Inside Alley Theatre’s much-needed makeover

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HOUSTON, Texas - After the Alley Theatre was built in 1968, Newsweek called it "the most striking theater in the U.S." But in the 46 years since then, it hasn't seen much of an upgrade. Not in lighting, plumbing or technology. That is, until now.

NewsFix recently toured the building in the midst of the multi-million dollar overhaul and discovered the renovations are moving along right on track. The old red carpet has been ripped up, revealing cement floors underneath that eventually will be recarpeted. The former women's restroom on the second floor has been opened up to include the space that used to be the men's restroom. This was the number one request among female patrons, tired of waiting in long lines at intermission. Men will have a similar expanded bathroom elsewhere in the building.

But the biggest change we saw: the mainstage area has been completely decimated. Five levels of theater space torn out down to bare cement walls. Gone are the everpresent pillars onstage that every Alley production had to manuever around.  Also missing: the lighting area above the stage that prevented having a fly loft, which would have allowed scenery or even actors to be flown up, up and away.

During our visit earlier this month, the ceiling above the former Hubbard stage was torn wide open, revealing a clear, blue sky, and allowing a crane outside to lift large dumpsters full of rubble out. The theater's managing director Dean Gladden said of the opening, "That is where the fly space will be, four stories above that hole. And that is where we hide scenery, so that will give us new flexibility."

Also in the plans is a trap room below the stage from which scenery or actors can rise up. It can also be used as an orchestra pit, allowing the Alley to produce more musicals.

During the renovations, this season's Alley productions are being staged at the University of Houston's main campus. When productions resume downtown a year from now, audiences will notice a big change in seating. In the past 60% of the audience sat in the back third of the house. The new theater will see 60% of the audience in the first 11 rows, a much more intimate experience, Gladden says.

For more on the Arts scene in Houston this fall, check out this month's issue of Houstonia.