By Barrett White
When Nina Vance founded the Alley Theatre in the late 1940s with a homespun“penny postcard” publicity campaign, I doubt she knew it would go on to become one of the most renowned theaters in the nation. The Alley has been covered by national publications that often mention the quality of this Tony Award-winning company’s productions.
The Alley is one of few theaters left in the nation that produces works using their own company of resident actors. This company has brought to life such acclaimed works as an annual production of A Christmas Carol, a number of transfer productions and original works, and even world premieres of hits like Jekyll and Hyde and Tennessee Williams’ Not About Nightingales, which went on to be nominated for six Tonys during its Broadway run.
For its 2014–2015 season, the Alley had been performing at the University of Houston’s Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre while their downtown space underwent renovations—the first significant changes to the iconic Theater District building since it opened in 1968. Designed by Ulrich Franzen, the concrete Brutalist-style structure is intended to emulate some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. When it first opened, the building was hailed by Newsweek as one of the best venues for live theater in the country.
The building’s original behind-the-scenes magic included an innovative lighting system that gave Alley performances more power and flexibility. For its functionality and grand design, Ulrich was awarded the National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.
This month, the Alley is re-opening its doors to the public with the season-opening One Man, Two Guvnors. While the uproarious comedy has been hailed for its hilarious wit, the new Alley Theatre itself may actually outshine this inaugural production.
Alley theatergoers will surely notice the new Nina and Michael Zilkha Skyline Lobby with views of downtown Houston, as well as expanded restrooms, updated public spaces, and of course, the new Hubbard Stage. As the larger of the Alley’s two stages (the other being the more intimate Neuhaus stage downstairs), the expanded Hubbard stage brings 62 percent of the audience within the first 11 rows, creating a more intimate theater experience in the 774-seat space. “It is really exciting, and we can’t wait to share it with the city,” says Lauren Pelletier, public relations associate for the Alley.
But don’t assume that the Alley stopped at the obvious aesthetic upgrades. Backstage improvements include new fiber-optic cables for sound and video projection, and an all-new “fly” space with room for 28 automated full-stage line sets—making it one of the few theaters in the country with this technology. For the hearing-impaired, the theater now has a Loop Hearing System that turns Telecoil-equipped hearing aids and cochlear implants into personalized listening devices connected directly to the theater’s sound system.
“The Alley Theatre is the only major performing arts company in Houston that owns its own building, and we are proud to preserve this historic building while at the same time modernizing its theatrical capabilities and the facilities as a whole,” says Roger Plank, co-chair of the capital campaign assisting with the Alley’s renovation.
Renovations to the Alley also mean that it now has the capability to hold up to 500 performances per year, more than all other theater venues in the Houston Theatre District combined.
One Man, Two Guvnors will run at the Alley Theatre until November 1. The 2015–2016 season continues with The Other Place, All The Way, The Night of the Iguana, Grounded, Travesties, The Nether, and Born Yesterday. For more information, visit alleytheatre.org.