Passion invigorates local theatre

Like the gorilla, living theater is endangered – at least that’s what Aubrey Hampton and Susan Hussey think. That’s why this married couple – intent on producing plays together – founded the Gorilla Theatre 17 years ago.

Since then, the small theater, located at 4419 N. Hubert Ave., has featured more than 80 plays and will enter its 15th season this fall.

Bridget Bean, the theater’s managing director, said the theater is known for being eclectic.

“We do work that you don’t see anywhere else,” she said. “Very intimate environment, very comfortable.”

Before establishing their own theater, Hampton and Hussey wrote productions for a couple of local theaters. With their backgrounds in theater, these two former circus performers saw the Gorilla Theatre as a chance to share their passion with the community.

“What you’re seeing is real people, and you can experience their emotions in a way that you cannot do in the movies,” she said. “Theater asks more of our imaginations than movies do, and I think that’s a useful characteristic.”

With only 76 seats, the theater provides patrons an intimate alternative to larger theaters. In addition to various snacks, the theater offers a slew of beverages, including champagne and organic coffee, for guests to enjoy while viewing the shows.

The theater features an average of six plays per season, which are handpicked by the co-founders and various staff members. “We try to feature works that moved us,” she said. “We look for what we think would please the audience.”

Funded by Hampton’s cosmetics company, Aubrey Organics, the theater gets its inspiration primarily from the off-off Broadway scene.

“Many people who are visiting from big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City are very pleased with the theater,” said Bean.

“They say they didn’t expect to see anything like this in Tampa, and it reminds them of home.”

While last season featured such plays as Orson’s Shadow, December Songs and Bug, which was adapted into a recent film, the upcoming season will feature five plays and the Young Dramatists’ Project, an annual playwriting competition for high school students.

“Most of the plays performed in the theater have some thought-provoking theme,” said Bean. “They’re outside of the mainstream generally.”

However, despite its dedication to dramatic works, the Gorilla Theatre’s role in the arts stretches beyond plays. Every Sunday, the theater features Tampa Bay Jazz Club’s concert series, Jazz at the Gorilla. Admission is $5 with a student ID. The theater also hosts a reading series, where staff and actors read and perform through a script. Patrons are then given the chance to provide feedback.

This season, the theater will offer free tickets to freshman students for its first show, Rag and Bone. The dark comedy will be showing Sept. 6-23 and requires reservations.

“Theater is such an organic thing. It’s a living medium, and we’ve got to keep it going,” Hampton said. “It’s going in New York and L.A., but it’s not going in Florida – we want to be that happening here.”

The theater is closed during the summer, but will reopen in July for seasonal auditions. For more information, including the full schedule for the 2007-08 season, call (813) 879-2914, or visit Gorilla-Theatre.com.

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