Like a lot of first-time visitors to Houston, Rob Melrose wasn’t sure what to expect. The stereotype of “big hats and closed minds” came to mind, he admits.
But before arriving in the Bayou City late last summer to interview for the position of artistic director at the Alley Theatre, he did some research. “I was so lucky to have that wonderful Anthony Bourdain episode,” he said, referring to the Parts Unknown series examining the city’s diverse culinary scene.
And he talked to people who choose to call Houston home. “Everybody who has lived here for a period of time said it’s just a terrific place to live,” Melrose recalled.
The interview for the position coincided with the Theater District Open House, the yearly showcase of Houston’s Downtown arts scene.
“In an afternoon I saw a symphony, a mini-performance by the opera, a children’s performance by the opera, a mini-ballet, and the local arts high school doing a modern dance. I just felt like, ‘Wow!’
“And I got a tour of the Alley and I saw The Mousetrap. So in one day I got a really big hit of the arts and that they’re all within a few blocks of each other is really powerful. Most cities aren’t like that. Having them all together is a big statement.”
Melrose, the co-founder of the edgy Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco and an award-winning director of classic plays at many of the nation’s great theaters, including The Public Theater in New York, The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, quickly became hooked on Houston.
“It reminds me of what San Francisco was like when I first moved there when it was affordable, when it was funky and interesting and cool,” he said. “Houston is a city of possibilities. People can try out a new restaurant. People can be an artist here. I feel like this city has so much going for it.”
And the Alley is hooked on the gregarious 48-year old theater veteran.
After a six-month nationwide search, Houston’s largest and oldest theater company selected Melrose as its new artistic director. He started the job at the end of last year and is quickly settling into his life here, delighting in the three-minute walk to work from his Downtown high-rise apartment with a swimming pool that overlooks his Alley office.
(In San Francisco, his daily commute totaled more than two hours. His wife, actress, director, and Cutting Ball co-founder Paige Rogers, is remaining in the San Francisco Bay area until their son finishes high school next year and visits Houston regularly. Over the Christmas holidays, the family canoed on Buffalo Bayou and loved it, Melrose noted.)
Melrose is busy planning the Summer Chills series, slated for July, and the Alley 2019-20 season, which will be unveiled in April and kicks off in October. In San Francisco Melrose was known for championing experimental theater, but at the Alley he plans a wide mix of productions that will appeal to longtime fans as well as draw in new theatergoers.
“It’s important that the new chapter brings everybody along who currently loves the Alley. I have no interest in doing a bunch of cool stuff one year and have nobody respond to it and pack my bags and go home. I’m wanting to take this audience where they are and widen the vista over the course of many years,” he said.
Broadening the audience means reaching out to Houston’s ethnic communities with work that is relevant to their lives, Melrose said. “What’s cool is we’re going to start doing more diverse work and the people for that diverse work are here. Houston is such an international city. It’s such a diverse city. It’s a city of many different cultures and that’s a good thing.”
Among the first things on his agenda has been to reach out to other Houston theater companies. “In the past there wasn’t a lot of communication with the artistic directors of other theaters. Because I’ve been a freelancer in all different cities, I’ve seen how great it can be when the flagship theater is open and welcoming and collaborative with the other theaters in the area,” he said. “So I really want to work hard to be good about that.”
He’s also championing a more collaborative spirit at the Alley, rocked in recent years by Hurricane Harvey, which flooded the basement and first floor, and allegations of misconduct by former artistic director Greg Boyd.
“One thing I’ve been pleasantly finding is just how many talented and confident people are here. I think I am going to benefit from them and they are going to benefit from a leader who doesn’t think, ‘I’m the only genius. I’m the only person who knows how to do things, and it’s my way or the highway,’ ” Melrose said. “I’ve spent my whole life collaborating and wanting to hear from other people, and so that’s going to be a big cultural change.”
Expanding new play development, creating more outreach programs to local schools, forging relationships with promising playwrights, and making theatergoing special are also among Melrose’s top priorities.
“Even though I love light comedy and stuff, I always try to bring something thought-provoking about a piece because I think you can sit on your own couch and choose from a variety of shows on Netflix and never have to leave your house,” Melrose said.
“If you are going to get out and travel to the theater and maybe have dinner Downtown and sit with a bunch of other people, there has to be something on the stage worth talking about. And that’s something I try to bring to every piece. Surprise is an important part of going to the theater. I want people to be surprised, delighted, and blown away.”
He also plans to incorporate that element of surprise by adapting classic plays with a Houston theme.
“In San Francisco I did a Taming of the Shrew set during the Folsom Street Leather Fair, and I did Timon of Athens, which is about income inequality, set in my own theater’s neighborhood in the Tenderloin, which simultaneously has a homeless population and Google, Twitter, and Facebook (offices),” he said.
“The look of the play was set in San Francisco 2018, and it really looked like the great disparity that we’ve experienced on our streets. I think that something cool about theater is you can go and see your own life reflected on stage.”