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Houston’s Alley Theater Picks Up the Pieces After Hurricane

“They’re one of a handful of regional theaters around the country that really make a difference,” said Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose play “Cleo” had been scheduled to premiere at the Alley in late September. (It is now expected to open there next spring.)

The day Mr. Joseph stood defeated at the Alley stairway, Dean Gladden, the managing director of the theater for the past 11 years, wasn’t able to survey Harvey’s wrath in person. Forbidding floodwater crept up his own driveway.

Other occupants of Houston’s close-knit theater district downtown, including the Wortham Center, which houses the Houston Grand Opera, and Jones Hall, home to the Houston Symphony, experienced some flooding, although less severe, and some concerts had to be canceled or relocated.


The playwright Rajiv Joseph was in Houston preparing for the world premiere of his new play “Describe the Night” when the hurricane hit.

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Most of the city’s other major art institutions, including The Menil Collection, The Rothko Chapel, and the Museum of Fine Arts, were spared. Mr. Gladden said he first learned that he had not been so fortunate from a video Mr. Joseph had posted on Facebook, which showed the lower quarter of the building submerged in a mud-brown lake.

When Mr. Gladden arrived the next day, after the water there and at home had sufficiently receded, he discovered a harrowing scene. The larger of the Alley’s two spaces, the Hubbard Theater, which is above ground, was relatively unscathed. But the below-ground Neuhaus Theater, a 310-seat space where Mr. Joseph’s play was being staged, was ravaged, along with the 8,000-square-foot prop storage facility in the basement.

Water covered five of the auditorium’s six rows of seating. One-of-a-kind props dating back 70 years were sodden. An expensive new electrical system — a product of the $46.5 million renovation that had been completed just two years earlier — was ruined. In all, Mr. Gladden estimates that damages could total as much as $15 million.

“We just turned around from buying all this stuff; now I’ve got to turn around and raise money again,” Mr. Gladden said.


Crews working to clean up the effects of the hurricane.

Alley Theater

But first, he has a play to put on.

Mr. Joseph’s play will no longer premiere at the Alley, but thanks to last-minute finagling by Mr. Gladden, it will open at the nearby Quintero Theater at the University of Houston on the original Sept. 15 premiere date.

“I couldn’t believe my ears,” Mr. Joseph said when he heard that his show would, in fact, go on. Still reeling from the devastation he’d witnessed, and news reports of calamity across Southeast Texas, he said he had even doubted whether putting on a play would be appropriate.

“I took the lead from the Alley,” he explained. “They said ‘We want to get back to work,’ and that was really inspiring.”

Mr. Gladden quickly commissioned the design and construction of an entirely new set. The original was beyond rescue, and the new venue features a thrust stage, whereas the Neuhaus is a theater in-the-round. Next, he tracked down new rehearsal space, zeroing in on an unoccupied trading floor on the 55th story of a downtown skyscraper that is controlled by one of the Alley’s board members.


Streets outside the Alley Theater in Houston were flooded after hurricane Harvey.

Alley Theater

The prop, wig and craft departments have now taken up residence in that building. A theater file server was rescued and relocated to an information technology staffer’s bedroom so an accountant could continue to make payroll.

After Mr. Joseph’s debut, Mr. Gladden will begin the formidable work of reviving his theater in earnest. “Cleo,” about the romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, was almost canceled, but after the Alley’s artistic director, Gregory Boyd, learned that the actors were continuing to rehearse even after having been displaced, he fought for the show to be rescheduled for next year.

The hope is to reopen the theater in mid-November, in time for the annual staging of “A Christmas Carol,” one of the Alley’s most popular and lucrative calendar events. But it will be a steep road.

“We’ve had staff members go through very difficult times,” Mr. Gladden said. “Some have lost their homes, lost their cars. They’ve been through a lot.”

Even when the building dries out, the electricity returns and props are restocked, the question will remain: Will Houstonians, many still emerging from crises of their own, have an appetite for often richly priced performing arts?

“We’ll see,” said Amanda Dinitz, interim co-executive director of the Houston Symphony, which, like the Alley, sits in the arm of the still-engorged Buffalo Bayou. “I think people are going to be craving things that make them feel good.”

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