Brandon Weinbrenner is an associate producer and casting director with Alley Theatre. This is an essay he wrote as part of our series Why I Love Living Here, a weekly feature where Texans share why they love living in Houston. If you want to submit your story, send a column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s so much to love about Houston, Texas—the people, the food, the museums, the hospitals, the wildcatter spirit, I could go on and on. And you would think that with all of the accolades, Houstonians would carry themselves ego-first, boasting about their city at every turn. But that’s the funny thing about this third coast metropolis—there’s nothing to prove. No need to brag about a city that has it all. Houston just… is. End of story.
Perhaps this security amongst Houstonians stems from its resiliency. We’ve seen hurricanes, flooding, oil busts, big business scandals, the gamut. Yet we come back Houston strong every time. But now we wonder will a global pandemic change this track record for our beloved city? I don’t have the answer, but I do have the hope. Allow me to focus on how my love and faith in Houston will help to build back up one particular beloved Houston industry, my industry, the performing arts.
On March 11, 2020 the Alley Theatre held its opening night performance of George Orwell’s 1984, directed by Artistic Director Rob Melrose. On March 12, 2020, the show closed. As the pandemic’s severity was now clear, we knew it was the right thing to do to close our theatres. But we also knew that we had the opportunity to bring the Alley Theatre to the homes of our patrons. So we quickly arranged a 3-camera shoot of a live performance of 1984, sans audience. We edited away and now had something to share. And Houston showed up, but not at the Alley’s doorsteps, rather they showed up to their television screens and paid a nominal $20 to view 1984 at home. We were floored by the positive response, including a rave review by the Wall Street Journal. This only furthered our excitement to bring the Alley into Houstonian’s homes via a newly created online portal, Alley@Home. We asked our Resident Acting Company to showcase their Shakespeare skills with filmed sonnets, we generated classes and teaching videos for parents and students, we showcased the entire organization’s niche skills with videos for the Houston Public Library, and we continued to bring levity and joy to our community with Fun@Home. We refused to stay silent, but rather we wanted the Alley’s voice to still be heard in more accessible, socially distant format.
Houstonians have supported us in droves as we have navigated this new territory. We received a PPP loan, but that only carries us so far. Our patrons understood that and really dug deep to offer us what financial assistance they could. The Alley Board lead the charge with record donation amounts and foundations were encouraged by our ingenuity to generously support us. However, Houston’s performing arts sector, including the Alley, will be reeling from the pandemic for years to come. Eventually we will able to open our doors and invite patrons into our venues. But the crowds that once filled our performance halls with enthusiastic voices and bustling energy won’t be crowds at all. Socially distant seating maps will limit capacity, and rightfully so, as this contagion is no joke. But here’s where my hope comes in… There is nothing like a live performance. Community isn’t born, it’s created, and the community felt at a live event, a relationship between performers onstage and the audience is unlike any other. We laugh together, cry together, learn together, and grow together. It’s equal parts entertainment as it is education. It is a cultural necessity. And Houston knows this. A pandemic won’t stop Houston audiences from missing their performing arts or from yearning to return to those venues. And I fully believe that Houstonians will do whatever it takes to help keeps the arts alive even when we can’t invite you into our homes.
And there’s something you can do right now! Be an #ArtsHero by contacting our senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz on their social media platform, urging them to supply government funding to the Arts. In Texas the arts support over 375,000 jobs and contribute over $46.5 billion dollars to the state. With help the performing arts will survive. But we need you, Texas. More specifically, we need you Houston to stay strong, be strong, and support what makes our city one of the best in the country… okay, maybe that did sound like a brag.