Northwest Arkansas’ only all-volunteer community theater is off and running with its 30th season, and it is recommended that patrons don’t show up hungry.
Unless, of course, it’s for a Broadway-caliber production in one of the area’s most historic venues. That can be accommodated at the Arkansas Public Theatre at The Victory in downtown Rogers, which features a variety of performances each year, backed by more than 700 volunteers, including 150 community performers.
But for the first time, the APT experience will not include a catered meal prior to a performance. The dinner theater is now just a theater, and it is hoped that a shift in philosophy will translate to better profits.
Under the old business model, profitability had been a hit-or-miss proposition in recent years, due largely to the sizable cost to cover catering expenses for dozens of shows each season.
For example, APT executive director Joseph Farmer said, in year’s past, the theater would only see $17 from the sale of one $48 ticket. The remainder went to the caterer.
According to the nonprofit’s tax filings, the APT made money in fiscal years 2013 and 2012, but actually lost money in 2014 and 2011. Collectively in those four years, the organization lost about $32,000, despite various revenue streams that produced a little more than $1.4 million. (See accompanying chart.)
“I like to say that we were a fantastic theater operating what was — if I were to be kind — a very mediocre restaurant,” said APT board chairman Jeff Dunn. “So we got out of the restaurant business. Do what you do best.”
The Victory Theatre does have a concession area in the lobby that serves snacks, non-alcoholic beverages and a variety of wines, domestic and craft beers, including local offerings from Saddlebock Brewery and Ozark Brewing Co.
But the elimination of the catered food cost — which also meant a restructuring of the seating and ticket pricing — should help keep the APT in the black more frequently, Dunn said.
“We’ve been able to cut our cost to the patron, so more people can have better seats at a lower price,” he explained. “And we’ll have increased profitability to help keep this place rolling. Things weren’t wrong before, but there is a more business-like approach of how we’re running this organization.”
A Dramatic Change
Theater officials made another change prior to the start of the 30th season, something more dramatic than the catering cuts.
For its first 29 seasons, the organization was known as the Rogers Little Theater. That changed on June 30, when a rebranding initiative was announced that included changing the name of the organization to the Arkansas Public Theatre at The Victory.
Dunn admitted that 29 years of brand equity was tough to discard, but at the same time, the thought was that Rogers Little Theater didn’t fully describe the entire experience.
“We’re in Rogers, but we’re bigger than Rogers,” he explained. “And there is nothing little about what our volunteers do. The word ‘Arkansas’ might be a little grandiose, but we think for what we do, community theatre, we’ll put this group of people up against anybody.”
Dunn said the organization was a little unsure about how the changes would be received from longtime supporters, but the doubts have been unfounded thus far. The curtain on the new season went up Sept. 11 with the Alan Cummings version of the Tony award-winning musical “Cabaret.”
“It has been almost non-existent of people saying, ‘I miss the old way of doing things.’ To be honest, the response has been fantastic,” Dunn said.
Rogers attorney Ed McClure agreed. McClure, who was elected the organization’s first president in 1986, is still a committed supporter today, serving as production chairman on the APT’s board of directors. He also directed the APT’s most recent performance, the musical comedy “The Addams Family,” and he is the producer of an APT original called “#AChristmasCarol,” which runs Dec. 11-13 and Dec. 17-20.
He said the changes have brought several first-time patrons to the APT, and not necessarily visitors who are new to Northwest Arkansas.
“I can usually predict 20 to 40 percent of the audience that will come on opening night of any show,” he said. “On the first night of ‘Cabaret,’ we were all asking each other, ‘Do you know who any of these people are?’ We had our core group, but there were so many new people.
“It was a relief and very exciting,” McClure said.
A partner at the law firm Matthews, Campbell, Rhoads, McClure and Thompson P.A. that’s directly across the street from the Victory Theatre, he also agreed that eliminating the catering cost and restructuring the ticket prices should only help APT’s bottom line.
“It’s fair to say that our season ticket prices were getting into the upper echelon of prices, just because we had the meal component attached,” he explained. “We didn’t have any control over the cost of the food, and from a business standpoint, if there is one element of your product that you don’t have control over the cost, then you need to do something different.”
Dunn, who manages the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. account for Targus Inc., a supplier of laptop cases and accessories, has been a board member of APT for three years, the last two as chairman.
He said that being a good neighbor to other businesses in downtown Rogers also factored into the decision for eliminating the theater’s dinner service.
“When this started several years ago, there weren’t a lot of [dining] choices in downtown Rogers,” he explained. “Now, there are. We want you to come down to our show, but we want you to eat at Levi’s or Parkside, or Hammontree’s [Grilled Cheese]. Support the [restaurants] that are here, then come in and see our show.”
The first production of the Rogers Little Theater was staged in the ballroom of the Rogers Townhouse (Harris Hotel) on Aug. 8, 1986. It was a production of “Barefoot in the Park,” the first of five shows that also included “Tribute,” “Godspell,” “Same Time, Next Year” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Initially, RLT relied upon borrowed spaces to stage its productions, and it put on performances in six different venues in its first two seasons, including the Benton County Courthouse.
One locale was the banquet room of a restaurant on Arkansas Highway 12 called the Prairie Creek Hickory House. By the third season in 1988, RLT reached an agreement with the restaurant to offer a dinner theater in exchange for a permanent venue to hold its productions.
Productions remained there until November 2000, when the RLT moved into the Victory Theatre in downtown Rogers. Originally opened as a silent movie house in 1927, the venue had deteriorated significantly before being renovated, a five-year project that began in 1995 and carried a price tag of $2 million.
The Victory Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, and in 2007, a group of business leaders led by Rob Brothers and Dick Barclay chaired a capital campaign to retire the debt related to the renovation. As part of the campaign, the city of Rogers bought the Victory Theatre and now leases it to the APT.
The rate, according to Dunn, is $1 per year.
Farmer, a Missouri native who studied theater at Drury University in Springfield, has been involved with the APT since moving to Northwest Arkansas a decade ago. Previously the theater manager, Farmer was recently appointed the executive director of the APT and is the organization’s only salaried employee.
Farmer also had a small ensemble part as one of the Addams’ ancestors in “The Addams Family,” and was the understudy to Gomez Addams.
He said one of the most satisfying parts of his job is to watch APT performers work 40 hours a week at their regular job, then commit to regular rehearsals three to four nights a week.
“And we’re not real gentle on the rehearsal schedule,” he joked. “But they’re in it for the applause. From an outsider’s perspective that might seem self-centered, but it’s really true.”
Farmer also said cutting the dinner service was not only the right thing to do in terms of being a good neighbor in downtown Rogers, but it can also be a game-changer in the history of the APT.
“If we’re writing a 100-chapter book of the Arkansas Public Theatre, we’re now on Chapter 2,” he said. “We are seeing a huge percentage of new customers as opposed to returning customers. I like the trajectory that we are on.”