As real estate professionals, Tom and Elizabeth Small know something about property values. As theater lovers, there is one property they’d classify as priceless.
The Little Rock couple is putting their long-time love and support of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre to work as co-chairs of this year’s Saints and Sinners gala. The event — originally set for May 2, but now postponed amid coronavirus concerns — has traditionally been The Rep’s premier fundraiser and still plans to stage its comeback in 2020 after a one-year hiatus.
“The community missed it and people got very excited when it was announced Saints and Sinners was coming back,” Elizabeth says.
After a run of financial trouble that saw The Rep suspend its schedule midway through the 2018 season, the theater resumed production with a limited schedule under new executive artistic director Will Trice last year. However Saints and Sinners, known for its theater-themed flash and performances involving a mix of local and trained talent, did not take place in 2019.
“It has a reputation, at least among our friends, of being the most fun of the events,” Tom says.
Tom is a commercial real estate appraiser for Bank OZK and Elizabeth is a former developer, contractor and broker who is now a professor in the UA Little Rock college of business with an emphasis on real estate.
The two have supported The Rep, and the performing arts in general, in numerous ways since they were married in 1981. They have been season ticket holders since the days when The Rep was located in the Hunter Memorial Methodist Church at East 11th and McAlmont, where it was founded in 1976.
“We’re both very arts-oriented,” says Tom, a pianist and former choir director who is teacher certified. “Elizabeth was actually a theater major. Several of our friends were Rep supporters before we ever got married.”
Elizabeth would eventually get her MBA, but theater, especially the production side, stayed in her blood.
“I loved being onstage in college and high school,” she says, “but I really loved lighting.”
She had a lighting assistantship in college and would do her homework, and sometimes catch a nap, in the light booth at Hendrix College. One summer she worked the lightboard for the Playhouse on the Square in Memphis and has also lighted numerous community theater productions.
“I truly believe you can make or break a show with good lighting or bad lighting,” Elizabeth says. “It sets moods. It sets the atmosphere.”
Tom and Elizabeth have worked together on each other’s projects, and most of the time the collaborations have been successful. Most of the time.
“She let me help a couple times in community theater until I left them in the dark,” Tom says, recalling a technical mishap that blacked out a production of Neil Simon’s “California Suite.” Elizabeth saved the moment by bringing the lights back up in slow, dramatic fashion.
When the lights went out at The Rep in 2018, and took the 2019 Saints and Sinners with it, the disappointment and sense of loss were pronounced, not just in the Smalls’ home but across the Little Rock community.
“To think about The Rep not being here, after 35 years of having The Rep as part of our life, it would have affected our happiness,” Tom says. “We’re happy to be a small part of it.”
Saints and Sinners helps fund the theater’s operation and, in large part, its educational programs that include acting, dance and music classes, often in partnerships with local schools.
“It’s all the varieties of theater that you can imagine,” Elizabeth says.
While the funds support The Rep, the couple says The Rep supports the community.
“It’s an economic engine for the city,” Tom says. “It brings in people from out of town.”
Harder to measure but just as important is the impact of the arts on a city’s image. Communities seeking to promote themselves could do worse than having a thriving arts scene, Elizabeth says.
“I love when [people from] other cities come here and see how we do things,” she says.
When asked to name some favorite Rep productions, the couple, predictably, couldn’t stop at one. From “Peter Pan” to “Steel Magnolias” to the recent production of “Ann” with Tony Award-winning Elizabeth Ashley as Texas political icon Ann Richards, The Rep never fails to delight the Smalls.
“The magic of a play is that it is never done the same way twice,” Elizabeth says.
And The Rep is hoping for a little extra dose of that magic in 2020. With the theater still in its rebuilding phase and the coronavirus-prompted cancellation of its spring production “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a successful fundraiser is a must. A new date for the event has yet to be announced, but the hope is that guests will be even more willing and excited to support the theater when the opportunity comes.
Elizabeth admits there is some pressure involved in bringing Saints and Sinners back to life, but she and Tom have been inspired by the effort people have put into its revival. The couple’s ambition is not to make it the biggest night in the event’s history, but they do anticipate this year’s version being as fresh, new and exciting as each nightly production at The Rep.
“This year it’s going to be different than it’s ever been,” she says.