“It was a lot more happenstance and luck than strategy.”
Will Trice laughs to himself as he sits below a giant window overlooking downtown Little Rock, his view from the executive artistic director’s office at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. He’s settling into the space after moving in a few months ago, taking a moment to reflect on the strange roads — both his own and the theater’s — that brought him to this office.
On April 24, 2018, The Rep went dark. Operations stopped, the season was cut short, then-producing artistic director John Miller-Stephany stepped down, only a few critical staff members remained and everyone was left to wonder what would happen to the institution at 601 Main St.
What happened next was wondrous to watch unfold. An “inability to reach its projected goals for charitable giving and ticket sales” had caused The Rep’s downfall, but the community answered. An onslaught of donations, a flurry of fundraisers and a groundswell of love and support flowed in over the following weeks under the rallying cry of “Save The Rep.”
Less than seven months later, the state’s largest nonprofit resident theater company was back — sort of. The administration, still reeling from the sudden passing of Rep founder Cliff Baker just weeks prior, announced an abridged season for 2019, one designed not only to entertain audiences, but also to gauge their willingness to put their ticket money where their mouths were.
Half a continent away, Trice was a decade into a career in Broadway production that earned him three Tony Awards and five nominations. And although the accolades speak for themselves now, once upon a time, as a music and business student in Dallas who followed graduation with a gig at a consulting firm, life in the theater didn’t seem to be in the cards.
But grad school enrollment, a move to New York and one massive career shift later, Trice was back on the stage.
“Maybe in the back of my mind theater always felt like what I was supposed to do,” he says, “but my life and career sort of ended up being so circuitous that it didn’t ever feel like that was what I would do, but it just sort of happened.”
As with any career, there came a period where Trice was looking for change on the horizon, keeping an eye out for new opportunities in his rediscovered passion.
That’s when he heard the news about The Rep.
Trice is a Little Rock native. He grew up here, graduated from Central High and even performed on The Rep stage as a teen where he and award-winning screenwriter and fellow native Graham Gordy played brothers in a production of “Lost in Yonkers.”
Trice spent hours in the theater as a kid — “the ultimate playground” — while his parents rehearsed for roles in Rep shows and the biennial political spoof production “Gridiron.”
He knew Little Rock. He knew The Rep. And now he was watching his hometown lose a pillar of its arts community.
“It’s funny, my husband and I talked about different places we might live, and when we talked about Little Rock, this particular job seemed like it would be the one reason career-wise for us to live here,” Trice says. “This place is important to me and was important to my growing up, but when The Rep went through its last leadership transition, I just assumed that opportunity was gone. And then life happened.”
The Rep announced his hiring in January, excited to have a director not only with Broadway chops but also a deep connection and understanding of central Arkansas join its rebuilding campaign.
The core, certainly, of any theater’s existence is what it puts on its stage. As The Rep wraps up its 2019 run with multiple sold-out shows, Trice was tasked with curating a mini season for spring 2020, bringing the theater back to its traditional fall-to-spring calendar.
“Ann,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Bye Bye Birdie” were selected by Trice for their broad themes and subject matter, but also because of their “uber entertaining” nature. (See Breaking Down the 2020 Spring Season.)
“What matters to me is making sure the things we do are all the right fit with each other across the season and within our community,” Trice says of the planning process. “Contemporary or classic, it would always be crucial to me that whatever we do feels fresh and immediate and engaging, and not like a museum.
“But then, theater has a unique advantage. Everything, by nature, passes through a contemporary lens. If we’re doing our job right, it’s always fresh and it’s always new.”
Outside of the mainstage season, Trice is looking forward to the continued growth of The Rep’s education department — he particularly loved this summer’s “Willy Wonka Jr.” — building the theater’s subscriber base, reimagining its young professionals group and finding new ways of partnering with local artists and talent to bring something new to the people of Little Rock.
“I always think of it being about a great night out and something enjoyable to do in town,” he says. “It’s about putting things out there that are entertaining, that are inspiring, that spark conversation and that are, dare I say, beautiful every once in awhile. We want to create experiences that give people a reason not to just go home and watch Netflix.”
As Trice looks to the future of The Rep, he does so with the intention to ensure the theater is fully cemented as an intrinsic part of Little Rock’s cultural scene. He hopes to see a wider variety in ages, ethnicities and every demographic, with plans to create programming that reaches, speaks and is accessible to everyone.
And yes, Trice and the team are looking to the future with confidence. Yes, there is still work to be done, and yes, the theater is still rebuilding. But when the people in your corner have deep, nourished roots, it’s hard work not to flourish, and this team is putting in the hard work to make sure it does.
“This place is fundamental to quality of life in Little Rock. It’s not an option that it goes anywhere,” he says. “Besides, then they’d miss all the fun we’ve got up our sleeves.”
Getting to Know All About Will
I can’t start my day until...
I drink a glass of water.
My dream show to bring to The Rep...
“Caroline, or Change”
My favorite production I’ve ever worked on...
“Porgy and Bess.” It was my first Broadway show and my first Tony and it was magical.
In planning my dream vacation...
The top of the list right now is Japan, but I love going to Mexico. I feel like there are at least five more Mexico trips I’d like to take to explore it all. I want to see everything I can in Japan — Kyoto, the countryside and one of those tiny bars that only seats, like, four people and has a weird theme.
When I feel uninspired...
I used to listen to music at the gym, but now that I have a car again, I get a lot of thinking and planning done while driving with music.
Currently can’t stop listening to...
The new Beck album.
My ideal Saturday in Little Rock includes...
A morning workout at the Athletic Club, light day drinking at Heights Taco & Tamale Co. and reconnecting with old friends over dinner. That’s been a really fun part of being back.
The advice I wish I had five years ago...
Honestly, don’t squat too much at the gym or you’ll mess up your hip, but professionally, get to enjoy networking more.
My personal compass points to...
I value work-life balance. I value moderation. Probably the closest thing I have to a mantra is “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” It sounds trite to say a coffee mug quote is something to live your life by, but it’s true.
Breaking Down the 2020 Spring Season
The Rep plans to announce a full season in mid-2020.