Swept Away with The Rep

Fans of the performing arts — and the central Arkansas community — have a lot to look forward to this year from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The state’s flagship professional theater will kick off its highly-anticipated 2024 SummerStage Season with dramatic flair as the “Ovation!” gala returns for its second year, gracing the stage, backstage and every inch of The Rep’s campus on Main Street.

To help bring this signature event to life, Will Trice, The Rep’s executive director, enlisted the help of four long-time supporters: Leslie and Dr. Rhys Branman and Stephanie and Myron Jackson.

The Branmans bring a life-long passion for the performing arts to their stint as Ovation! co-chairs. Both work at the Cosmetic Surgery Center in Little Rock where Rhys is a double-board certified cosmetic surgeon and Leslie, a Little Rock native, is the clinical and surgical services director and a nurse injector.

Credit: Jason Masters

“One of our main goals in life is experience, and every time you go to The Rep it is a different experience, even if you’ve seen the show before,” says Leslie, who serves on The Rep’s board of directors.

Meanwhile, Rhys isn’t simply planning an event to support the arts, he’s living it as a student in a local acting class. Growing up in California, he was an active supporter of his local theater.

“The arts are so important in any community,” Rhys says. “It helps showcase local talent, diversity and the heart of the community.”

Their co-chairs, also a married couple who have built a life and career together, connect with the notion that art plays a crucial role in the community. Both Jacksons work at The Design Group, a leading multicultural communications firm. Myron, a former Rep board member, is president and CEO of the firm, and Stephaine is vice president of public engagement. Stephanie has also recently added co-publisher to her repertoire as founder of Noire magazine, a publication for and about Black Arkansans and their stories.

Myron admits he once questioned if The Rep was an institution that would welcome him and his family. Then he and Stephanie began to explore what The Rep had to offer when their daughter showed an interest in acting.

“We learned more about the leadership, about its commitment to diverse programming that speaks to the total community,” Myron says. “We fell in love.”

Their daughter went on to participate in The Rep’s youth programs and act in main stage productions.

“The opportunities she was afforded at The Rep helped her understand the world of live theater and performing arts,” Stephanie says.

Main stage productions have been a major player in The Rep’s offerings since its founding nearly 50 years ago. The 2024 SummerStage season, spanning between June and September, should speak to returning patrons and new fans alike.

“There is truly something for everyone,” Trice says. “All five of these productions that our new interim artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin, has put together are so different from one another. A comedic adaptation of a classic romance novel (‘Pride and Prejudice’), an ‘80s pop/rock musical full of dancing (‘Footloose’), two world premiere contemporary plays (‘Into the Side of a Hill’ and ‘Responders,’ by a Little Rock writer) and a Golden Age musical performed with the full, lush sounds of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (‘Hello, Dolly’).”

Martin taking the helm as the first Black artistic director for The Rep marks another intentional step toward diversity for the theater, one that encompasses not only the season’s content, but also the creative talent behind the productions. Martin brings years of acting, directing and producing experience to the role.

Credit: Jason Masters

And the Ovation! co-chairs aren’t just supporters and planners, they are fellow patrons. When narrowing down the show she is most anticipating for the upcoming season, Stephanie goes with the Golden Age production.

“I love the music — and the hats — from ‘Hello, Dolly.’ It is fun to see people perform in costumes that go from head to toe,” she says. “And I am so excited to see this classic again at The Rep under this new leadership team.”

But this is The Rep with a twist.

“This summer season is going to be something different,” Leslie says. “It will be more of an intense season than spacing shows throughout the year. The hope is that more people will come because school’s out and they can get away.”

The current schedule takes cues from both The Rep’s recent history and its fresh direction. In 2018, The Rep was forced to close its doors due to declining ticket sales and missed fundraising goals. Thanks to a renewed fundraising effort, Trice, a three-time Tony-winning Broadway producer and Little Rock native, was able to join The Rep’s team in 2019. But just as momentum was building, productions halted again amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as did the comeback of its popular Saints and Sinners gala, ushering in another wave of uncertainty for The Rep’s future.

Today, Trice is able to once again share a bright outlook.

“At a time when theaters all over the country are facing unprecedented financial challenges [with so many closing their doors], I’m very proud that we are plowing forward with new energy, new ideas and a renewed commitment to this community.”

Trice notes that commitment to inclusion informs every aspect of The Rep’s new programming push, including a growing offering of community and educational programs spearheaded by director of community, learning and public programs Tamra Patterson Calamese.

Last November, The Rep piloted a program called “The Breach” that works with veterans and their families. The 2024 cohort is slated to start meeting in September culminating with a special performance on Veterans Day. The Rep is also plugging into local schools with the Downtown Players Project, a mentoring program that brings MLK Elementary students and adult theater artists together to create and present original works.

In 2024, according to Trice, there are plans to grow both of these programs, as well as new initiatives working with caregivers and formerly incarcerated individuals, plus storytelling and spoken word projects with teens at after school programs across Little Rock. Students in 8-12th grades also have the opportunity to audition for The Rep’s Pre-Pro Company for tuition-free college level courses and experiences.

The Rep’s intentional efforts for diversity and inclusion even encompass how the campus is used, which includes a 340-seat auditorium and 100-seat black box space.

“We are excited to learn about opening the space beyond traditional performances,” Myron says. “Now The Rep becomes a third place, a place for programs, a place for those who are committed to the arts. People can find a home at The Rep.”

“Third place,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenberg, references the importance of gathering places outside of home, the first place, and work, the second place.

“Anything we can do that increases the relevance of The Rep and perpetuates the importance of the arts, I’m all for,” Myron says.

The Rep has also worked to widen the age range of its patrons with a focus on the next generation of theater fans. Younger patrons can join StageDoor Social, a subscription complete with tickets to shows, access to exclusive events and, most importantly, a voice to shape the future of the arts in central Arkansas.

While diversity is a driving force behind The Rep’s community outreach and initiatives, the theme of this year’s gala points to another headlining actor in the theater’s history. The 2024 theme of “Defying Gravity,” while certainly a nod to a cherished musical, is an idea the planning committee is taking much deeper.

“We want to celebrate going out and doing things that people didn’t really think you could do,” Leslie says.

This is embodied by both the continued evolution of The Rep and this year’s event honorees.

“We are celebrating Steve H. Broadnax III, who recently made his Broadway debut as director of ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man,’ for representing Arkansas artists on the national stage,” Trice says. “And Jana L. Beard, owner and director of Shuffles & Ballet II, for outstanding contributions to our creative community.”

Of course, another focus of Ovation! is the fun. Attendees will enjoy cocktails, dinner and top-notch entertainment, now hosted within the theater walls.

“People get to see where the action happens — the costumes, backstage and all that makes the show go on,” Leslie says.

“We keep it fun, keep it unique, keep it elegant,” Trice adds. “We’re theater folk, so I must say… We’re pretty good at throwing a party.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Benefiting Arkansas Repertory Theatre
May 9, 6 p.m. | The Rep | therep.org

Photography by Jason Masters
On Leslie: Jewelry from SISSY’S LOG CABIN. Hair & makeup by LORI WENGER.

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