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story.lead_photo.caption 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. - Photo by Jeff Mitchell

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's board of directors announced Tuesday that it will "suspend current operations," effective immediately, including canceling the final production of the Rep's 2017-18 season, and cease planning for 2018-19.

The Rep, at 601 Main St. in Little Rock, won't stage its June 8-24 production of God of Carnage and will issue a tax receipt for the value of any tickets purchased but not yet redeemed, including single tickets, season subscriptions and flex passes.

The Rep will uphold its obligations to host two events -- the annual ArtWorks benefit on Saturday and "Ballet Arkansas in Concert" on May 4-6, but it will suspend all plans for the 2018-19 season that it had announced Feb. 19.

Producing Artistic Director John Miller-Stephany is stepping down May 8 along with most of the rest of the theater's staff, leaving what a news release described as "only a critical few staff members" to conduct the Rep's nearly sold-out summer "Education at the Rep" program. That will go on, and students who have already registered will be able to take part.

Miller-Stephany, who started work at the Rep after working at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, has served one season at the Rep's artistic helm since he replaced Bob Hupp, who took a job with Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, N.Y., at the end of the 2015-16 season*.

Cliff Baker, who founded the Rep in 1976 as the Arkansas Philharmonic (originally on Kavanaugh Boulevard in the Heights, then for 10 years operating out of a former church on the east side of MacArthur Park), filled in for a couple of months.

The Rep's Form 990 for 2017, which reflects the year 2016, shows a sudden steep loss of $1.33 million in contributions and grants, down from $2,281,880 from the previous year, to $944,121, and a loss of total revenue from $4,676,097 to $3,467,517.

SLUMPING TICKET SALES

Board chairman Brian Bush said in a news release that the Rep issued Tuesday afternoon that "ticket sales have been on a downhill slope for several years and the inability to reach its projected goals for charitable giving and ticket sales, and the change in the theater landscape in Little Rock, have created a perfect financial storm for the Rep."

"The Rep, like lots of arts organizations, struggles, but for 42 years we've been able to overcome whatever difficulties we might face," Bush added in a subsequent phone call. "Today, we find ourselves with really a cash crisis. We just don't have the cash on hand to complete the season, so the board made a very difficult decision to suspend production and not complete the season."

Bush said it will be up to the community to decide if the Rep survives.

"We on the board consider ourselves stewards of a community asset," he said. "We want to give the community the opportunity to respond. If the community wants the Rep to be here, it has the opportunity to come forward to help."

Bush pegged the theater's baseline need at between $750,000 and $1 million "in a very short period of time" to continue operations and fundraising efforts.

"The outpouring from the public in just the last hour [following the release of the news that the Rep would shut down] has been overwhelmingly in favor of our continuing to exist."

The Rep has reached the point, he said, in the absence of any more large donors where it would take 75,000 people pitching in $10 each.

"It's been a hard day," Baker said late Tuesday afternoon. "But I believe the Rep can rise again. The community will realize what an asset it has been and could be for their kids and grandkids, so maybe they'll surprise us by stepping up and heeding the call -- see that it's something that really means something to the city and the state and support it.

"It would say so much if 75,000 people stepped up for the Rep."

THEATRICAL COMPETITION

Bush cited a "myriad of issues" in the decision.

"No. 1, the marketplace for theater in this town has evolved," he said. "There are more theater options through local community theaters and an expanded Broadway series at Robinson [Center Performance Hall], so our patrons have more choices theatrically than they ever have."

Another factor, Bush said, was that the Rep has been competing for "the same dollars from the same people" with other area nonprofits, made more difficult by "corporate consolidation over 15 years" with bigger, out-of-town companies not having the same commitment to funding local organizations as the locally based banks and companies they've taken over.

The theater also has incurred unusual costs for an operation of its size because it owns four facilities -- the theater itself at Sixth and Main streets, which it rebuilt from a decrepit Dillard's Department Store annex and moved into in 1987; a scene shop on State Street; and two apartment buildings that it uses to house out-of-town actors and musicians. It has been paying taxes, maintenance and upkeep on those.

It also leases the so-called education annex in the 500 block of Main Street, which includes classroom space and a small black-box theater.

"Theaters our size usually have a partnership -- with the city, or with a local college or university that will own the theater [building], which the theater company can lease at an attractive rate," Bush said.

The board also has been committed to keeping high the quality of the Rep's onstage work, and maintaining it as a professional theater with an Actors Equity letter of agreement with the League of Resident Theatres.

"The work on our stage has continued to be of amazing quality, something the board has been so passionate about," he said. "We don't want the quality of the work to suffer. The challenge has been, how do you fund the work being done onstage?"

Bush said the board has assembled a committee of current and former members, with board chairman-elect Ruth Shepherd at its head, that is working on raising money and "revisioning" the theater for the future. It's supposed to present a working plan by early August to present to patrons, donors and lenders.

"It's important that the Rep continue to be a professional theater," Bush said. "We do not want to become another community theater. How you staff it, how you fund it, how you program it -- all those issues are up for discussion."

Bush said the committee is keeping on the table potential collaborations with other theaters in and outside of Arkansas, or with colleges and universities.

"We're just getting started," Shepherd said. "The one thing we don't want to give up is a professional theater. We've got great community theater in Little Rock, and we've got a great touring house that brings in amazing shows, but we don't want to give up what makes us distinctive. We're going to look at everything because what we've been doing is not sustainable."

That could include sacrificing the six-show season model, for example, or negotiating a different level of engagement with Actors Equity.

"It has to be professional, has to be affordable for folks in the community, and it has to be sustainable," she said. "I'm really excited by the possibility of what big brains that really care might come up with."

COMMUNICATING WITH PATRONS

In its 42-year history, the Rep staged more than 350 productions, including 40 world premieres, and as of its exit point employed a resident staff of more than 30 designers, technicians and administrators.

The Rep also sent out an email notice Tuesday to patrons wishing to "communicate with you personally" and citing "steadily declining ticket sales, capital needs on our buildings and increasing competition for entertainment dollars." It provided contact information for development director Fran Carter (501) 378-0445 or fcarter@therep.org and Shepherd (501) 765-6077 or ruthshepherd2@gmail.com, as well as the Rep's website (therep.org) and email (info@therep.org).

Shepherd insisted that every potential donation counts, and to prove it, Amy Westlake, the Rep's interim director of marketing and audience engagement, recounted the story of a Facebook message that came in shortly after the closure announcement became public from a woman with an 11-year-old daughter who had attended the theater's just-closed production of the musical Mamma Mia!

"She was entranced with the show and loved the theater, and couldn't wait to come back again," Westlake said. "So when she heard the news -- an hour after we announced [it] -- she pledged her birthday and pocket money to the Rep, and hopes everybody does the same."

Bush also noted that the Rep's closure would "have a devastating impact on the redevelopment of Main Street and the creative corridor," which also has seen the establishment of new studios and offices for Ballet Arkansas and may eventually house the offices of the Arkansas Symphony.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said that as a young lawyer, "I incorporated the Repertory Theatre, 42 years ago," and praised it as "a tremendous cultural asset to our city. And I encourage everyone to help them through their financial strains. I'm confident that they're going to succeed in this effort, and I'm here to help any way possible. I think they're going to see their way through this thing. I'm confident the community will respond."

Stodola also mentioned possible future collaborations, adding that he had communicated with Celebrity Attractions, which takes the Broadway series into Robinson Center, about possibly taking Rep productions on the road into the several cities in which it books shows (including Abilene, Amarillo and Lubbock, Texas; Tulsa, its headquarters; and Springfield, Mo.)

"That has not yet gotten off the ground, but it's a possible new revenue source that ought to be pursued," he said.

He said he's also confident that the redevelopment of Main Street, including the growth of "arts and culture and science and technology up and down Main Street ... is going to succeed, despite short setbacks."

Information for this article was contributed by Emily Walkenhorst of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
A stage crew strikes the set of the Christmas play The Gift of the Magi on Dec. 27 after the play’s run at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in downtown Little Rock.
Photo by Cary Jenkins
Cliff Baker is shown in this photo.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Brian Bush is shown in this file photo.

Metro on 04/25/2018

CORRECTION: Bob Hupp left the Arkansas Repertory Theatre to take a job with Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, N.Y., at the end of the theater’s 2015-16 season. A previous version of this gave an incorrect date. The story also omitted the detail that Cliff Baker, the Rep’s founding artistic director, was scheduled to direct the play God of Carnage, the final show of the current season, which the theater’s board has canceled.

Print Headline: Out of cash; the shows can't go on, Rep says

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