In 1947, the Alley Theatre’s founder, Nina Vance, sent out 214 penny postcards with the message “It’s beginning! Houston, this is your Theatre.” As it celebrates its 75th anniversary during the 2021–’22 season, the Alley is continuing its commitment to operating as a theater for all Houstonians while recognizing the long road it has traveled over the years.
The Alley’s first home was a single large room at 3617 Main Street, almost hidden at the end of a long alleyway and sandwiched between two retail stores. It featured minimal seating for its theater-in-the-round stage, and a sycamore tree protruded through the roof. However, big things were in store for this little company.
Its first production, A Sound of Hunting, opened on November 18, 1947, and by the next day, the Houston Post’s critic wrote, “The city has brought forth another interesting and hopeful theater experience.”
The critic’s words would live on as an understatement, as the Alley would go on to become a tour de force in both the local and national arts scene. Since its creation, the theater has received the Special Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, produced a play that received a Pulitzer Prize, and at one time was known as “the most significant professional theater outside of New York.”
Now in its permanent home—a contemporary multi-turreted concrete building at 615 Texas Avenue, the Alley stays true to Vance’s words with its significant investment in Houston’s cultural landscape.
“We live by what Nina instilled in the beginning, in that we are dedicated to creating each season so that we have a resident acting company fully on staff,” explains Brandon Weinbrenner, Alley’s associate producer and casting director. “We curate our season so that our audiences can get to know these folks who also live in Houston. The actors get to stretch themselves and inhabit characters that are more interesting because we also know the actors as people [outside the theater],” the out thespian adds.
Alley’s programming continues to be equitable, inclusive, and just as diverse as the city around it. For example, its El Zócalo program is a place-making initiative to celebrate, grow, and interact with Houston’s diverse Latin culture and artistic community. In its school programming, students learn theater, the humanities, and STEM through arts integration. Further showing its commitment to inclusion, it produced last year’s A Christmas Carol with Spanish and Vietnamese translations.
The LGBTQ community is also an important part of the Alley’s audiences and staff. “Not surprising to anyone, members of the LGBTQ community have always been attracted to the creative arts. We have staff members who are LGBTQ. We produce plays by LGBTQ playwrights about LGBTQ things. We have LGBTQ designers and craft people and carpenters. We are committed to being an inclusive theater, and that includes the LGBTQ community,” Weinbrenner says.
Creative partnerships have been key to the Alley’s success, like the one it maintains with the University of Houston. “We set up at UH when we needed additional space due to our renovations caused by Hurricane Harvey. This season, we have UH dramaturges working on every production as part of their curriculum,” he notes. UH faculty members and playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Edward Albee also collaborated on Alley world-premiere productions.
New works and playwright commissions continue to be highlighted via the Alley All New festivals. “It’s the umbrella for our new [productions] as well as for workshops,” Weinbrenner mentions. “We like to nourish and foster plays that are just getting on their legs—giving them their first chance to be seen by the public.” Of course, people also know the Alley for its wide-ranging repertoire and innovative productions of classics and neglected contemporary plays.
To celebrate the return of live theater during its 2021–’22 season, three world-premiere plays, a world-premiere musical, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning play will be featured. Audiences will be required to bring proof of a
COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test, and masks must be worn in the theater. “We’re making theater accessible by keeping it safe for everybody,” Weinbrenner emphasizes.
Originally from the Dallas area, Weinbrenner has his own story of falling in love with the Alley and at the Alley. “I moved to Houston as a single man, and through working at the Alley Theatre I was able to meet my husband, who is also in the theater arts. We met while working on A Christmas Carol eight years ago, and now we own a house, have a dog, and continue to work as a happily married theater couple,” he shares.
Looking forward to the next 75 years, Weinbrenner believes Alley Artistic Director Rob Melrose’s vision will be guiding the organization. “When I look toward the future, I look at the mission and focus Rob has put in place, which is a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion onstage, in our staff, in the art we produce, and in how we carry ourselves in the industry,” he concludes. “I look at the Alley’s mission to produce innovative and essential work for the city of Houston, and that’s the future.”
Alley Theatre is located at 615 Texas Avenue. For more info and tickets: 713-220-5700 or alleytheatre.org.
This article appears in the October 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.