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Rep renewal 

Theater raises curtain on facelift.

On a recent hot afternoon in downtown Little Rock, an SUV was parked along Main Street outside the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The folks sitting inside the vehicle were waiting for the driver, who was standing on the curb, buying tickets through a chain-link fence from a Rep employee.

When Bob Hupp, producing artistic director, talks about the abundant support The Rep receives from the community, this scene comes to mind. Even when it's undergoing a fairly significant renovation and is cordoned off from entry, folks just will not stay away from the place. The fence was added after work began back in late June. Apparently it was necessary because people kept walking in to buy tickets regardless of the fact that it was a construction zone.

Back in the fall of 1988 — when The Rep moved to renovated space on Main Street from a former church next to MacArthur Park — staff members were literally racing to finish up, bolting the seats to the floor shortly before the crowd arrived for opening night, Hupp said.

That was just shy of a quarter of a century ago, when the scrappy, relatively young theater group was making its move into a permanent home. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and the seats that were installed back when Reagan was still in office have been replaced, well ahead of opening night. The Rep renovation also added about 30 seats, bringing the total to 385.

When talking with Hupp and others involved with The Rep about the building's aesthetic condition in recent years, the word "shabby" comes up several times, especially with regard to the "the ugliest carpeting in the world," according to Catherine Hughes, chair of The Rep's board.

"When you would take somebody new to The Rep for their first time, you would just try to divert their gaze upward to the art on the wall or the stairwell or just anything but looking down," she said, laughing. "And I'm sure that carpet was beautiful 20 years ago, when it was first put in."

So how do the board members feel about the state of The Rep now?

"We are absolutely beside ourselves," Hughes said.

Cliff Baker, who founded The Rep and was artistic director for its first 23 years, said he's thrilled with the renovation.

"It started so modestly," he said of the organization. "We founded it in a little storefront, and now to see it settle in and have such a terrific audience base, it's really neat."

Besides the new seating and cosmetic upgrades, several other enhancements will make for a better audience experience, Hupp said. Sight lines, lighting and acoustics have been improved in the main performance space, and in addition to the new seats, another one of the most-requested improvements has been made: a larger women's restroom.

On the mezzanine levels, the back rows of seats were raised eight inches, which might not sound like a lot, but will afford a much better view of the stage. On the second level are four tables that can be reserved to accommodate food and wine before the show.

The mezzanine bar had to be closed three years ago, because "it was just a big mess," Hupp said.

"Literally, the floor was so wavy you felt like you were on a ship," Hughes said. "It was a wreck."

The room has been completely rehabbed and will now be called Foster's at The Rep after former chairman of the board Vince Foster. The bar will serve beer and wine, and it will open about an hour before shows start and will stay open afterward as long as people want to hang out, within reason. It will also be available to rent for special events and private parties and can accommodate about 65 people.

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