- Not to be confused with the Alley Theatre (Strabane) in Northern Ireland.
615 Texas Avenue|
February 8, 1949 (company)|
October 13, 1968 (building)
The Alley Theatre is a Tony Award-winning theatre company in Houston, Texas. It is the oldest professional theatre company in Texas and the third oldest resident theatre in the United States. Alley Theatre productions have played on Broadway at Lincoln Center , toured more than 40 American cities, and played internationally in Berlin, Paris, and St. Petersburg.
Under the leadership of Nina Eloise Whittington Vance (1914–1980), the Alley Theatre was founded in 1947 in a “former dance studio with an opening on Main Street. A brick corridor led from Main to the back of the studio, hence the name Alley Theatre.” In 1948, early paying members scouted Houston for a new location for the Alley, finally landing on an abandoned fan factory on Berry Avenue. The Alley re-opened on February 8, 1949, with a production of Lillian Helman’s The Children’s Hour.
In 1954, Ms. Vance brought in Albert Dekker to ‘guest-star’ in Death of a Salesman. The Alley then became a fully professional/Equity company.
The Alley Theatre was invited by the United States State Department to represent the American Regional Theatre at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.
In 1962, the Houston Endowment gifted land worth $800,000 and grants worth $2.5 million were awarded to the Alley from the Ford Foundation for the new building at 615 Texas Ave. In the summer of 1963, the theatre raised more than $900,000 from Houstonians. These funds helped the theatre grow from its modest beginnings into one of the most prestigious non-profit resident theatres in the United States.
Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds was staged at the Alley in 1964 and in 1971 Zindel won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work.
In 1977, Nina Vance was invited on the State Department tour of Russian theater, which led to an invitation from Nina to Galina Volchek, director of the Sovremennik Theater of Moscow, to come to Houston to produce Mikhail Roschin’s play, Echelon. This marked the first time a Russian had been invited to the U.S. to recreate a play precisely as it appeared in the Soviet Union.
Having forged alliances with such international luminaries as Edward Albee, Vanessa Redgrave and Frank Wildhorn, landmark theatrical events at the Alley have included the world premieres of Jekyll & Hyde, The Civil War, and in 1998, Not About Nightingales a newly discovered play by Tennessee Williams, which moved to Broadway in 1999 and was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play.
The Alley is currently led by Interim Artistic Director James Black and Managing Director Dean R. Gladden.
Texas Monthly writes, no other theatre “in Texas comes close” to the Alley and its “productions often rival Broadway in quality, thanks to its resident acting company (one of the few left in the country) and top-to-bottom production staff.”
On March 1, 2011, the Alley Theatre was awarded a Texas Medal of Arts Award by the Texas Cultural Trust, bestowed upon Texas leaders and luminaries in the arts and entertainment industry for creative excellence and exemplary talent.
The theatre was completely renovated in the mid-2010s but was flooded by Hurricane Harvey and sustained the worst damage of any Houston theatre. The Neuhaus Theatre, located on the building's basement level, was filled with seventeen feet of water. The company's prop storage, containing close to 100,000 props, was completely destroyed. In response to Harvey, the company commissioned a touring children's play that was performed throughout Houston area schools. 
The New Alley Building
The opening of the new home of the Alley Theatre in November 1968 was a nationally chronicled event. It has two stages – the Hubbard Stage, which has 774 seats, and the more intimate Neuhaus Stage, which has 296 seats. The Alley’s building at 615 Texas Ave. was designed by Ulrich Franzen, who, along with Ms. Vance, wanted to create “a building that sings from any viewpoint.” The theatre building has no right angles but does have wide bands and terraces and is “reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings.” Franzen selected the concrete exterior because he was inspired by Houston’s location and the warm weather of the Southwest. There are three triangles in the main building and “the curves cling to and move around the triangles.”
Franzen designed the Alley in what is known as the Brutalist style, which was popular from the 1950s through the mid-1970s. The term “brutalism” was coined in 1953 and comes from the French béton brut meaning "raw concrete". Concrete is the material most widely associated with Brutalist architecture.
The Alley’s building is among many famous Brutalist structures, including Washington D.C.’s L'Enfant Plaza, the J. Edgar Hoover Building, and the Metro stations (WMATA), Yale University’s Art and Architecture Building, Boston City Hall, the FBI Academy, and the Royal National Theatre (London).
The new Alley Theatre became “the most modern, elastic theatre house in the world for the dramatic arts” thanks to Yale University professor George Izenour’s first-of-its-kind light grid, adjustable walls and analogue recorder. The tension wire grid, which Izenour described as similar to a bedspring, was made of a couple miles of aircraft cable, which formed a mesh 19 feet above the stage, allowing lighting technicians to easily walk on it before shows to adjust lighting and eliminated the need for footlights, spotlights and curtains.
Houston architect Preston Bolton wrote of Franzen and the Alley building, “I believe the architect, Ulrich Franzen, has created a most successful building for the Alley Theatre – one that will receive much recognition for the city, and enhance the excellent productions that are to come.”
Newsweek wrote about the new Alley Theatre, “the most striking theatre in the U.S. … another step along the road toward ending Broadway’s domination of the American theatre,” and Sydney Johnson of The Montreal Star wrote, “… it looks as though the new Alley Theatre is going to be one of the best – and probably the very best – in the U.S. at least, simply because the building has been designed to house a specified stage and auditorium instead of the other way round.”
The new Theatre was deemed “a very successful statement of both theatrical and architectural values” and was cited by the American Institute of Architects as “inside and out, a brilliant theatrical event.” Of the Brutalist theatres built in the 1960s, including the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, Arena Stage in Washington D.C., Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, only the Alley Theatre’s architect, Franzen, won the national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for designing the theatre (1972).
In 1994, the Alley Theatre was chosen to receive the Twenty-Five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects/Houston, which recognizes distinguished architecture of lasting quality.
In 1996, the Alley was featured in the “Book of American Architecture: 500 Notable Buildings from the 10th Century to Present” by G. E. Kidder Smith.
In June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison severely damaged the Neuhaus Stage located on the basement level of the theatre. The flood destroyed the theatre's costume, props, and scenic shops. The theatre was flooded with 14 feet of water.
In 2002, the Alley unveiled its new state-of-the-art Center for Theatre Production, a 75,000-square-foot facility. It is adjacent to the main theatre building.
The Houston Press, along with others like the George R. Brown Convention Center, ranked the building as one of the ten least photogenic buildings in Downtown Houston. John Nova Lomax, the author of the list, commented "Yeah, yeah, I like the curves and all that, but this concrete hulk still looks like something Stalin’s favorite architect would have come up with on ‘shrooms."
Alley Building Renovation
In 2013-2015, the Alley underwent a $46.5 million building renovation, the first major improvements since the building opened in 1968, including major improvements to the Hubbard Theatre, backstage area, and public spaces. The renovation was funded by private and public contributions to the Alley through the Extended Engagement Capital Campaign. Improvements included the installation of a new four-story fly loft, creation of a fully trapped stage floor allowing for an orchestra pit and actor and scenery entrances/exits, and a more intimate relationship between the audience’s seating area and the stage. New audience amenities included new seats, expanded restrooms and a new lobby space with a skyline view. With more than 500 performances annually, the Alley produces more performances than all other performing arts organizations in the Houston Theater District combined. The Alley Theatre’s historic renovation of the Hubbard Theatre will opened to the public on October 2, 2015 with One Man, Two Guvnors.
The Alley sponsors what is known as the Texas Young Playwrights Exchange (TYPE), which offers a skills-enhancing experience for people under the age of twenty who want to write for the stage. Every year, several pieces are chosen from the greater Houston area to be produced.
World Premieres at the Alley
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel, 1965
The Last Flapper by William Luce, 1987
Heaven’s Hard by Jordan Budde, 1989
Road to Nirvana by Arthur Kopit, 1990
Act of Passion by John Tyson, 1990
Jekyll & Hyde, music by Frank Wildhorn, book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, 1990
The Czar of Rock & Roll, music and lyrics by Rusty Magee, book by Lewis Black, 1990
Svengali, music by Frank Wildhorn, book by Gregory Boyd, lyrics by John Bettis, Gregory Boyd, and Frank Wildhorn, 1991
The Kiddie Pool by Michael Wilson, 1992
American Vaudeville by Tina Landau and Anne Bogart, 1992
Hamlet: A Monologue, Robert Wilson, 1995
Hydriotaphia or the Death of Dr. Brown by Tony Kushner, 1998
The Civil War, by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd, and Jack Murphy, 1998*
Lemonade by Eve Ensler, 1999
Synergy by Keith Reddin, 2001
The Carpetbagger’s Children by Horton Foote, 2001*
Be My Baby by Ken Ludwig, 2005
Treasure Island By Ken Ludwig, 2007
The Gershwin’s An American in Paris By Ken Ludwig, 2008
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph, 2009
Wonderland, book by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, lyrics by Jack Murphy and music by Frank Wildhorn, 2010
Intelligence-Slave by Kenneth Lin, 2010
The Monster at the Door by Rajiv Joseph, 2011
A Weekend with Pablo Picasso by Herbert Siguenza, 2011
Ether Dome By Elizabeth Egloff, 2011
Fool by Theresa Rebeck, 2014
Syncing Ink by NSangou Njikam, 2017
Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph, 2017*
Lover, Beloved: An Evening with Carson McCullers by Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik, 2018
Cleo by Lawrence Wright, 2018
Alley Theater Murder
An ex-security guard murdered a theater director on the fourth floor of the Alley Theater in 1982. The perpetrator was executed in 1993. Since the murder, rumors that the director's spirit haunts the Alley Theater emerged.
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