Taking advantage of an empty shell on top of a 13-story parking garage next to its home in downtown Houston, the Alley Theatre has expanded its technical services into the five-story, 75,000-sq.-ft. Center for Theatre Production that opened in November 2002. Designed by the Houston architectural firm of Ziegler Cooper, this “theatre-making laboratory in the sky” houses state-of-the-art shops for scenery, costumes, and props, as well as three rehearsal spaces, new administrative offices, and other support services. Founded by Nina Vance in 1947, the Alley Theatre is currently run by Gregory Boyd, artistic director, and Paul R. Tetreault, managing director.
“The parking garage is on land that belongs to the theatre,” explains Alley general manager Sean Skeehan. “The space above the garage was intended for a 500-seat theatre that was never completed so we basically used it for storage. The infrastructure was in place, but it was dormant for 20 years.” As part of a three-phase master plan, the space was turned into a production center instead of performance space, with shops, offices, rehearsal spaces, and auxiliary facilities such as a library, press archive (the theatre is now in its 56th season), and cafeteria.
“Our goal was to make our space more efficient, safer, and more pleasant for everyone who works here. It is also a great place to generate new work,” says Skeehan, who points out that there is natural light in almost every space in the new facility. The lighting in the shops was installed with an eye to a color temperature that mimics natural light (as much as possible) so that renderings and swatches look the same everywhere in the building.
Stretching to a ceiling height of 56', the new 17,306 sq. ft. scene shop is where the audience chamber would have been, had the space been used as a theatre. The shop is large enough to build full-size sets for two entire productions at one time. “After the sets are built, they are disassembled, put in a large freight elevator and transferred to the stage,” Skeehan notes. This large space has the potential to be used for workshops or informal performances, with a pipe grid to hang sound or lighting equipment and a 200A disconnect for bringing in dimmers.
Special features in the scene shop include a large dust-collection system (which translates to better working conditions for the carpenters), and two spray-painting booths. The first of these is large enough for most scenic elements or even a small car, while the second, smaller booth can be used for spraying costumes or shoes. Both have external fume extraction systems.
With a costume collection dating from 1947, the Alley can now store its entire stock in one climate-controlled 5,596-sq.-ft. space in the new facility. One floor below the storage area is both the costume shop and the rehearsal studios, meaning that actors can just dash across the hall for fittings, and no longer have to take time from the rehearsal schedule to do so. “The old costume shop was in very cramped quarters in the basement,” says Skeehan. The new prop shop is also much larger, at 2,778 sq. ft.
Interconnecting the offices, which are now 13 floors above the stage, are audio monitor systems to the two performance spaces in the theatre, as well as video monitors to see the stage. The Clear-Com communication system is also routed to the offices. In the rehearsal studios, the floors have a base of neoprene for cushioning and plywood covered with masonite. In the large two-story rehearsal space there is a MechoShades ElectroShade system, with two layers of mechanical window shades, one in a sheer vinyl to help cut glare yet allow light, and a blackout shade.
The new theatre production center represents the second phase in the Alley's three-prong master plan. The first step was the renovation of its smaller performance space, the flexible Neuhaus Stage, as it was flooded during tropical storm Allison in 2001. The renovation of the stage area and lobby was completed in January 2002.
Improvements to the Neuhaus include a new ETC lighting system with 384 circuits and four racks of Sensor dimmers (used with the existing Obsession I console that was not damaged in the flood), 300 Source Four ellipsoidals, and 50 Source Four PARs.
The new sound system includes a Soundcraft K3 mixing board (24 input, eight group output with left/right/center master), five Crown K2 stereo amplifiers, two QSC MX1500a stereo amplifiers, four EAW JF80 and four EAW JF60 loudspeakers, and two EAW SB48 subwoofers. The new audio/video distribution systems were designed in-house and installed by Britain Electric, LD Systems, and Alley staff.
Phase three of the Alley's ambitious program is the renovation of its primary theatre building at 615 Texas Avenue, in conjunction with the Houston office of Morris Architects (also responsible for the Neuhaus renovation) and theatre consultants Fisher Dachs Associates. Plans include renovation of the main stage, the addition of a 125-seat cabaret theatre, a cafe, and a performing arts bookstore, all to be completed by the fall of 2005, when the theatre is just two years shy of its 60th anniversary.