Arts / Performing Arts

Digital Film Plays Give This Houston Theatre Company a Creativity Edge — How The Alley is Keeping Things Fresh

These Works Are Much More Than Just Fill-Ins

BY // 04.13.21

When one stage darkens, a virtual curtain rises somewhere else. That seems like the Alley Theatre’s philosophy as it’s navigated the coronavirus pandemic that shut down live in-person theater throughout the world. Like many companies, the Alley has leaped into the virtual, streaming theater world.

But instead of one or two cobbled film projects, the Alley has given Houston and beyond an entire free season of reworked classic plays produced for the digital realm. Now, the Alley is unveiling the second part of that streaming season, a lineup of rarely seen contemporary plays in an entirely new production mode.

In a recent talk with PaperCity, Alley artistic director Rob Melrose and director of new work Liz Frankel, described the dramatic road they took to deliver their one-act contemporary season to the world.

A Carol Call to Online Realms

Last fall when Melrose needed to make the call to abandon the Alley’s previously announced onstage season, he realized the frustrating decision might also present new possibilities. With safety considerations paramount and to adhere to Actors Equity union requirements, Houston’s theater company decided to film its Christmas Carol production directly from the actors’ individual homes, and that decision changed everything.

“So much was up in the air, and at that point I said: Let’s do Christmas Carol from home because we know we can do it,” Melrose tells PaperCity. “We’ve already got the permission to do that. And at that point we said our season is the digital season.”

A digital season allowed an opportunity to do something unique and innovative, instead of just trying to move already planned staged works to film.

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  • River Oaks District - MAY
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  • River Oaks District - MAY
  • River Oaks District - MAY
  • River Oaks District - MAY
  • River Oaks District - MAY

“What can we do that isn’t just something we’d like to do on stage, but something that takes advantage of the digital medium or takes advantage of this unique time and opportunity?” is how Frankel describes the thinking behind the initial planning for a digital season.

Alley Man Kind 3
Shawn Hamilton in Man. Kind. (Photo by Victoria Beauray Sagady)

Even as one of the larger regional theaters in the country, the Alley usually doesn’t have the time or space to devote to one-act plays. Yet as series of filmed productions, shorter works would likely be ideal for at-home audiences. Melrose also wanted to try to balance short and a few longer classic works that audiences might never see onstage and contemporary works from some of the playwrights they had been working with in their annual Alley All New reading festivals.

While Texas theater audiences encounter Shakespeare frequently, Melrose thought this online lineup would be the perfect place to offer a taste of less produced classic and ancient work, including Ibsen, Strindberg and Euripides. This would also feed into the balance he’s trying to establish between giving audiences the occasional classic with the most contemporary and even world premiere plays, with the goal to become a nurturing venue for new work, instead of chasing the latest hot playwright.

Forging Theatre Relationships

“This is what happens to most playwright,” Melrose says. “They can’t even get arrested for a big portion of their career. Then they have a big hit and then have 15 commissions that they can’t possibly do. Then the same five playwrights are commissioned by all these theaters. It’s not a good thing.”

Instead the Alley’s continuing strategy to bring new work to Houston audiences while building ongoing relationships with up and coming playwrights.

“What’s a better relationship is to have a handful or two handful of playwrights that you really believe in deeply and create an artist home for them, keep them coming back and keep them relating to your staff, audience and artists,” Melrose muses.

With that relationship in mind, Melrose thought new works from some of those playwrights the Alley already had relationships with could become an intrinsic part of a digital season. Frankel put a call out to some of those writers looking for short plays. In the end, they found four plus an in-process longer play from a Houston writer.

The contemporary series within the larger digital series streams throughout April and well beyond that. It begins with Isaac Gómez’s El Chuco Town Forever, and its depiction of a scene in the life of two big box store workers in El Paso on a day of sorrow they’d rather forget. Then a cave man and woman meet up to discuss who invented this new fire technology in Don X. Nguyen’s Man. Kind. Jiehae Park captures a very special birthday party in For Steve Wozniak, on His 67th Birthday.

El Chuco Town Forever – Briana Resa – 3_ Photo by Victoria Beauray Sagady
Briana J. Resa in El Chuco Town Forever (Photo by Victoria Beauray Sagady)

Rounding out the series is a possible meet-weird with Choosing Love by Chisa Hutchinson. Some of these plays have been produced before at other theaters, but none in this format.

Home Stage Advantage

“All of them were delighted to have us do them digitally, and for all four of the writers they were involved in the process,” Frankel says.

Along with these fully realized digital productions, the Alley will also added a new play reading in the structure of its Alley All New festival,. This included the filmed remote reading Old Black & White Hollywood, a full play work in progress from local playwright ShaWanna Renee Rivon.

One of the opportunities of building these remote productions was that travel was never an issue and all of the playwrights could have a virtual seat inside the rehearsal. Frankel says this gave the playwrights the ability to make minor tweaks and even a few major changes to the works. Certainly, none of the writers had seen these shows in such a new mode of production.

Frankel admits she didn’t know how the artists, designers and production crew would pull it off, but the final films have erased all her questions.

“I think that was just because I didn’t have the vision that Rob did at that time to see how our production department was going to make this work,” she says. “But it’s been dazzling to see the way our production department and designers can bring sets, costumes and lights to each person’s home so it really feels like they’re in the same place.“

She assures there’s no Zoom boxes in the films and marvels at the final illusionary effects making the actors look they’re on the same stage together.

While Melrose can’t wait to get the actors back on the Alley stages where they belong and looks with hope to the fall and what will be the company’s 75th anniversary season, he says the skills they’ve learned and films they’ve produced has added to their creative future.

“I really wanted to pursue the filmed at home stuff because then it would be more driven around the plays we choose,” Melrose says. “I feel great about this choice. We’re proud of all that’s come out of this.

“It doesn’t feel like a placeholder, like this is how we’re biding our time until we get back. To us it feels like this is work we can stand behind.”

To watch the Alley Theatre’s digital plays, go here.

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