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In the true spirit of Christmas, the widely renowned Houston Alley Theatre has decided to forgo their usual in-person performance of “A Christmas Carol” and has instead released a free production of the classic that is available to view online now until Dec. 27.  All audiences need to do is register on the Alley Theatre website to receive a viewing code. 

Artistic Director Rob Melrose said that The Alley hopes the online version will help raise everyone’s spirit in these trying times.

“All of us at the Alley are longing to gather with you again in the theatre, especially during the holidays when togetherness and the family traditions is such an important part of how we celebrate,” Melrose said.  “At the same time, I’m very excited about the innovative way we’ve figured out to bring this heartwarming story of hope and redemption to each and every Houstonian free of charge this holiday season.  Consider it a gift from the Alley to all of Houston.”

Melrose also said that this an opportunity for the audience to experience a brand-new version of the story.

“This year will be the most unique and intimate production of A Christmas Carol that we have ever done,” Melrose said. “Filmed in the safety of our Resident Acting Company’s homes, our team is making this story come to life despite our current obstacles. Please celebrate the holidays with us online, share this with friends who don’t know the story, and bring a sense of our usual celebrations during these unusual times.” 

Lights, camera – special delivery from The Alley. 

In order to make the show as safe as possible, the Alley shipped all the supplies for the show to the actor’s homes – lights, cameras, costumes, props; everything. 

Associate producer and casting director Brandon Weinbrenner said he was more than proud of his cast and crew for their hard work and ingenuity. 

“It was incredible to see every team member doing their part to make this production a success,” Weinbrenner said. “The actors had to set up their own cameras, lights, microphones, apply their own make up and store their own props and costumes. And the crew had to focus lights through giving instruction to the actors. Their spirit and willingness definitely made me feel better about my new adventure as a ‘digital director.’ 

In addition to the untraditional home delivery, The Alley decided to highlight the fact that the cast wasn’t filming in their traditional setting. 

“The coolest part of the show is the fact that we filmed each actor entirely in their own home, making the production completely contactless,” Weinbrenner said. “We decided that we did not want to mask the fact that we are in homes around Houston in 2020.  With simple gestures of a prop here and there, a sign that tells us what location we’re at…we suggested the location while still allowing for the magic of theatre and a complete suspension of reality. What a nice treat for 2020!” 

And it is a treat.  Seeing the actors setting up their living spaces with props and costumes is like a behind the curtains peek into the mystical world of theatre.  Plus, there’s something uniquely fresh about watching theatre performers giving their all in front of an at-home camera. 

The perks of a digital performance

Anyone who’s ever lived in Houston can attest that Houstonians love their live theatre, but there is something to be said for the convenience of seeing a production from the comfort of home – especially when Houston traffic and expensive theatre parking exists. 

Weinbrenner said one unique benefit of the new version will allow audiences to see the players express their acting prowess up close and personal as they play multiple roles. 

“Virtual performances allow us to be more creative in how we present each actor,” Weinbrenner said. “Rather than cast those roles with three different actors, we were able to use the same person as all three. So now you see three different versions of someone on screen at the same time, which becomes a magical experience.”

Actress Elizabeth Bunch, playing as the Ghost of Christmas Past in addition to playing Mrs. Cratchit, said that an awesome perk of online viewing is that everyone who watches the show will automatically have the best seat in the house.

“It’s like you are on stage with the actor, right in the middle of the scene,” Bunch said. “The audience gets to see right into the actors’ eyes! In the theater, that kind of intimacy is hard to achieve. It’s exciting.”

While many of us do miss live theatre, myself included, there are benefits to the at-home experience. For example, this digital version will have the option for closed captions in Spanish and Vietnamese, along with English subtitles for the audience’s convenience.  You certainly can’t get that during a live performance – though I wish you could!

Hopes for a safe Christmas

Bunch said that although everyone in the company wishes they could celebrate Christmas the way they usually do – with cast parties, potlucks, and performing in front of an adoring audience – the cast agreed that a virtual performance was safest for everyone. 

“This is a show we do every year, so it is like a great big extended family coming together,” Bunch said. “I hope viewers will feel how personal this performance is for us. Not only is this story very meaningful for all of us- in this version, we are really inviting the audience into our home- into our lives.” 

Weinbrenner said that although the cast and audience can’t be together to witness the classic in person, he hopes that Houston knows that the Alley isn’t going anywhere. 

“I want the audience to feel genuinely connected to the actors, as they were genuinely connecting with each other,” Weinbrenner said. “We are the Alley, an institution for live performance. We are your theatre, Houston, and we will be here for you no matter what.”

Photo: Elizabeth Bunch, Mack Hutchison, and Chris Hutchison as The Cratchitts. Photo by John Carrithers.

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