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Update: The Rep, Citing Money Shortfall, Will Suspend Operations

5 min read

Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s board of directors said Tuesday that it will suspend operations effective immediately and not complete the final production of its current season.

In a news release, the nonprofit cited “inability to reach its projected goals for charitable giving and ticket sales.”

“The Rep’s ticket sales have been on a downhill slope for several years,” Brian Bush, the board chairman, said in the release. “Our community is on the verge of losing an amazing arts organization and tremendous asset to our city. Closing The Rep will have a devastating impact on the redevelopment of Main Street and the creative corridor.”

Bush told Arkansas Business late Tuesday that the organization is “asset rich” and “cash poor.” He said the Rep has a little more than $2 million in debt, including mortgage debt. To reverse its decision to close, Bush said the Rep would need a donation of $750,000 to $1 million.

Bush said the re-opening of the Robinson Center, its Broadway show series and the proliferation of community theaters have “cannibalized” the Rep’s ticket sales.

Contributions are also down. For the fiscal year ending June 30, The Rep reported contributions and grants of $944,121, down from $2.3 million the previous year, according to its most recent tax filings.

It also reported a loss of nearly $1.2 million on annual revenue of $3.5 million, which was down 25 percent from $4.7 million in the previous fiscal year. In the previous fiscal year, The Rep reported a loss of $4,000.

The Rep’s director, John Miller-Stephany, has been with the theater since October 2016. He is stepping down on May 8 “along with most other staff members.” The Rep said that only “a critical few” staffers will remain through the summer to conduct the theater’s summer education program.

“I am tremendously grateful for the opportunities afforded me — and for the personal support that I have received — during these past 18 months,” Miller-Stephany said. “My hope is that The Rep will survive the current crisis in some form. However, I sadly do not see a place for myself in the reimagined Rep.” 

The Rep wrapped its production of “Mamma Mia” on April 8 and was scheduled to begin the final show of its 2017-2018 season, “God of Carnage,” on June 6. On Tuesday, The Rep said it canceled the play and would give ticket holders a tax receipt letter for the value of the tickets.

A May 4-6 run of shows with Ballet Arkansas will continue, and its annual ArtWorks fundraiser will take place on Saturday. The Rep will hold its summer education program, but will close completely after the program ends on Aug. 3.

Losing Steam

Bush said the last budget the board approved projected a loss, but members expected donations to more than offset the deficit it expected. That didn’t happen.

He also said some of the “lumpiness” of the financials is due to the ending of one capital campaign and the beginning of another. The first campaign ended around 2010, and some of the pledges were for three to five years, so they were still coming in during years where the theater had more contributions. But a second campaign “lost steam” in 2017, he said.

Bush said “it’s difficult to go to large donors for donations when your existence is in jeopardy because those are donors, who, quite frankly, want to contribute to an organization that they believe has a long future.”

He also said some of The Rep’s biggest corporate donors have been acquired or consolidated and have new out-of-state owners who are not as committed to local community outreach.

Bush said The Rep’s Tuesday announcement is a good faith effort to tell the public that it needs their help. In a statement, The Rep described its future as “under evaluation.” It said Ruth Shepherd, chairman-elect of the board, is leading a committee of board members and past board members “to fundraise for and conceptualize a reimagined Arkansas Repertory Theatre.” The Rep said it would present a plan by mid-August.

Bush said that, under any new model, The Rep would remain a professional theater that pays actors and its staff and hosts educational programs.

A new model could mean The Rep having fewer than the six productions a year it’s had in the past, having shows run for a shorter period of time and collaborating with other theaters on productions, Bush said. The Rep could also put on fewer large musicals that are expensive to produce he said.

The board has also considered selling some of its real estate. The Rep owns two apartment complexes that house visiting artists but has more real estate than a theater its size typically has, he said.

Looking Back

Cliff Fannin Baker founded the Arkansas Repertory Theater in 1976. The goal was to build a professional theater company in Arkansas.

Under Baker and a seven-member board of directors, the theater performed its first shows in the Hunter Memorial United Methodist Church. Five full-time actors performed five shows per year on a $50,000 budget. About 5,500 people attended shows that first year.

Ten seasons later, The Rep had grown, adding in-state and regional tours, as well as educational programs for schools around the state. The Rep began planning an expansion in 1986. In three years, it had renovated the Galloway Building, the historic structure at the corner of Main and Sixth streets. There, The Rep set up two stages: a 354-seat proscenium theater called the MainStage, and a 99-seat flexible space called the SecondStage. The company performed its first play in the Galloway Building, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” in October 1988.

In 1995, The Rep set out on its first national tour with its production of “Always … Patsy Cline.” The play became the third-highest grossing production in The Rep’s history. More importantly, The Rep distinguished itself by being only one of a handful of theaters in the country to conduct national tours.

Baker retired from his producing director’s job in 1999. In 2000, The Rep hired Robert Hupp of New York to be its new artistic director. Hupp stayed there until 2016, when he returned to New York to be artistic director of Syracuse Stage. 

At the time of his departure, The Rep said Hupp oversaw a tripling of the theater’s annual budget to $4 million, an increase in contributions, and renovations to the theater and actor housing. The downtown theater also opened The Annex, a black box theater and education space, in Main Street’s Creative Corridor.

In the mid-2000s, The Rep explored moving from its Main-and-Sixth-streets home. The theater filed a $15 million grant application with the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a national philanthropic organization that gave millions of dollars per year primarily to nonprofits in Arkansas, Nevada and Oklahoma. It did not win the grant.

After conducting a national search for Hupp’s replacement, The Rep hired Miller-Stephany, who had most recently worked as artistic administrator and associate artistic director of The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

The Rep’s main theater now has 377 seats. It employs about 30 people.

“It’s sort of ironic that we have been in this location … 30 years, and Main Street sort of went away,” Bush said. “And we were the … only people who kept the lights on on Main Street. Now, Main Street is revitalizing and growing all around us, and we find ourselves at a point where we may not be here. 

“It’s strange because Main Street has finally caught up with us and we’d like to be here for the future of Main Street.”


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