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Houston, We Have a Theater

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Houston, We Have a Theater
Everyone else is doing it wrong. To a true believer like Gregory Boyd, artistic director at Houston's Alley Theatre, the only way to work is with a core group of actors whose artistic and economic livelihoods are tethered as tightly as his are to one place. "The R in the acronym LORT stands for 'resident,' " Boyd says. The goal of LORT was to have actors and theaters become part of the communities they served, a "beautiful idea" that's been betrayed by institutional theaters, he says. "They think it's cheaper or limiting. It's the opposite. It's shameful and, I think, tragic."

When Boyd joined the Alley in 1989, he brought with him the resident-company model practiced in places such as American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Back then, the Alley—founded in 1947 by Texas native Nina Vance—was a respected but somewhat musty institution. Since Boyd's arrival it has won a Tony (in 1996) for best regional theater and can boast collaborations with the Royal National Theatre, Edward Albee, Vanessa Redgrave, and others.

But perhaps the most important change has come in casting. The Alley now supports a staff of actors who form its year-round performing core. Of the theater's dozen or so productions in a year, half are cast entirely with company members. Roughly three productions feature an even mix of company and noncompany actors, and another three are cast exclusively from outside the company. For the 16 full-time Alley players, the rewards are the security that comes from constant work (and insurance benefits), a more "normal" way of life than most of their peers enjoy, and the chance to tackle more challenging parts in one year than many actors will come across in five.

For Love and Money

As a freshly minted graduate of Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts in 1989, Jeffrey Bean was attracted to Boyd's commitment to the resident-company model—and to the money. "I was offered internships at the Alley and Cleveland Playhouse, among others," Bean says. "I chose the Alley because they paid a weekly stipend and Cleveland Playhouse didn't."

That stipend laid the groundwork for a career in Houston. Bean joined the new company as a full-time member the following year, and there he stayed until he moved to New York in 1997. Bean left to expand his horizons, but five years later he found he had tired of competing for a diminishing number of meaty Off-Broadway parts. He also wanted to start a family with his wife, Christa (a former Alley staffer who is now the theater's associate general manager), something that didn't jibe with the life of a New York actor.

"We thought, 'Well, maybe we'll try Los Angeles or Chicago,' " Bean says. "I called Greg, and I said, 'We're thinking we're going to be done here.' And he immediately said, 'Come back. There's work for both of you.' "

Quality of life is a major draw for Alley actors. For Elizabeth Bunch, it's a large part of what keeps her in Houston. The actor and her husband, Chris Hutchison, joined the company in 2006 following several trips to Texas to appear in Alley productions. In three seasons at the Alley, Bunch—a Tisch School of the Arts graduate who migrated south after spending eight postcollege years in New York—has played roles ranging from Desdemona in "Othello" to Mairead in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." But her turn earlier this year as Jackie in "Mauritius" presented a new kind of challenge—and an opportunity she may not have found elsewhere. The play was her first since taking a leave of absence to have her first child. She was able to return to work 11 weeks after giving birth thanks in part to employer support.

"The Alley has been a totally welcoming environment," Bunch says. "When we do tech rehearsals, 10 out of 12s and stuff, I bring the baby. I have a dressing room with an adjoining room so that the baby and the nanny can be there, and when I'm not needed on stage I can run out and play with the baby or feed the baby. I've been glad to continue to have my life, and it's nice that the Alley has created a place where I can continue to do my work."

Normalcy—or something close to it, anyway—is quite the perk, but actors want most of all to act. The Alley's intense schedule means company members are blessed with a rare wealth of work. Bunch, for instance, took only one week off during her first year on the job and still performs many nights after rehearsing her next role during daylight hours.

But quality does not suffer for quantity's sake. James Black, a 21-year Alley veteran and Houston native who attended the theater as a child, has called the Alley home for his entire professional career. But that doesn't mean he's never left the nest. "Working with this acting company, I've worked all over the world," Black says. "I've worked at Biennale festival in Venice. We did a co-production with the Royal National Theater in '99 of 'Not About Nightingales' [in which Black was the first actor to play Butch O'Fallon in Tennessee Williams' previously unproduced play] that then went to Broadway, directed by Trevor Nunn. So I've had my commercial experience, and I much prefer the nonprofit."

A typical season finds Alley actors working on contemporary plays, crowd-pleasers, and classics. In the next year the theater will stage revivals of "Our Town" and "Harvey," newer works such as "Mrs. Mannerly" and "The Santaland Diaries," and three world premieres, including Frank Wildhorn's new musical "Wonderland." Boyd will have final say as to which parts his actors will play and which he will go outside the company to cast. His decisions are intended not just to highlight his team members' strengths but also to broaden their range.

"Part of the reason you schedule 'Hamlet' or 'Hedda Gabler' or 'Henry V' or 'Romeo and Juliet' is that you have actors who need to play those parts now," Boyd says. "How are you going to have artists prepared in 20 years to play Lear and Mary Tyrone if they're not being primed for that in their developing years by being stretched with the challenging parts? It's why, in particular, much of the work in mature parts is poor in many theaters. For that matter, it's brilliant in a company environment that you can have very fine actors in smaller parts all the time."

Actors in Bloom

Ultimately the greatest draw for the Alley's company members is the opportunity to be a part of so many quality productions and to work with so many quality actors. Bean, Bunch, and Black describe a familial atmosphere complete with gentle ribbing, inside jokes, and a complex group dynamic. But Black says the allure isn't just in going to work with the same people every day; it's going to work with people whose artistic values are so similar to his own in a place where that type of actor is allowed to flourish.

"The thing that's kept me in Houston for all these years is that it does draw a very specific type of actor," he says. In Texas, Black is surrounded by co-workers who "are not particularly interested in or obsessed with commercial theater," who don't have to worry about kissing ass, being seen, or even what the critics write. "It's about giving your best to that piece for a four-week period, and there's something very honorable in that to me."

For more information on the Alley Theatre, visit www.alleytheatre.org.

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