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Inside the Alley Theatre's extreme makeover: 21st century renovation saves iconic Houston building

Inside Alley Theatre's extreme makeover: Renovation saves building

On a frigid day, the Alley Theatre is just a shell of its former self, as a patch of blue sky and the Wortham Theater peek out from the top of an exposed main stage. Workers scramble over the bones of the 46-year-old fortress-like structure like ants at a picnic as they dodge officials and reporters shivering in the open-air surroundings.

Talk about an extreme makeover.

Unlike most theater companies around the nation that have demolished their old quarters to make way for new digs, Alley officials decided to save the original theater by stripping it down to its bare essentials and reconstructing a up-to-date theater complex. With only nine months before the newly refurbished Alley Theatre opens again, officials offered a hard hat tour to explain what they're doing — or as artistic director Gregory Boyd summed it up  — "We want to keep the Alley-ness of the Alley intact."

 "We thought it was an iconic building for Houston. We just needed to update it for the 21st century." 

"Our plan was not to tear down the building," managing director Dean Gladden explained. "We thought it was an iconic building for Houston. We just needed to update it for the 21st century."

The main entrance and ticket area on Texas Avenue will remain essentially the same, with enhanced LED lighting and new carpet up the grand stairway leading to the third floor lobby. Administrative offices have been moved to an adjoining building, leaving lots more room on upper floors for bars, rooms for private events and education purposes, and a donor's Green Room with a private bar and restrooms.

And perhaps, more importantly, the number of toilets for theatergoers has been doubled (when those on the tour heard that, they burst into applause.)

A lot of the big changes will come in the bowels of the building that patrons don't see. The theater was originally built with a thrust stage, with the audience surrounding the actors, and no place to store scenery. The area below the stage has been opened up so that scenery can be easily moved around and an orchestra pit has been added. When the Alley staged the world premiere of The Gershwin's An American in Paris in 2008, most of the orchestra had to be on the stage because there was no orchestra pit, Boyd recalled.

The changes will likely allow an additional 30 more performances a year, because the time to move scenery between productions will be cut in half, Boyd said. Other improvements include a fly loft with computerized rigging, off stage space on either side of the stage and up-to-date communications equipment, expanded dressing rooms and warm-up areas.

The main stage, known as the Hubbard Theatre, will have 774 seats, about 50 fewer than before. But more than 60 percent of all seats in the newly refurbished theater will be in the first 11 rows, allowing for more intimate interaction between audience and actors. And four pillars in the middle of the stage that blocked views have been removed.

"Most theaters receive productions from the outside. They present. This theater produces. So the implication for that is enormous and influences everything that we do," Boyd said. "We don't think it as a renovation so much as a reinvention — a rededication of what this theater was created to do."

(The Neuhaus Theatre stage in the Alley basement was remodeled after being flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and will remain the same, with the exception of new carpet to match that upstairs, Gladden said.)

Even with all of the changes, officials insist the integrity of the building designed by Ulrich Franzen and which opened in 1968, remains. "All the concrete and cement are still here," said Studio RED Architects principal Pete Ed Garrett, the project architect for the renovation.

Roger Plank, co-chair of the Alley Theatre capital campaign, said that more than $51 million has been raised toward a goal of $56.5 million for the building renovation and $10 million for artistic enhancement. "We are 90 percent toward being able to move into this building debt free," he said. (While other major performing arts organizations perform in city-owned buildings, the Alley owns its theater.)

The campaign also aims to raise an additional $16.5 million for endowment and cash reserves, making the total $73 million.

Alley Theatre renovation with main stage and Wortham Theater in background
The Alley's Hubbard Theatre is a more open space. Photo by Clifford Pugh
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour
The Alley's iconic winding staircase will remain. Photo by Joel Luks
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour
Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd. Photo by Joel Luks
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour
The renovation will allow for better views of downtown Houston. Photo by Joel Luks
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour
An atrium in the lobby will be displayed more prominently. Photo by Joel Luks
Alley Theatre renovation with main stage and Wortham Theater in background
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour
Alley Theatre Hard Hat Tour