The Writing Traveler: Theater for the People

 

It was theater available to rich and poor alike. On overflow nights in the original old studio, the audience sat atop a piano, on piano benches, radiators, and windowsills. Now, the Alley rises like a futuristic castle in Houston. 

The Alley resides in a castle, but it wasn’t always so. Not in the beginning, not when the actors performed in Vivien Altfeld’s uncomfortable old studio with a sycamore tree sprouting through the ceiling, not when actors had to climb two flights of dark and unpredictable stairs just to reach the stage, not when there was a strict law among cast, crew, and patrons that toilets were never to be flushed during a performance.

Too much noise.

The Alley has long been the pulse beat of Houston theatre.

The castle was a long time coming.

In the beginning, there was no reason for the Alley to even exist, no reason other than the heart, soul, and commitment of Nina Vance.  She could always remember that day in October of 1947 when she decided to launch legitimate theater in Houston.

It must cost something, she thought.   It probably cost a lot.

Caleb Pirtle

All she had was two dollars and fourteen cents. It was enough. She bought two hundred and fourteen penny postcards and mailed them. They said: “It’s beginning. Do you want a new theater for Houston? Meeting 3717 Main. Bring a friend, Tuesday.”

The day arrived. Night slipped down around the skyscrapers of the city. Nina’s mother was appalled to find her daughter still dressed in slacks. But Nina said, “Don’t be silly, mama. No one’s going to come anyway.”

They came by the hundreds. Dues were set at ten cents a year, and for a dime, a patron could vote. So they voted to call the theater Alley. Nina voted against it, saying that it was “too cute, Bohemian, precious, awful.” She lost.

And the curtain was raised in the uncomfortable old studio. When it rained, drops would race down the trunk of the sycamore tree, splattering unmercifully anyone who was unfortunate enough to be sitting nearby. That seat was always filled. On overflow nights, the audience sat atop a piano, piano benches, or radiators and windowsills.

Somehow it worked. Somehow it was theater, intimate, plain, warm, and honest. It worked because the audience became involved as though a magnet had reached out in the darkness and captured their imagination.

Nina Vance never forgot the night when the leading lady appeared in the third act, stumbling along on bare feet. Ladies in the aisle begged her aloud to put some shoes on. One even took off her shoes and threw them on stage. At one point, the murderer in a mystery went to his knees, actually suffering a heart attack. And one audience member laughed and yelled, “Ha! It’s not your heart; it’s a guilty conscience.”

But alas the fire marshal moved Alley from its quaint little brick quarters, and Nina Vance set up shop in an old abandoned attic fan manufacturing company. Patrons brought a buck and brick and renovated the decrepit building.

Again the Alley worked. Nina Vance had made theater available to the poor and rich alike. Many in the surrounding neighborhoods had never been in a theater before, never seen a play on stage, outside a school or church auditorium. They found Alley. W. McNeil Lowry, with the Ford Foundation, did as well. He came and proclaimed, “The Alley Theatre is one of the few significant professional theaters outside New York.”

His Ford Foundation awarded the Alley a grant of $2.1 million, provided the city could come up with another $900,000. Houston did. There would be no more sycamore trees or raindrops on stage, no more concern about flushing toilets.

The Alley moved into its castle. At least Nina Vance called it a castle. Others thought it resembled a super service station of the future or maybe a modern anti-aircraft emplacement. Nina Vance didn’t mind. She was proud of Alley’s past and appreciated its future.

Would she return to the old days? “No,” she said. “When you’ve had ice cream, you can never go back to sugar and snow.”

***

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