Organizations respond to pandemic with creative programming
Downtown’s Theater District has been the cultural heart of the city for decades. A place where people of all ages, races and denominations have gathered together to experience vibrant, profound and fantastical works of art. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the damage to many of the venues and organizations was devastating, but they came back stronger than ever. Now, just a little more than two years later, COVID-19 has struck, forcing each organization to re-think the way shows are produced and executed. In today’s physically distanced way of life, the Theater District now looks to Houstonians for support, as their lights remain off and their stages dark. Despite all the challenges, the Theater District organizations continue to hold on to the mantra of “resilience”, something our city knows a thing or two about.
The cast at the Alley Theatre spent months preparing for the production of 1984, which opened on a Wednesday evening last spring. By Thursday morning, as the virus loomed large, the city recommended that there be no gatherings of 250+ people, and the Alley canceled the remainder of performances.
Soon after, other theater organizations followed suit — canceled shows, canceled seasons, layoffs, budget cuts. One after the other we watched as the city’s largest performing arts venues went dark.
With 105 people employed, the Alley has more people on salary than most major theaters in the country and they are one of the only companies whose actors are getting paid during the pandemic. While these are huge positives, there are definite challenges as the 2020/21 season looms.
“The biggest challenge for us is what the virus is doing in Houston,” said Dean Gladden, managing director for the Alley. “We can’t perform until the positive rate for cases goes way down.”
But perform again they will, hopefully by Thanksgiving. Gladden announced that the upcoming season will begin with a new production of A Christmas Carol, followed by five shows in the spring. All will be performed in the Hubbard Theater, making social distanced seating possible.
“We can be a little bit more flexible than our sister organizations because we have fewer people onstage,” Gladden said. The Alley is also able to successfully perform at just 35 percent capacity.
Gladden remembers the days of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but with Harvey there was an end date. With the virus, theater companies have no control, and all of their options and plans continue to change as time passes. But Gladden is unfazed. After all, the Alley is heading into their 74th season and has survived their fair share of difficulties.
Approximately 50 percent of the Alley’s revenue is contributed income (donations) and the reason they’re able to stay open and employ so many without ticket revenue. The Alley is a producing company, so everything is done in-house. They employ a large number of artisans — scenery creators, painters, wig makers, stitchers and tailors — who are eagerly waiting to get back to work, but thankfully are still being paid.
“We don’t want all of these craftspeople to be out looking for work because they could leave town, and we need all of them when we’re officially ready to go,” Gladden said.
As for when that may be, Gladden says they hope to convene in late August to begin building for A Christmas Carol, followed by creating sets for their shows in spring 2021. And for those asking, you will absolutely see extravagantly decorated Christmas trees in the Alley’s lobby this holiday season.