Professional. Affordable. Sustainable. This is Ruth Shepherd’s mantra as she and other leaders of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, also known as 'The Rep,' go forward in assessing the fiscally-challenged theatre’s future.
Shepherd, a longtime Rep staffer and board chair, said at a meeting at Little Rock’s Clinton School of Public Service that many specifics of the theatre’s future remain up in the air.
"But, you can expect that it will be smaller, more intimate, and community-centric," Sheperd said.
The Rep announced last April it would be suspending operations following more than 40 years of staging productions in central Arkansas. Shortly after, it laid off two-thirds of its staff.
Following an outpouring of community support, the theatre received $1.25 million in matching grants to resume operations, as well as $122,000 from individual donors. Shepherd stressed that the grants, from the Windgate Charitable Foundation and the Robyn & John Horn Foundation, are not an immediate fix and require personal donations to come to fruition.
“I heard, ‘Wow! The Rep just got a million dollars,’. No. The Rep just got a challenge to raise a million dollars and then we get the million dollars,” Shepherd said. “So both of those are challenge grants, but we’re definitely working.”
Now, Rep officials promise to continue operations, but probably in an abridged form. Another significant development is the sale of the Rep-owned Peachtree Apartments, a move Shepherd said will shave off half of the theatre’s property debt.
The theatre’s operating debt, however, remains $150,000 shy of being erased.
A series of public meetings, the first set for June 26, will serve to gather input from both actors and the public as to what the re-imagined Rep should look like, according to Shepherd.
“We’ve tried to be all things to all people when it comes to theatre, and we know that one person’s favorite production will be anathema to somebody who’s sitting on the very same row,” Shepherd said.
Stephanie Jackson, a marketing director from Little Rock, is an ardent theatregoer and frequents downtown Main Street. The Rep was presented as an anchor of the city's Creative Corridor initiative by Mayor Mark Stodola in 2012.
Jackson, whose daughter has performed on The Rep’s stage and taken its summer theatre program, said she is eager to voice her concerns in public meetings over the summer.
“It feels like it’s bad and negative, because people have had to lose their jobs,” Jackson said. “You never want to see people laid off. But, on the flip side of that, this is a great opportunity to help the community rally and support this theatre and put us on the right footing for the future.”
Jackson said other theatres also based downtown, such as the Weekend Theatre and the newly-renovated Robinson Center, give The Rep a chance to distinguish itself through programming choices and community engagement.
“I think this gives The Rep an opportunity to show the community what its got,” Jackson said.
A leadership team of Shepherd, board member Bill Rector, and Rep founder Cliff Baker should give a more concrete picture of the theatre’s future operations in a report expected by mid-August.