Planned renovations would enlarge the stage, extend it further into the audience and allow for bigger productions with more elaborate scenery.

Image: Alley Theatre

The Alley Theatre Wednesday announced the launch of a $73 million fundraising campaign to dramatically overhaul the building's interior, enlarge the stage, improve access for the handicapped and make the building more energy efficient. It will be the first major renovation of the distinctive fortress-like downtown building since it was built in 1968.

The Alley's regular run of its newest production, The Elephant Man, begins tonight.

 The changes will allow the theater - Houston's leading theatrical institution - to stage larger and more elaborate productions and also create a more intimate feeling for its main stage, bringing actors in closer proximity with the audience, said Gregory Boyd, the Alley's artistic director. The changes will address a number of design "flaws" that result from the era in which the theater was built, he said.

"There was, generally, what I call an anti-scenery mood in the 1960s when the theater was built," said Boyd, who became artistic director in 1989. Theaters of the era were built for spartan sets, with limited ways of moving scenery into the building and onto the stage.

Among limitations: The Alley doesn't have a loading dock or much of a back stage area to help in moving scenery in and out. Scenery has to be cut small enough to fit into an elevator-size lift and then reassembled on stage. Boyd said the new design will add a fly loft with computer-controlled rigging that will allow large pieces of scenery to be lowered onto the stage. This change will slightly affect the silhouette of the building. That, and a much-needed cleaning, is all that will be done to alter the exterior of the iconic Brutalist-style building, he said.

Inside, however, is a different story. Patrons will see changes as soon as they walk into the lobby. Terrazzo marble will replace the concrete on the floor of the box office lobby. That, combined with LED lighting, will create a warmer effect, officials said. Other public areas will get new carpet. Upstairs, walls will be removed to provide skyline views for the third-floor lobby area, and a new third-floor lobby bar will be created. Additionally, the women's restroom will be doubled in size and the men's restroom will be relocated.

The most significant changes affect the Hubbard Stage, the larger of the theater's two stages. Seating will be replaced and reconfigured. This will bring the number of seats down to 777 from 824 - 15 rows instead of 17. The reconfiguration, and the enlargement of the stage, will bring actors closer to the audience. The last row of the center section will be 22-feet closer to the stage.

More than $31 million toward the goal already has been raised, said Meredith Long, a pillar of Houston's art world who is co-chair of the campaign. No timetable was set for the renovations because it depends on how long it takes the money to be raised, but officials promised that the theater will not close for renovations before the end of the 2013-2014 season.

The renovations originally were discussed in the early part of the last decade, but then Tropical Storm Allison changed the Alley's priorities when it caused extensive damage to the lower level of the building, including the smaller Neuhaus Stage, the rehearsal hall and the costume, scene and props departments. The theater raised $26.3 million to repair the damage. As a result, the Neuhaus Stage already has undergone renovation.



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