Arts / Performing Arts

The Inside Story of the Alley Theatre’s Audacious, Free and Virtual Christmas Carol

You've Never Seen Home Theater Quite Like This

BY // 12.10.20

As performing arts organizations around Texas and around the world continue to make tough decisions on how to stay safe during the pandemic and still do the art they love for audiences, many have pivoted — and occasionally pirouetted — to doing remote, streaming productions. This time of year finding ways to connect with audiences becomes vitally important.

Not only have annual holiday shows become the bread and butter production for arts companies, they remain beloved multigenerational tradition with many families.

For the Alley Theatre, this meant A Christmas Carol was one show that must stream on.

“Holy Pizzoli, how am I going to do that?” This was the question Brandon Weinbrenner, Alley Theatre associate producer, asked himself upon learning he would need to direct the company’s A Christmas Carol production remotely and with all the actors performing in their separate homes.

A New Carol

During an interview with PaperCity last summer, Alley artistic director Rob Melrose already admitted that the massive and spooky adaptation of A Christmas Carol that the company has produced for over two decades was not going to work in 2020

At the time, Melrose believed they might bring actors and audiences back into the theater with social distancing protocols by December. The plan was for Weinbrenner to direct something of a skeleton Christmas Carol with minimal set and props, one focused on the actors telling the story. The chosen adaptation by Doris Baizley puts Charles Dickens’s narrative within the framing story of a traveling acting troupe experiencing some holiday setbacks. After losing two of its players and some of its set, the company has to create Carol from scratch with director, stage manager and even prop boy taking on roles.

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As it became apparent by late September that the COVID-19 situation would not allow audiences back into the theater, the Alley still wanted a way to deliver Carol to audiences. Weinbrenner says this adaptation Baizley ended up perfect for the times.

“It really did fit our circumstances,” Weinbrenner tells PaperCity. “We may not be able to meet live in the theater together, we might not have all the resources we do every year at the Alley, but we still have each other. We have you the audience and we have the story of a Christmas Carol. So let’s tell it the only way we can with you watching at home and us performing it at home. That’s what we leaned into and it ended up being a good fit.”

In keeping with the DIY, “Let’s put on a show” spirit of the adaptation, Weinbrenner says trying to create the illusion that actors and audiences were in a theater didn’t make sense.

“I’ve seen so much Zoom theater that relies on digital backgrounds, projected background or some sleight of hand. For me that hides what we’re doing. They are theater actors on stage. We want everyone to remember that this is a play. The Alley Theatre is a live performing arts company. So I wanted it to not feel like a film but instead truly feel like a theater performance that has been video captured.”

This philosophy included acknowledging how the concept of stage needed to evolve for these remote times.

All in the Family

“To me it was silly to try to hide the fact that we were in the actor’s homes,” Weinbrenner says. “Instead we would embrace the fact that this was Melissa’s kid’s playroom. This is Shawn’s family room. This is Raven’s bedroom. Then give a simple suggestion of A Christmas Carol setting, so that there’s a sign that says Scrooge and Marley Counting House and completely costume the actors because you can do that safely.”

They even approached Baizley to see if she might tailor the show even more for the at-home situation.

“She was totally game and absolutely gave us some great edits and we really personalized this for the Alley actors and audiences.”

Keeping the show mostly in the Alley family became literal, as married company members Elizabeth Bunch and Chris Hutchison even recruited their budding-actor son, Mack Hutchison, to play Tiny Tim.

Raven Justine Troup as Mrs. Fred in A Christmas Carol. Photo by John Carrithers
Raven Justine Troup as Mrs. Fred. (Photo by John Carrithers)

Yet at-home performances also meant that they would need to mimic the situation in the play throughout the process, including doing their own makeup, hair and wig wrangling. It also required the whole cast and Weinbrenner to become experts at filming. With advice and video design from Carrithers Studio, the Alley rented camera equipment and trained all the actors to set up the cameras and lighting for each scene.

Though Weinbrenner has been directing plays at the Alley and many other local theaters for years, he says this was his first experience for this type of theater/film hybrid. The process likely grew more exhaustive than working solo in either medium, with deliveries to and fro from costumes to props to camera memory cards. Often they would film whole scenes in one take across those separate locations.

Free For All

Though many performing arts organizations have taken a wait and see approach for what would be possible in early 2021, the Alley recently became the latest Houston performing arts institution, after Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet, to cancel in-person performances through the 2021 spring. Instead the Alley will offer a new lineup of free digital performance running into July.

Director Brandon Weinbrenner at the Alley Theatre before the pandemic. (Photo by John Everett)
Director Brandon Weinbrenner at the Alley Theatre before the pandemic. (Photo by John Everett)

As directors, actors and especially audiences adjust to the remote theater reality for at least some months more, Christmas Carol perhaps becomes a kind of bridge between tradition and this new remote reality. It also offers a peek at what the digital season might look like on screen. Melrose has selected a mix of classics, including August Strindberg, Pirandello, Euripides and Ibsen, along with brand new works from several rising playwrights and alumni of past Alley All New Festivals, like Chisa Hutchinson, Jiehae Park, Don X. Nguyen and Isaac Gómez.

Weinbrenner says a decision had to be made and this was a necessary one for safety sake.

“So rather than try to hope something will work, Rob has been proactive in developing and curating a strong digital season that focuses on classic text that he’s interested in exploring and exposing our audiences to and in continuing our relationships with the artists we’ve worked with through Alley All New and our new play initiative,” explains Weinbrenner.

Weinbrenner is set to direct the Don X. Nguyen’s Man. Kind. in the spring and continues to work on new play development. Throughout these remote undertaking, Weinbrenner will likely keep the same directing ideals for distant performances he learned through Carol.

“What was really important to me was that the actors were able to make a genuine connection with each other through how we were going to rehearse and record because if they can connect with each other, then hopefully they can connect with the audience.”

The Alley’s free digital production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 27.

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