The new executive artistic director for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is getting settled into his new position. In January it was announced that Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Will Trice, who is a Little Rock native, had accepted the position. But he had to spend several months in New York wrapping up affairs there before moving back to Arkansas.
The arrival of Trice comes more than a year after The Rep suspended operations because of financial difficulties involving a deficit of $750,000. But supporters came together, launching a campaign called "Rebuild The Rep." Donations were made, matched by the John and Robyn Horn Foundation and the Windgate Charitable Foundation, enabling the theater to reopen.
On Friday, The Rep announced its lineup of productions for the coming season. Before the announcement, KUAR News spoke with Trice about The Rep’s current financial situation and his plans for the theater.
MICHAEL HIBBLEN: You just arrived in town two weeks ago, but we spoke by phone in January when it was announced that you had taken the position. Since that time you’ve been consulting for The Rep...
WILL TRICE: Yeah, working, coming back and forth, which is really for the birds. So I’m glad that that’s over and working remotely from New York since January, but its great to actually be here on the ground and really dig into it.
HIBBLEN: A lot of people were real upset when The Rep shut down and obviously came together to help rebuild it. How is The Rep doing at this point financially?
TRICE: We’re in probably as good a shape as we’ve ever been. The response was very strong and encouraging to the shutdown. It got us to a really manageable place with the debt. There’s still a little bit to go on the capital campaign that was running at the time of the shutdown and that campaign was structured to take care of that debt. So, we’re in sort of the last lap to close that out but very close to it and have a good set of operational reserves and we’re in a great place. You know, professional theaters are very expensive to run. They’re very labor intensive operations, so just to operate during a year, we have to raise a lot of money. Ticket sales alone only cover about half of our expenses, so we will always have to continue to raise funds in order to operate, but in terms of the debt load that we were carrying in that capital campaign, to be on a generally safe financial ground, we’re in great shape.
HIBBLEN: And what’s your role at the theater?
TRICE: Well, I have sort of both sides of that; sides of the branch that is sometimes fabricated, so I’ve got most of the artistic side and the executive or business side of it. Often there’s an artist director and an executive or managing director that are two different people. The sort of other thing that sets me apart is that I won’t be directing shows myself, which is something an artistic director typically does. So in theory, the extra capacity that not doing that gives me will allow me to also oversee the management side of it.
HIBBLEN: And what are you envisioning for The Rep?
TRICE: You know, much of it is what its always been. We have the same mission statement that we’ve always had to provide professional theater in central Arkansas that is locally produced with a variety of programming. That has always been a part of it and that will remain a part. You’ll see slight changes here and there in terms of the programming and the marketing, but for the most part, it’s what people have always wanted from The Rep. That’ll continue.
HIBBLEN: Has the financial situation played a factor in what kind of productions you host? I understand musicals are more expensive than traditional plays because of the licensing. Are there any issues like that that are coming into play.
TRICE: Well musicals may be more expensive to produce, but they also tend to generate more sales too, so no. I think we start from, whether it’s a play or a musical, you know, shows that we think people are really going to respond to and want to come see, and if that’s true, then it’ll be a great place financially no matter what it costs to put on. You know, it’s a balancing act, sure, and across the season is a balancing act, and you want to have variety across the season as well and a mixture of both plays and musicals.
HIBBLEN: Yeah. Any thoughts in terms of more modern productions or more classics and old favorites or a little bit of both?
TRICE: Yeah, I think again, variety always plays a key element. You know, we live in a town that doesn’t have dozens of professional resident theaters here that each could have these very specific identities. We feel a responsibility to have some sort of variety. That said, I personally tend to gravitate to things that are a little more contemporary, but just even thinking about the musical theater canon, a lot of it comes from the middle of the 20th century, and so just by default, you’re going to have some stuff from there. But I focus on a mix and try to give everyone great experiences that are all a little bit different, but all enjoyable.
HIBBLEN: Well it will be announced the productions for the coming season later today. Can you give kind of a hint of what kind of productions you’re looking at?
TRICE: It’s three shows, three productions.
HIBBLEN: An abbreviated season.
TRICE: Yeah, because we’re going to start the season clock back over if you will in the fall of 2020, so it will look more like the school year, which is what we’ve historically done. So we have a little trio, a little mini season starting in February, and yeah, it’s a mix. We’ve got some musicals, got some plays, we’ve got some different sort of spans of time that they’re from. But I very consciously went in wanting to program things that I thought people here would like and be able to easily come out of there feeling like they had a great night and be able to recommend it to their friends.
HIBBLEN: Well tell me a little bit about yourself. You’re a native of Little Rock. Where did you grow up?
TRICE: I grew up here in Little Rock. I graduated from Central High, ’97. Go Tigers! Yeah, was here all the way through that.
HIBBLEN: And how did you end up making it to Broadway?
TRICE: Pretty roundabout. My career before that went back and forth between more corporate, business endeavors, things more on the artistic side. And when I was about 30, I made a switch over into commercial theater, Broadway, and actually started as a really old intern, but luckily landed in a great spot in a great office with two great bosses who were very successful in the industry, and they made me a partner in their business pretty soon after I joined. It was an incredible experience, but I was looking forward to a different kind of experience and [have] always been drawn to institutional theaters, obviously drawn to the community that I grew up in, so I was upset as everyone else when The Rep went through its suspension last year. So it just seemed very serendipitous that it all came together when it did.
HIBBLEN: And how did you come to take this role?
TRICE: I had been talking with Ruth Shepherd who’s the board chair and who’d been in an interim leadership position, as well as Cliff Baker, who sadly we lost last fall, but [Baker] was in an interim kind of artistic leadership position. And the conversation began very generally. Just a "what’s going on?" "'Is there anything I can do to help?" And then it slowly veered into a, 'well, are you going to come down and run it?' So yeah, it happened rather organically, but I’m glad that it did.
HIBBLEN: Yeah. Is it hard coming back?
TRICE: Not at all. Not at all. There is an adjustment. I was in New York for 15 years. But it’s interesting to see what has changed here since I lived here 20 years ago as a kid and what it’s like now. Some things are very different, but some things are exactly the same.
HIBBLEN: Okay. Well a lot of people will be looking to you and also waiting to hear the lineup for this coming short season. Anything else you’d like to say? For supporters of The Rep and the people who have just really been following this saga.
TRICE: Well, I’d like to start with thank you. Thank you for the support and thank you for being interested in the cultural life of this city and wanting to make this city an interesting place and a fun place to live. I think The Rep is an essential component of that and it’s all about us as a community wanting that for our town.
Later Friday the three productions for the coming short season were announced, along with descriptions of each.
- Ann: Tony award winner Elizabeth Ashley is the legendary Ann Richards in Ann, a no-holds-barred look at the brassy, blue governor who changed the face of Texas politics.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: 15-year-old Christopher has an extraordinary brain. He is exceptional at mathematics, but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road, he detests being touched, and he distrusts strangers. And now he is on a mission – an investigative adventure that will upturn the world of his family and community forever.
- Bye Bye Birdie: It’s 1958 in Sweet Apple, Ohio, and the telephones are ringing off the hook. Hip-swinging, rock-and-roll heartthrob Conrad Birdie is coming to town to plant One Last Kiss on his #1 fan, broadcast live on the Ed Sullivan Show. Star-struck fathers, jealous boyfriends, struggling managers, and frustrated better-halves, are all caught up in a whirlwind of poodle skirts and letterman jackets … and the cameras haven’t even started rolling.
You can learn more by visiting The Rep's website.