It’s been a long pandemic for virtually everyone in Houston. But perhaps nowhere were the effects felt more keenly than in the Theater District. The Alley Theatre’s iconic winding red staircase empty, the Wortham’s graceful escalators stilled, the Hobby Center’s soaring white lobby in silence. Gone were the touring Broadway shows. Gone were the plays. Gone were the exquisite ballets. From one end of Downtown to the other, the city’s major performing arts groups were in the wings.
Yes, it’s true every performing arts group quickly pivoted over the last 18 months to offer a variety of virtual programming, giving Houston audiences glimpses of everything from new works to artists’ living rooms. But the irreplaceable experience of sitting in a communal space and watching a performance was extinguished. At least for a while. Now, the curtain is set to rise again.
The only member of the Alley’s resident acting company who won’t be on stage this fall is Todd Waite—but that’s because he’s the emcee for the company’s 75th anniversary celebration dinner. Marking its diamond jubilee is just part of what makes the Alley’s fall lineup so exciting. The company opens the season with a one-two punch of great productions. Sweat, the 2017 Pulitzer Prizewinning play by Lynn Nottage, opens in the Hubbard Theatre Oct. 1 and is a partnership between the Alley and Midtown-based Ensemble Theatre. “I'm directing, and Ensemble Artistic Director Eileen Morris is associate directing,” the Alley’s Artistic Director Rob Melrose said. “I'm really excited about it. The Alley is celebrating 75 years and Ensemble is celebrating 45 years and it will be great for these two organizations to come back together in a big celebration.” It’s the story of three women who work together on a factory floor, and how a series of layoffs and strikes affects their strong ties to each other. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood called it an “extraordinarily moving drama,” and Charles McNulty wrote in the Los Angeles Times that it was “compassionately wise.” Two weeks following its opening comes 72 Miles to Go by Hilary Bettis in the Alley’s Neuhaus Theatre.
“It was a big hit in a workshop production in our Alley All New Festival, and then it went on to a New York premiere at the Roundabout Theatre. It will be great to have this wonderful play come back home with us,” Melrose said.
The play examines a decade in the lives of a recently deported mother and her American-born husband and children. In its world premiere at the Roundabout, the New York Times praised it as a “quiet, conventional drama” about “a family that wants more than anything to blend in.”
Houston audiences will recognize the Alley’s commitment to timely dramas and compelling storylines in these opening shows. And Melrose says welcoming back the audience is a great feeling. The company had tremendous success with its digital season last year, garnering more than a quarter million views from all 50 states and 110 countries around the globe. Going forward, Melrose said the Alley will focus on filming the majority of its on-stage season and offering a limited number of online tickets to the public for purchase. Think the company’s offering of 1984 or the film Hamilton. The Alley even has a new director of video production, Victoria Sagady, who will helm those efforts.
“I really enjoyed every part of the process of creating our digital season,” said Melrose. “It was surprisingly satisfying. The one thing missing was the audience. Live theater depends so much on the audience breathing, gasping and laughing together. It is such an important part of the experience, especially at the Alley where the audience literally wraps around both of our stages. It will be so great to experience the audience's reactions again.”
Melrose noted at the time of our interview that Oct. 1 was still a long way off, but that he was encouraged by news of how vaccines were progressing, and how other businesses, particularly restaurants and bars, were re-opening. Things can and do change quickly, but he expected that audiences should find their fall 2021 experience at the Alley “very close to normal.”
While the theater was closed, the company used the pandemic not only to produce digital content, but work on the coming season. Director of Design Michael Locher has designed a flexible season set that will serve as the bones of the first five plays on the Hubbard stage.
“In the often hectic and moment to moment world of theater it is quite rare to feel ahead of the game,” he said. “And we are all grateful for that feeling as well as so many things to look forward to when we see you in October!”
THE HOBBY CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
The same night the lights go up again on Broadway, Houston audiences will have the chance to see a Broadway classic. The acclaimed Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady, called “a sumptuous new production of the most perfect musical of all time” by Entertainment Weekly, opens the 2021–2022 Memorial Hermann Broadway at the Hobby Center season on Sept. 14.
“Lincoln Center does nothing wrong; everything those folks do is first class,” enthused Fran Macferran, president and CEO of the Hobby Center Foundation about the production, which also happens to be relaunching its U.S. tour with the Houston engagement.
Audiences might be forgiven for associating the Hobby Center only with the Broadway series, as the theater space is also home to Houston’s own musical theater producer, Theatre Under The Stars. But it also serves as the stage for Ars Lyrica and a host of other productions and concerts.
In a typical year, the Hobby Center hosts hundreds of productions in its two theaters, Sarofim Hall and Zilkha Hall. The Hobby Center Foundation, which oversees all those bookings and the second-floor restaurant, Diana, is a nonprofit entity.
Macferran said the Broadway series was adjusted four times during the pandemic. So, he’s happy to have the series slated for the upcoming year. Other fall productions include Friends!: The Musical Parody the first weekend in October and Ars Lyrica’s season opening, Bach, Handel, and Hercules, on Sept. 24. The Broadway series continues in November with Tootsie, a musical based on the popular Dustin Hoffman movie.
“We’re happy and thrilled with everything that’s on our season,” Macferran said. Like his neighbors, he and the Hobby Center team are ready to welcome back audiences.
Macferran anticipates that when they come through the doors, the experience will feel very much like it did the last time they were there. The parking garage and valet will be fully available. Diana will be open for pre-show dining. All of the concessions and bars will be operational. At press time, a decision hadn’t been made about mask wearing, but Macferran noted the organization was monitoring advice from the CDC and local health officials.
“The Hobby Center has mandated that every employee and subcontractor, every volunteer, must be vaccinated,” he shared. “It demonstrates our commitment to the health and safety of our people, as well as all of our guests.”
He said he’s looking forward to “seeing the joy and happiness on people’s faces” as they come back for shows.
“We can tell by the subscription numbers of the shows we present that people are just jonesing to get back to their lives, to enjoy the arts,” he said, pointing out that the last time subscription numbers were this high was the first season Hamilton came to town.
“The numbers are amazing, and demonstrate people’s desire and commitment,” he said. Subscribers were offered refunds when shows were cancelled or moved, and Macferran’s happiness is apparent when he notes that not only did people not want the refunds, the center also sold new subscriptions.
“I think it’s just going to be fun,” he said of the coming year.
While the Hobby Center was closed for performances, Macferran said the space got some needed TLC, including an upgrade of the air filtration systems, a switch to MERV-13 air filters, and a revamping of the contactless sinks in the restrooms. Many of the improvements might be invisible to theatergoers, but Macferran noted there’s “hand sanitizer all over the place,” and ticket takers will continue using scanners that are frequently sanitized to avoid touching tickets.
Macferran and his office team have been back in the building since mid-May and they’ve been greeting the 2021–2022 season with growing anticipation. He expects capacity crowds with popular shows, like My Fair Lady likely to sell out. Mostly, however, he’s happy the Hobby Center is back to doing what it was designed to do: bring people together to enjoy the arts.
“We’re all really excited to get back to work.”
With its blend of classical music and jazz programming, wrapped up in a package dedicated to creating unique experiences for audiences, DaCamera operates in a creative niche that gives audiences a perfect blend of classical repertoire and new works. Performing on stages across the city, one of its bases is the Cullen Theatre in the Wortham Theater Center. Brandon Bell, the organization’s director of education and artistic administrator, cannot wait to return to the stage.
“It’s time to jump back in,” he said. DaCamera’s season opens on Oct. 29 with Garrick Ohlsson on piano, performing works by Chopin. “There’s not a better pianist on the planet that you want to hear play Chopin,” Bell said.
That caliber of artist won’t surprise DaCamera devotees, but for those new to the organization, the 2021–2022 season pulls out all the stops to showcase the producer’s commitment to high-quality musicianship. Ohlsson will be followed by Houston artist Jason Moran in The Absence of Rain, which pays tribute to James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters. It’s the first time the artist has been back in a few seasons.
“We’re excited to welcome him back,” said Bell. “He’s got a great following here.” And his program, an exploration into one of early jazz’s hitmakers, is a must for fans of the genre.
The season offers something for everyone and Bell can’t wait to share it with live audiences. During the pandemic, the company’s virtual programming caught the attention of The New York Times, The New Yorker and the Boston Globe, which certainly attracted virtual audiences from around the country. Some of those, Bell hopes, might make a trip to Houston to see DaCamera’s live shows.
“It’s an eclectic season and it’s all of the highest quality,” he said of the programs.
The organization’s subscribers are already behind that. Many of them have stayed with the organization, through pandemic shutdowns, ready and waiting for live performances to begin again. Some, Bell conceded, have let the organization know they aren’t quite comfortable returning yet, especially with the Delta variant of the coronavirus out there, something Bell certainly understands.
“By and large, though, our subscribers have stuck with us and are looking forward to returning to the hall with us.”
As he looks to the fall season and beyond, he’s excited for what’s ahead for all the arts organizations. His message for audiences is simple: come back with us.