The Arkansas Repertory Theatre needed a friend, a lot of them, actually.
Executive Artistic Director Will Trice knew where to find the first one.
“Will and I go way, way, way back,” says Katie Buchanan, tapped by Trice to help organize The Rep’s StageDoor Social young patron program. “We both lived in Dallas at one point, but he moved to New York and did the theater thing, and we’re kind of like family. We spend Christmas Day together.”
After bleak periods in limbo caused by financial woes and the COVID-19 pandemic, The Rep is back with a schedule of performances produced by Trice and a fresh group of supporters organized by Buchanan.
StageDoor Social is a subscriber experience aimed at harnessing a new generation of theatergoers through a membership package that includes tickets to special performances and access to pre- and post-show events and parties.
Trice had once asked Buchanan to work with him on the theater events side, but Buchanan, a one-time special events director with the Dallas Opera, demurred.
“I didn’t want to do that again,” she says. “I said, ‘I’ll do anything you need me to do otherwise, volunteerwise.’”
Trice, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer who had returned to his hometown to serve his beloved local theater, didn’t forget the offer.
“He wanted me to be in a think tank to come up with that,” says Buchanan of the contemporary group of supporters she’s organized under the name she concocted.
StageDoor Social is more than just a social function. Taking a clear-eyed view of The Rep’s challenges through the prism of its recent past, Trice says success hinges on one thing and one thing only.
“It’s very simple. Everybody’s got to come back. Everybody’s got to get back in the habit. I think if there’s any risk we’re facing right now it’s just the sort of inertia and apathy, I think, with a lot of folks these past two years. … This is purely going to be about reengaging with us and enjoying what our community has to offer. We don’t exist in a vacuum.”
The state’s largest nonprofit professional theater company, The Rep was founded by Cliff Baker in 1976. It debuted that year with a production of “The Threepenny Opera” at its first location in the Hunter Memorial Methodist Church in Little Rock.
A fundraising campaign helped the theater obtain a loan of close to $2 million to buy and renovate its current home, the Galloway Building on Main Street. Work was completed in 1988 and the building underwent a renovation in 2012.
The theater has a main stage that seats 385 while its nearby black box theater seats 99.
“The theater itself is in great shape,” Buchanan says. “They’ve got a wonderful building. Everything is good down there.”
With an annual attendance of around 70,000, The Rep employs a mix of local actors and award-winning performers from around the country. It produces one children’s production a year and offers its Summer Musical Theatre Intensive program for teens and young adults.
Through partnerships, The Rep has also supported emerging playwrights and arts-centered community projects.
A mainstay of downtown Little Rock and Main Street’s Creative Corridor, the theater has built a devoted following, which includes people like Buchanan and her family.
“I’ve always enjoyed The Rep,” she says. “I’ve always gone to The Rep. My parents have a star on a dressing room door downstairs.”
But love doesn’t always conquer all.
Along with ticket sales, the theater operates through grants and money raised from donations, fundraisers and other events. This eventually became the source of its woes when The Rep was forced to suspend operations in spring of 2018 after failing to meet fundraising and ticket sales goals, capping years of declining box office numbers.
The last production of the year, the play “God of Carnage,” was canceled, and then-producing artistic director John Miller-Stephany stepped down after more than two years.
The theater continued its summer education program, then suspended all operations that August. The suspension was short-lived, however, as The Rep rallied financially, thanks in part to a fundraising committee that raised $2.33 million, and named Trice, who had been serving as an advisor, to the newly created position of executive artistic director.
The theater launched a 2019 spring schedule that included the Bob Fosse musical “Chicago,” and by fall Buchanan was involved, trying to formulate what StageDoor Social would look like.
In January 2020, The Rep held a kickoff party for the group.
“It was electric,” Buchanan says. “It was so fun. We gave everybody a code to go through the actual stage door.”
Guests were able to traverse the theater and see its inner workings and were treated to a rallying speech by Trice.
“He said, ‘I really want to get a real united group,’” Buchanan says.
So, naturally, a world health crisis broke out and, almost immediately, The Rep was once again forced to shut down all operations. The grand plans for StageDoor Social were put on ice.
A Musical Journey
Born in Texarkana, Buchanan moved to Little Rock when she was 12 and calls the city home. She graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in fashion merchandising — “Which also makes me love the theater because I love all the costumes and I love the visuals” — and moved to Dallas, where Trice attended Southern Methodist University and lived for a time before pursuing his career in New York.
Buchanan attended Little Rock’s Mount St. Mary Academy, and she and Trice had mutual friends from her alma mater and Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys who were attending SMU. Her friends would return from Dallas on Christmas break and give Trice a lift home.
Trice was raised in a musical family and Buchanan recalls Christmas Day singalongs, complete with sheet music, at the Trice home.
“Judy doesn’t mess around,” she says of Trice’s mother.
Trice’s grandfather, Buchanan notes, had taken a long-time ownership of the line “five golden rings” in “Twelve Days of Christmas” and willed it to Trice to sing after his passing.
Buchanan currently works as a professional organizer, what she considers her third career after working as a jewelry rep in Dallas before moving on to fundraising.
Fashion, she says “went south” after 9/11, and then Buchanan suffered a serious kidney ailment, leading her to need multiple transplants, which created her connection to the local medical community and volunteering, first with Children’s Medical Center in Dallas and then the Dallas Opera.
“Those things are just easier for people to grasp,” says Buchanan, comparing health care fundraising to fundraising for the arts. “But we don’t need to just treat our bodies, heal our bodies, do these different medical parties. We also need to be nurturing our souls and our passion for art. It’s just as important to children and on up.”
Back in Little Rock with her husband, realtor Bob Bushmiaer, Buchanan found the arts beckoning in the form of Trice, who was born in 1979 and had an unformed vision of inspiring a new generation of theater patrons reflecting his own age demographic.
“Probably my top initiative for the company in general is this group,” Trice says. “I’m incredibly excited about it, mainly because it’s targeting my peer group and my generation.”
Judy Trice taught music theater at Little Rock’s Hall High while his father, William, was a lawyer. Both parents appeared in the Arkansas Bar Association’s annual satirical "Gridiron" production, and Trice’s sister, lawyer Kathryn Pryor, performed in The Rep and Weekend Theater productions.
As a teenager, Trice himself appeared in The Rep’s production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.”
After SMU and graduate school at Northwestern University, Trice worked as an analyst before leaving Texas to pursue what appeared inevitable given his background — a career in show business.
He worked in artistic development at the Metropolitan Opera before an internship led him to a press and marketing gig with a production of “Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”
He has produced shows on Broadway, in London’s West End and for national tours. Trice has Tony awards for his productions of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “All The Way” and “Porgy and Bess.” He has produced versions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “You Can’t Take it With You,” among others, with more Tony and Drama Desk award nominations coming his way.
When The Rep stumbled in 2018, Trice, looking to shift gears, offered his help and wound up as executive artistic director.
“Much of it is the same, but it feels more personal,” Trice says, comparing his big theater and Rep experiences. “And it feels more immediate. I know the community that we’re here to serve, and we can only do our best to serve that. So, yeah, it’s more meaningful overall because of that personal connection to the community, and it’s sort of bridging what I was doing elsewhere with a closer connection to our audiences and our supporters.”
To strengthen that connection, Trice envisioned what Buchanan has turned into StageDoor Social.
“The sustainability of The Rep is going to require more people of this generation to go and be excited about going,” Buchanan says. “And so he found it to be a really good tool to use to sustain The Rep and get a younger group really enthusiastic about it.”
Back on track, StageDoor Social recently had its second launch party on The Rep’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” set, complete with falling snow.
Buchanan is betting that if her generation gets a whiff of the greasepaint and some time in front of the footlights, it will grasp the magic of live theater.
“In the theater you have so many gifts going on,” she says. “You have your designers, your dancers, your singers, your people that play the instruments. To see that many gifts participating and creating this amazing show is so exciting to me. There’s so many amazing gifts people have been given and they’re using them on the stage or the orchestra pit.”
It starts with the productions, of course.
Along with the holiday run of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the reborn Rep schedule includes an updated stage version of “Designing Women” by the original TV series co-creator and Little Rock native Linda Bloodworth-Thomason; the thought-provoking comedy “School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play;” and a production of “Into the Woods” by the beloved and recently departed composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
A StageDoor Social membership, among other things, includes tickets to all productions, including a special night for members and their guests so, Buchanan says, they can attend as a group.
“We wanted to try to have one night that was designated as StageDoor Social Night,” she says. “So that’s the night you’re going to see all your friends. [Trice] had so many ideas how to keep us all close together.”
Trice and Buchanan agree that, after the isolation caused by the pandemic, reveling with friends and enjoying live entertainment, with music and a dose of humor, can be the antidote to today’s angst-filled, trying times.
“It’s easy to get hooked on it once you go,” Buchanan says. “A magic thing happens and you do connect. It’s a really special thing.”
And it’s not just a special thing, she says. When it comes to The Rep’s existence, a fresh connection with the next wave of patrons is everything.
“That, over the course of the next 10 years, 15 years, becomes what the entire theater is,” Trice says. “It’s our now and our future.”