Rep 40: Sonya & Mark Murphy Ready for an Epic Bash for Saints & Sinners

So maybe Mark and Sonya Murphy don’t have a future on Broadway.

“Oh, I was always better in my own head than on stage,” Sonya says. She made it further than her husband. “When I was a kid,” Mark says, “I had such a bad case of stage fright that I couldn’t even be an oak tree in an elementary school play.”

Lucky for them, having a successful grade-school acting career wasn’t a prerequisite for being named co-chairs of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s annual black-tie Saints and Sinners gala. What they do have, however, is a certain spunk and enthusiasm that’s fitting for The Rep’s big night.

By day, both work in banking — Mark as a senior commercial relationship manager and vice president at U.S. Bank, Sonya as vice president in private banking at Arvest. They spend their free time traveling, attending sporting events with friends or taking care of their rescue Yorkie, Scrappy (who, Sonya says, lives up to his name).

t wasn’t until a few years ago that Sonya left the professional arena in which she had spent most of her career: the nonprofit sector. While working in that field, in order to avoid a conflict of interest, she didn’t use her talents for other nonprofits outside of her 9-to-5, except for the occasional project at their church or with the Junior League of Little Rock. When she moved back into the for-profit world, however, she took a step back and didn’t immediately pursue volunteering for an organization, for personal interests. It wasn’t long until Fran Carter, director of development at The Rep, asked Sonya for advice on who they should recruit for the board from Arvest, and Sonya saw their fates align.

Fast forward to 2016: Sonya has now spent five years on The Rep’s board of directors, is preparing for Saints and Sinners with Mark and is fostering a love for the performing arts. But co-chairing the theater’s signature event is hardly where it all began.

For Mark, the theater is a newfound interest. Aside from the elementary-school oak tree incident, a phenomenal production of “Annie Get Your Gun” he saw as a teenager stands out in his memory. But he doesn’t hesitate to credit The Rep with sparking his curiosity through regular attendance in recent years.

For Sonya, a love of theater surfaced the summer before she began first grade. Her mother took her and her sister to their first play. “I can remember it so vividly,” she says. “I was just mesmerized by how they told the story through music and the costumes. I think that’s when I began to realize that I love beautiful things, creative things and the pageantry of it all. You can’t appreciate what you’re not introduced to, and I’m thankful that my parents introduced me early.”

Evidently, that early introduction stuck. “Honestly, I’m pretty theatrical and dramatic on an everyday basis,” she says, laughing. “My mom would say ‘Not every day is a tea party,’ and I would say, ‘Why can’t it be?’”

Add that pizazz to a dozen years in dance classes, and it was only a matter of time before Sonya and Mark found themselves in the warm embrace of The Rep. As Saints and Sinners co-chairs, they’ll be the first to sing the praises of the “rock-star list” of past chairs, and were a little surprised when The Rep’s board chair Catherine Hughes asked them to take the helm.

“Mark and I are unique from past chairs, several board members and longtime patrons in that we went to The Rep occasionally, but we weren’t necessarily season subscribers,” she says. “Now we’re bringing people who live in ZIP codes that don’t always come to The Rep — but are beginning to — right into the middle of things with us, where we like to be. I think we really represent the average citizen because we’re just working people who appreciate the theater.”

Credit: Jason Masters

The capital city hosts an uncommonly robust lineup of grand events each year, but it’s the Murphys’ appreciation and work ethic that will help bring to life Little Rock’s most colorful gala on Jan. 30. Saints and Sinners has a reputation for being far from stuffy or dull: indeed, it’s a night of fine dining, dancing, auctions and live entertainment completely designed and put on by the theater’s creative team.

“This city has so many incredible nonprofits, leaders and volunteers, but this group gets to literally pick up from 601 Main, take it to the Statehouse [Convention Center] and show 600 people who they are and what they do,” Sonya says.

High-flying acrobats are commonplace, edgy red carpet fashion is celebrated and labyrinthine harmonies are a given at Saints and Sinners. But this year is extra special. This year is The Rep’s 40th mainstage season, and they’re celebrating in a big way.

Instead of observing an anniversary with the usual pomp and circumstance, The Rep team is going full-on birthday party mode. There’s more to the decision than just a name change; it’s an entire shift of mindset.

“Our 40th anniversary season is a yearlong birthday celebration of our rich, 40-year history in the community,” says The Rep’s producing artistic director Bob Hupp. “With more than 600 of our closest friends and supporters joining us for Saints and Sinners, we found it fitting to continue that celebration and make this year’s gala our most extravagant 40th birthday party.”

According to Hupp, not only will guests be privy to the usual tricks up The Rep team’s sleeves, but they’ll also enjoy birthday cake and plenty of surprises throughout the evening. Fabulous entertainment will still be a key piece of the event, but this year’s performances will take a bit of a nostalgic turn, looking back at some of the most memorable moments from the theater’s history.

The choice to view Saints and Sinners as a birthday party instead of an anniversary is one that highlights the theater’s ability to balance a reflective mindset with forward thinking — especially at such an important milestone as 40 years.

“Without acknowledging where we’ve been, we can’t plan where we’re going,” Hupp says. “Looking to our past allows us to see what we’ve done well, what our audience responds to and what our community needs. Being aware of our history helps us to give shape to important next steps in our continually evolving and vital community-building process.”

This community is a world where you get to color outside the lines, and Saints and Sinners celebrates that. The goal of the evening is all about developing that colorful world through The Rep’s various outlets, including the young artists program, Summer Musical Theatre Intensive.

“We want people to come away with the importance of The Rep maintaining an extensive arts-in-education program, both in central Arkansas and across the state, that reaches thousands of young people each year,” Mark says.

As per usual, the glamour and drama will no doubt make for a night guests will talk about for weeks. But when the event buzz dies down and the photos and stories have all been shared, The Rep’s team will still be working to bring audiences the next show. That’s no small task for a relatively small group of people, especially when presenting a 40th-season lineup full of world premieres, family musicals, adult comedies and classics.

“Despite what some people think, these shows don’t come from some mythical place on a big truck,” Sonya says. “From the set design to the costumes, from how the script is shared to how the story is woven just for The Rep’s audience in that intimate, beautiful space, it is pure creativity. The people who work there, it is their calling. It really is.”

It may be hard work, but all of the man hours, the late nights, the last-minute scrambles and the countless cups of coffee are worth it if you ask the Murphys, who recognize The Rep’s work for what it is: relevant, riveting and rare.

“A show at The Rep is many times entertaining, sure,” Sonya says, “but sometimes it’s very thought-provoking and gives us the opportunity to confirm or deny our belief system, or even empathize with people who are so very different from ourselves.”

The theater knows how to put on a show—that much is certain. More importantly, the team understands that it’s not just about filling seats or breaking ticket sales records, although that is something they’re rather good at. They understand there is a responsibility to both broaden and deepen the human experience; it’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly.

“A great play causes the audience to relive past experiences, both good and bad,” Mark says. “You can connect with the characters based on your own life experiences. It encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves and what we value.”

So what do the Murphys value? Well, the list is long, but their involvement with Saints and Sinners has certainly expanded that list further to include more of The Rep’s interests than they once would have imagined.

There are other items on the list, however, that are more than new curiosities, items that are deeply ingrained and not easily hidden. One of those is that this duo is a package deal, that they have combined forces to take on whatever comes their way or, more importantly, whatever they place in their own path.

“Anytime there’s a compelling cause and an opportunity, I think we have to ask the question: If not me, who? And if not now, when?’” Sonya says. “We talk about the reason we’re here and, as corny as it may sound, we feel a calling to help people. We really have an obligation and a commitment to make this world better.

“We all have our loves and value systems and gifts. Mark and I enjoy raising not only funds, but awareness for organizations we believe in, where we see the positive impact. Saints and Sinners simply felt like the right thing to do.”

In this case, the right thing to do was to throw their energy and talents behind an organization that has a compelling message, a message you see and hear and feel in every show. It’s a message that guarantees you don’t have to step too far outside your front door to experience a top-quality performance. You just have to walk down Main Street.

So no, there doesn’t appear to be a future on Broadway for the Murphys, but they have something even better: a place at 601 Main and a big slice of 40th birthday cake.

Side Notes

Credit: Jason Masters

Soirée: Sonya, is someone popping out of a cake?
Sonya: I can neither confirm nor deny that. You can quote me on that.

What has been one of your favorite Rep plays?
I loved “White Christmas.” It wasn’t necessarily deeply compelling, but it was about the nostalgia. It’s such a great love story. I grew up watching the Bing Crosby version, and the show really made me feel that connection with my childhood and with family members who are now gone. It just kind of gave me that holiday sparkle magic. It was like the warm fuzzies but with glitter.

What did you think about the photo shoot?
The shoot was so much fun. It’s hard work being that pretty for that long! I got a hip cramp and I’m pretty sure I still have confetti in my hair, but it was so worth it.

What have you learned about Little Rock since you started working with The Rep?
The more networks and groups of friends and colleagues that we develop, whether it’s Rotary or Junior League or church, they pop up at The Rep. It’s neat to see that The Rep is part of their lives, even though we’re not all from the same eco-social backgrounds. There’s real diversity in every context of the word.

Saints & Sinners
When: 6 p.m. cocktails and silent auction, 7 p.m. dinner, live auction and entertainment, Saturday, Jan. 30
Where: Statehouse Convention Center
Tickets + Info: 378-0405,

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