaller-scale agreement with Actors Equity -- to things like stand-up comedy.
"We're not going to be 'Rep Light,'" Baker said. "We're going to be 'Rep Lean.' We've still got a bunch of money to raise, but I'm feeling good about things."
The Rep's recent sale of its Peachtree apartment building on East Sixth Street, which it had used to house interns and visiting actors, for more than $780,000 has helped cut the theater's $1.5 million property debt in half.
Shepherd said that although financial gifts -- including a yet-to-be determined sum from the biennial Gridiron show, which just concluded a sold-out run at the Rep last week and is expected to turn back a larger amount than initially predicted -- have temporarily buoyed the struggling theater, it still has additional funds to raise toward a more sustainable budget. For example, she said, the "Next Act" fundraising campaign seeks to raise $2 million to be used for emergencies.
"That will keep us on firm ground," she said. "That will put money aside in case the air conditioning breaks or the big musical flops. We won't be in desperate straits. Because of the outpouring of support, we feel that's very doable."
Metro on 08/10/2018
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