HOUSTON — When the Alley Theater celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, this city's premier theatrical venue was largely hailed as one of the preeminent resident theaters in America. The year before it had even won a special Tony Award to celebrate just that distinction. But there was lingering criticism that the theater had failed to introduce new plays by promising young playwrights either on its large 824-seat main stage or on the smaller 296-seat experimental space. Sure, the Alley has showcased cutting-edge works by the likes of Robert Wilson, Tony Kushner and Edward Albee and has startled some of its more conservative subscribers with edgy, button-pushing interpretations of classics, including a 1989 "Measure for Measure" that one critic claimed was inpired by "rock videos, kabuki theater, S&M fantasies and circuses." It had even helped to develop the Frank Wildhorn musical "Jekyll & Hyde," which eventually reached Broadway, albeit in a radically different form. And in 1995, two of its works--Wilson's "Hamlet" and a new production of Kushner's "Angels in America"--were featured at Italy's Venice Biennale. But where was the nurturing of new American drama that has long been the purview of regional theaters?
Well, last month the Alley finally rounded out its presence by presenting a new play by a very promising 28-year-old playwright. The American premiere of "Not About Nightingales," a searing prison drama set in the 1930s, was something of a coup for the theater. A co-production with Britain's Royal National Theatre (where the show premiered last March) and London's Moving Theatre (headed by Vanessa Redgrave and her brother, Corin), the play was directed by National artistic director Trevor Nunn and received strong notices from both local and national press and in all likelihood will be heading to Broadway next season.
Even so, the Alley's high-profile success with "Not About Nightingales" is unlikely to still criticism of its lack of risk-taking on behalf of unknown dramatists--after all, the "promising" 28-year-old playwright is Tennessee Williams and the play was a newly rediscovered, never-before-produced work that Vanessa Redgrave brought to the attention of Gregory Boyd, the Alley's artistic director.
Boyd says that while he's certainly not averse to developing new plays, the reputation of the theater he has headed since 1989 does not lie in that direction. What he hopes typifies the Alley and its choice of plays is what immediately struck him about Williams' work when Redgrave tossed an envelope on his desk in 1996, shortly after she had finished appearing, in repertory, in "Antony and Cleopatra" (which she also directed) and "Julius Caesar," a co-production of the Alley and the Moving Theatre Company. Inside the envelope was a manuscript of one of Williams' first full-length plays, written in 1938, seven years before the Broadway production of "The Glass Menagerie" would catapult him to the front ranks.
"Vanessa was watching me like a hawk as I read it," recalls Boyd, sitting in his cool, austere, windowless office at the Alley while outside Houston baked in steamy summer heat. "By Page 3, I got excited. It embraced a huge, visceral theatricality, which is something you don't see a lot of from a man who is writing in his late 20s. Tennessee Williams wasn't afraid to write this big play with a big cast about a big subject. I knew immediately that we would have to do it." Producing the "theater theatrical" is how Boyd describes the Alley's mandate, borrowing the phrase from Bill Ball, the late, flamboyant one-time artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, whom he describes as a mentor.
"When I arrived here, I knew I wanted to create theater that could exist only on the stage, theater that wasn't trying to do what movies and television do better, perhaps," recalls the 46-year-old artistic director. "I wanted a theater that would get up people's noses."
Founded in 1947 by Nina Vance in a downtown dance studio, the Alley steadily gained a reputation over the years for producing serious theater--classics as well as American dramas by the likes of Eugene O'Neill and Lillian Hellman. The theater, which moved into its current fortress-like home of glass and concrete in the 1960s, also had the distinction of helping to develop such plays as Paul Zindel's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," which went on to win a Pulitzer in 1971, and for presenting the American premiere of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's "Seasons Greetings" in 1984. But by the late '80s, the Alley had fallen into an artistic fallow period and was saddled with a crushing $2.5 million deficit. The board fired Pat Brown, Vance's successor, and successfully wooed Boyd away from StageWest in Massachusetts, where he found himself after stints as both actor and director at San Francisco's ACT, the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and the University of North Carolina.