Rob Melrose ’92 and Paige Rogers ’89 headed to Europe in 1997 on a $15,000 grant to observe master European directors working on productions of Shakespeare in translation in Germany, France, and Italy. His grant was supposed to last one person four months.
But the two of them stretched it out nearly a year, by living “on the cheap,” said Melrose. They borrowed sleeping bags and a tent, drove from campsite to campsite in an old VW, and worked in the summer. Instead of three countries, they made it to 13. “It really gave us an idea of the kind of theater that we liked and the kind of theater that we might want to start,” he said.
The resourceful couple — who had married in 1993 and have built a life in theater together — first met when he was a freshman and she a senior. They would go on to run Princeton Summer Theater after his sophomore year. “We were so green,” said Rogers, “about what was going to sell and what wasn’t.” But they would learn.
Two years after that European adventure, they co-founded their own theater company, Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, which became known for re-envisioned classics influenced by the work they saw in Europe, experimental new plays, and seminal avant-garde works. Melrose served as artistic director and Rogers started as “our ringer actor,” said Melrose, when the company was young and had little money.
Over time, Rogers cut back on acting to take care of their two children and got more interested in directing and creating work, eventually becoming associate artistic director. “Cutting Ball was drawing the best actors in the Bay Area and [Rob] didn’t need me to kind of hold the show up any more,” said Rogers, who was voted “Best Actress in San Francisco” by the SF Weekly’s annual reader’s poll in 2007 for her role as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.
In 2015, Melrose handed over the reins of the artistic directorship to Rogers, who held the post until last summer, so he could concentrate on freelance directing. But after a couple years he missed the challenges of running a theater, and recently has jumped back in — in November he was named artistic director of the Alley Theatre in Houston.
Melrose took over after the departure of the Alley’s longtime artistic director who, according to the Houston Chronicle, “retired abruptly” in January 2018 as the newspaper was “investigating allegations that he had fostered an abusive working environment.” From the start, Melrose said he is making sure to “bring a new level of collaboration to the theater,” and ensure that, in terms of its programming, “the Alley Theatre still feels like the Alley Theatre.” But he also wants it to better reflect the diversity of Houston. Next season, for example, they will stage Vietgone by Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Quixote Nuevo by Latino-American writer Octavio Solis.
Even though Melrose and Rogers have both moved on from Cutting Ball, they remain on the board and will return June 5-16 to wrap up its 20th season with a remounting of the absurdist play The Bald Soprano, one of Cutting Ball’s best-selling shows. Rogers will be back on stage as an actor after an 8-year hiatus, to reprise her role as Mrs. Smith.
As Melrose settles into the Alley, Rogers is staying in the Bay Area so their son can finish high school in 2020. Meanwhile, she’s working on a master of liberal arts at Stanford and getting back into classical singing — as a teenager in addition to acting she trained in opera.
The best thing about a life in theater, she says, is that it enables them to keep tapping into the “spontaneous, creative part of ourselves.”