Elizabeth Bunch and Melissa Pritchett in The Stronger at the Alley Theatre.

If you’ve enjoyed the expansion of streaming entertainment options since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic but have tediously stuck to your old standbys on Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube, it’s time to press pause on your regularly scheduled programming. Tap into your more sophisticated tastes in support of the Alley Theatre’s upcoming virtual spring productions.

“All the plays that were selected for our digital season were selected specifically to be filmed and to meet this current moment,” Artistic Director Rob Melrose tells Houstonia. “Doing plays online allows us to offer plays that we would not normally offer in either of our two theaters.”

After reorganizing their 2020-2021 season twice to accommodate Covid-19 safety measures, the team at the Alley eventually transitioned to a completely digital experience, featuring 11 shows in the new year that specifically catered to the at-home experience. Each of the shows will be free to stream from the theater’s website, and they are recorded in the homes of the actors to ensure the safety of both the cast and the crew.

“They say that limitations create the conditions for creativity and I’ve certainly experienced that very thing,” Melrose says. “It has been like filmmaking from home.” For each project, everything from the smallest of props to the specialty lighting kits is delivered to the actors' homes, where they then prepare the sets themselves in the comfort of their own living rooms.

“We’ve been using green screens and have transformed our actors’ living rooms into a café in Stockholm and a train station in Sicily,” Melrose adds. “It has been exciting.”

The first three productions scheduled for the season, The Stronger, A Half Sheet of Paper (both by the Swedish writer August Strindberg), and The Man with the Flower in His Mouth (by the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello), have all been translated from their original languages to English by Melrose, who also directed each of the performances. “Translating takes a long time, at least it does for me,” Melrose explains. “Because in addition to reading the play in the original [language] and knowing what it means, the real work is in capturing the music of the original and expressing that same music in English. That takes time, but it really pays off later in rehearsal.” 

Though it’s an incredibly involved process, Melrose happily embraces the challenge. “I have a deep love of reading great plays in their original language,” he says. “And the puzzle of sharing the beauty of the language with English-speaking audiences is one that obsesses me.”

The digital season kicks off with Strindberg's The Stronger on Friday, January 15, starring a couple of familiar faces in Alley resident acting company members Elizabeth Bunch and Melissa Pritchett.

The 1889 Swedish play was written as a shorter piece, perfectly suited to the streaming habits audiences have adopted in recent years. “Short plays, under 20 minutes, for example, are perfect for online viewing but are rarely offered in the theater anymore, unless they are put together as an evening of short plays, and even that is rare,” Melrose explains. “Just as a short story is to a novel, a short play can offer a compact experience that a full-length play cannot.”

Though the ability to provide at-home experiences is fresh and exciting, there’s nothing quite like a visit to the theater, and according to Melrose, the theater misses us in return.

“Hearing responses in real time is what makes the theater special,” he says. “We are doing great things online right now, and I’m very proud of the work and of everyone at the Alley for making this important pivot. At the same time, I can’t wait until the vaccines start taking hold and we can all be in a theater together again.”

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