In Good Company: Alley Theatre’s New Season offers plays for Houston Audiences and the resident actors

Most artistic directors of regional theaters choose plays and then cast actors for those plays, but this is not a strategy Alley Theatre artistic director Rob Melrose can take. In the United States, the Alley Theatre is the last theater standing with a year-round, full-time, salaried resident acting company and that makes all the difference when building a new season.

“Because I have a company and I’m committed to it, I really do choose plays for actors thinking about the company,” explained Melrose, when I sat down to discuss the recently announced 2024-2025 season with him.

Maintaining a full time acting company is important to Melrose. He notes that during the pandemic when the weeks of darkened theaters turned into over a year, the Alley kept its company.

“We were the only theater in the country that had actors hired the whole time,” he explains, adding “I look back and say we’re really proud of the fact that we employed actors during the pandemic.”

Melrose acknowledges that beyond the cost of keeping a full time company, something difficult for many regional theaters even before the pandemic, other theaters dissolved their companies for diversity and inclusion reasons, especially if they wanted to produce more works that need actors of color for the full cast. A resident acting company, no matter how large, couldn’t easily jump from an August Wilson play to a David Henry Hwang play.

“When you have a company, even a diverse company, you can’t do those plays with your diverse company. But because we have those two spaces, I’m able to do a Don Nguyen play with an all Vietnamese cast, and the others [company actors] are doing The Nerd upstairs and then Jane Eyre,” he observes, offering examples from the 23-24 season. “I can use the fact that we’ve got two spaces to juggle a little bit. I’m not as constrained.”

Melrose picks seasons thinking of Houston audiences but also finding plays that give his eight-actor company the best roles to play; then he brings in outside actors to balance the lineup.

For 24-25, Melrose has programmed several big productions that will cast the entire company (or close to it) : the summer show Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Melrose’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, as well as the contemporary classic comedy about theater making, Noises Off, which opens the fall season in September.

For the second half of the season, the company splits between projects. The Alley team isn’t quite ready to announce what company members will be in what shows but they will be sprinkled through the majority of season.

“Sometimes they like all being together; sometimes they like having a mix of some of the company and some outsider actors. It keeps it fresh.”

The season also maintains a mix of well-loved plays and two world premieres. Looking over the announced season and having sat in the Alley audience for the past several years, I told Melrose that I thought I discovered a pattern. Alley seasons tend to feature at least one big comedy, some audience favorites including at least one classic, a contemporary play that might have had a recent New York run, and at least one play that had been workshopped at their Alley All New play reading festival. Melrose responded that it was a fair description, though he noted that producing several popular shows is something that we’re seeing larger regional theaters do across the country.

When I noted that the influential Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago is also doing Noises Off, Melrose gave a sign of affirmation.

“I think these next five years are about rebuilding that subscription base that we lost after COVID,” he says, giving his honest assessment of the state of regional theater, adding, “If you look at this season and next season there are a lot of big titles that people know and will enjoy.”

Along with the all-company-on-deck shows, the season features The Glass Menagerie, a newish Holmes adaptation from Ken Ludwig, Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery and Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Even with the classics, the Alley will try to offer fresh visions. Melrose will direct Menagerie and wants to focus on the classic as a memory play. Private Lives will be set in 1930s Argentina and directed by KJ Sanchez.

“I hope our subscription audience who loves Noël Coward comes and enjoys it and enjoys the tango music and new setting. My other hope is that our Latino audience that we’ve been cultivating the past seven years says: It’s not a play by a Latino writer, but it’s a Latina director with her particular vision of the play. And they want to see that. I would love it if the two audiences really come out in full force.”

One of the reasons these next few years remain a subscribers-building period is that subscribers allow them to take risks with other plays in their lineup.

“Subscribers are super important for the life of the theater, but they’re especially important for the obscure play, the play that’s good but they haven’t heard of. When you have subscribers they’re basically telling you: I trust you. I like what you do.”

Along with Seared, a relatively recent play by Alley friend Theresa Rebeck, and Eboni Booth’s Primary Trust that wowed New York theater critics in 2023, the season also holds two world premieres from Alley All New Festivals. The Janeiad tells a story of a woman waiting 20 years for the return of her husband after 9/11, and December: a love years in the making is about a poetry professor and her talented student, both Texans living in Minnesota who connect over literature and music. Melrose also admits that he does like to program a show or two with some Texas connection.

Introducing brand new works to the world can be risky (show) business for a theater, but Melrose believes it’s worth it and cites the Liz Duffy Adams play Born With Teeth, which they world premiered in 2022 after a pre-pandemic Alley workshop. Since then theaters across the country have programmed it, including Austin Playhouse, and Melrose’s original production—along with company member Dylan Godwin—has gone on to be staged at several prestigious regional theaters. The play is set for a seven month run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under Melrose’s direction and shows signs of a long theatrical life.

“Even if it didn’t make any money at all, putting new plays out into the world is an important thing. But then when they do go out to other theaters and find fame, it reflects well on us that we’re setting these shows up for success. We’re adding to American theater. It’s very nice when we can say: “The Alley took the risk.”