HOUSTON -- If all the world’s a stage, the corner of the world at the intersection of Texas and Smith streets in downtown Houston really needs to spruce up its act.
The Alley Theatre, hailed as a landmark of brutalist architecture when it opened in 1968, now looks like it desperately needs a bath. But the grubby exterior walls are only the most visible sign that Houston’s premiere venue for live theater needs a makeover.
“When the theater was built, there was a certain kind of production that was being embraced,” explains Gregory Boyd, The Alley’s artistic director. “Didn’t have a lot of interest in scenery. We really need the capability to come into the 21st century.”
So The Alley Theatre will undergo a major renovation beginning in July, a $46.5-million overhaul of the downtown Houston landmark it has occupied since 1968. The extensive overhaul will take more than a year, forcing the theater to move its next season of productions to the Wortham Theater on the central campus of the University of Houston.
Although most of the financing comes from private sources, theater officials said they’re also receiving $2-million in tax reinvestment zone money administered through the City of Houston.
The most dramatic renovations will occur in The Alley’s main theater, where front rows of seats will be removed to extend and elevate the stage. Trap doors will allow directors to raise actors and scenery from beneath the stage and an overhead fly loft will be equipped with motorized rigging. And for the first time, The Alley will have an orchestra pit.
“Right now, the furthest audience member from the actor is about 55 feet,” said Dean Gladden, The Alley’s managing director. “We get that at least 15 feet closer in the new building. And that’s fantastic.”
The newly rebuilt theater, Gladden said, will offer the audience a more intimate experience.
“The important thing about the actors is that you can see their eyes,” Gladden said. “And the closer you are, the more intimate it is, because that’s where the emotion is. So in the new space you’re going to get that feeling.”
On campus at the University of Houston improvements to accommodate The Alley are already underway at the Wortham Theater. Eventually, the old venue will be equipped with everything from a new stage floor to new electrical equipment to a new lighting lab.
“I know our students will get inspired by just having a professional theater on campus,” said Renu Khator, the chancellor of the UH System. “There are lots of internship opportunities for students.”
Students from UH who are already working at The Alley agreed.
“I think it’s going to be a really incredible opportunity for the students there,” said Amyjo Foreman, a senior theater student from UH. “There are so many things they’re not exposed to yet on the university campus. To be surrounded by professionals will be a really great opportunity.”
Theater and university officials announcing the plan Wednesday hailed it as an opportunity for both The Alley and UH, but it presents the downtown institution with some obvious challenges.
The Wortham Theater at UH, which has successfully staged acclaimed productions for more than three decades, is nonetheless a smaller venue than The Alley. Fewer tickets will be available for The Wortham (565 seats) compared to The Alley’s main stage (824 seats).
Perhaps most worrisome is the prospect of Alley patrons staying away from next season’s productions simply because they don’t know how to find the company’s temporary home on the UH campus. It’s easy to get there once you know the way, but Alley regulars might shy away from seeking out an unfamiliar building on a major university campus.
The renovation is scheduled to begin in July and continue through the following summer. The grand opening of the renovated Alley Theatre is scheduled for the autumn of 2015.