The Alley Theatre in Houston is a nonprofit professional residential theater company that offers new plays, classic works, and music theater, as well as providing a home for artists from around the world to develop their work. Alley productions have been seen throughout the United States and abroad. In the 1990s the resident company had twenty actors, and its associate artists included Robert Wilson, Edward Albee, Jose Quintero, and Frank Wildhorn. The artistic director in 1993 was Gregory Boyd and the executive director, Stephen J. Albert. The theater produced its first play in 1947, under the direction of Nina Vance. Vance, a drama teacher at San Jacinto High School at the time, initiated the project by sending postcards to 150 persons whom she knew to be interested in the theater. As a result, 100 people met to discuss forming a local theater group. Vance was business manager, producer, and director. The group became professional in 1954 and existed without patronage until 1963, when other personnel were first employed to allow Vance to concentrate on the role of director.
The first location for the group was in a former dance studio with an opening on Main Street. A brick corridor led from Main to the back of the studio, hence the name Alley Theatre. The theater seated eighty-seven. After a season and a half at this location, the group moved to a building on Berry Street that seated 215. Here the theater remained for 18½ years before moving to the new $3.5 million structure in Houston's cultural complex, which included the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts and the Albert Thomas Convention Center.
Impetus for the new building came in 1962, when Houston Endowment, Incorporated, a charitable organization established by Mr. and Mrs. Jesse H. Jones, donated a downtown site at 615 Texas Avenue. The Ford Foundation pledged $1 million for construction, contingent on Houston residents' raising $900,000. The local money was raised in 1963, and the Ford Foundation then boosted its pledge to $2 million, the largest grant ever given a resident professional theater. The foundation also pledged for operating expenses for ten years. Architect Ulrich Franzen designed the building to include two separate theaters, one seating 800 and another seating 300. The larger theater was designed with a modified thrust stage and allows for unusual exits and entrances. Lighting takes the place of curtains. The smaller theater is a replica of the playhouse's original small square arena under a hooded light grid. The exterior of the structure is concrete, sandblasted to give the look of aged stone. Nine towers are both decorative and utilitarian, housing elevators and air-conditioning equipment. A tunnel entrance gives credit to the original alley entryway. Polished concrete, curved wood, and rich colors decorate the interior. The new theater opened officially in November 1968, with a special performance of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo. Tony Van Bridge, a Canadian, played the lead. By opening night more than 20,000 subscriptions had been paid. After Nina Vance died in 1980, the theater was known as the Nina Vance Alley Theatre. See also THEATER.