Selling an apartment building, matching a million-dollar grant and rethinking the role of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre are ways to save the storied Little Rock venue, theater leaders said Thursday.
"We are not closed," an energized Ruth Shepherd announced from a podium inside Sturgis Hall at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. "We are taking what I call a brief intermission."
Shepherd helps lead a committee formed to save the 41-year-old theater from permanent closure.
On April 24, the Rep announced it was suspending production operations and canceled its final play of the season, God of Carnage.
After the announcement, Arkansans and theater-lovers outside the Natural State rallied around the Rep. Since that day, $275,455 has been raised, Shepherd said Thursday.
Two foundations also offered more than $1 million in matching grants. The Rep received $75,000 upfront from the Windgate Charitable Foundation and will be given installments of the remaining $925,000 as the Rep raises money to match that amount. The John & Robyn Horn Foundation also gave $25,000, which the theater must also match.
Shepherd cautioned against thinking that the Rep was just given a million dollars.
"No, the Rep just got a challenge to raise a million dollars," she said.
The Rep still needs $125,000 in donations to zero out its existing operating debt, Shepherd said. The ultimate fundraising goal is $2.33 million, according to her presentation.
That money would go toward essential scene shop renovations, capital improvements, establishing a slew of reserve funds and paying professional fees, according to a printed copy of the presentation.
Though details are still in the works, Shepherd said that according to the Rep's founder Cliff Baker, the reformed theater will like be "smaller, more intimate and community-centric."
To understand the Rep's current financial woes, Shepherd gave attendees of Thursday's public forum a brief history of the theater.
Founded in 1976, the Rep moved into its current home at 601 Main St. in 1988. During its 41-year history, the Rep has mounted more than 350 productions, including 45 world premieres. In 2016, the theater expanded its education program to offer courses year-round.
But theater is an "inherently risky" business, Shepherd said.
"We were always living hand to mouth."
As the theater grew, so did its expenses. The Rep's 990 form for July 2000 through June 2001 reported $2.5 million in total expenses and about $2.4 million in total revenue. Sixteen years later, annual expenses were reported at $4.6 million, with $3.5 million in revenue.
Traditionally, the Rep has staged the current show to pay for the next show, Shepherd said. But for the past few years, the Rep has staged the current show to pay for the prior show.
Existing issues were then exacerbated by the changing theater landscape in Little Rock. New community theater productions have popped up, and the Robinson Performance Hall underwent an extensive renovation, drawing more season ticket-holders, she said.
"That's good for our community," Shepherd said. "But all of this growth has dramatically impacted the Rep."
In addition to canceling the June play, two-thirds of the Rep's staff, more than 20 people, were laid off. The theater also decided to sell the 16-unit Peachtree Apartment building on East Sixth Street, which housed actors.
The sale, which is about to go through, will cut the Rep's $1.5 million property debt in half, Interim General Manager Bill Rector said.
On Thursday, audience members peppered Shepherd, Rector and Anna Kimmell, the Rep's director of education, with questions. One person asked the obvious: Who will be making the decisions, going forward?
"We don't have an artistic director right now," Shepherd said. "We don't have a managing director. So it's really an opportunity for this theater to step back and reinvent itself."
One attendee asked what would the artistic future of the Rep look like.
Shepherd said she didn't want to put "the cart in front of the horse," but one possibility is reinvigorating the black box theater at the Rep's Annex location. Those productions could be "more provocative, perhaps less expensive, perhaps a little more crazy" than a standard show, she said.
That idea jived with audience member Michael Scott, a former theater teacher at Little Rock Central High School. Scott said in a black box setting, people can witness something "rattling," something that "will make you leave the theatre silently, rather than going, 'Well, that was a nice show.'"
As the meeting wrapped up, people milled about to discuss their ideas. Friends and acquaintances approached Shepherd to tell her they enjoyed her presentation.
"I'll see you at Jazzercise," one friend said while leaving.
Shepherd, whose LinkedIn profile says she's "Retired and Loving it!" responded with gusto, "I'll see you at the Rep!"
Metro on 06/08/2018