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Gorilla Theatre's future uncertain after benefactor's death

Gorilla Theatre managing director Bridget Bean is trying to raise $100,000. “We could use twice that,” she said.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Gorilla Theatre managing director Bridget Bean is trying to raise $100,000. “We could use twice that,” she said.

There is good news and bad news about Gorilla Theatre. The good news is that the Tampa company is alive and plans a 2011-12 season.

The bad news, of course, is that the theater's co-founder and financial angel, Aubrey Hampton, died of cancer at 76 in May. Since then, Gorilla's future has been the subject of much speculation in theater circles.

"I've heard rumors that we're out of business, and I've heard rumors that we inherited $7 million," managing director Bridget Bean said. "And the truth is neither."

For Hampton, owner of Aubrey Organics, which sells natural cosmetics, Gorilla was a labor of love. He and his late wife, Susan Hussey, started the theater 20 years ago, primarily to stage their own plays, and they developed a following by producing sophisticated works such as the musicals Side Show and The Last Five Years and a pair of Wallace Shawn plays, The Designated Mourner and The Fever.

But the theater was never a moneymaker, and Hampton provided a generous subsidy to keep it afloat. "There is a huge change, and the huge change is money," Bean said. "We used to receive $250,000 a year from Aubrey, and now we don't."

Gorilla was "a very minor beneficiary" in Hampton's will, Bean said. His stake in Aubrey Organics mainly went to his son with Hussey, Trevor, 9, and his grown son from a previous marriage, Mitchell. The cosmetics company has provided transitional funding of about $40,000 to the theater, which will allow it to operate on a reduced basis until the end of this year. After that, it is on its own.

Bean, 49, is part of a 10-member board that hopes to replace Hampton's subsidy with individual, corporate and government contributions. "In this new phase … some 85 percent of the Gorilla Theatre's annual budget will come from the support of donations," said a fundraising letter sent out by the theater this week.

"Where we go from here depends on how much support we have out there," Bean said. "I think we'll feel very happy if we raise $100,000. We could use twice that, and we could get by on half that, but $100,000 would be nice."

Ultimately, Gorilla could perform in another space. Its theater in industrial Drew Park has just 50 seats since capacity was reduced several years ago to meet fire code regulations. "Aubrey loved the space because it's close to Aubrey Organics, but for a nonprofit theater, it doesn't make much sense," Bean said. "Do the math. You need more seats if a third of your budget is going to come from ticket sales."

Gorilla's season opens with Aubrey-Fest, a tribute to Hampton featuring scenes from his plays performed by Jessica Alexander, Scott Isert, David O'Hara and others. It's followed by two small-scale productions: The Sea Horse, a two-character play by Edward J. Moore, with Bean playing a barmaid; and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the Lily Tomlin vehicle by Jane Wagner, performed at Gorilla by Jonelle Meyer.

In March, the company will stage the regional premiere of The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, a USF alumnus. Set in a crumbling Southern mansion at the end of the Civil War, with a surprising Jewish theme, the play got good notices in an off-Broadway production this year. The 12th annual Young Dramatists' Project — a favorite of Hampton's — will be held again in June.

• • •

Opera Tampa is losing its power couple. Maria Zouves, the vice president-associate general manager, and her husband, legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes, artistic adviser to the company, are stepping down, effective Oct. 1. They joined the opera, which is operated by the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, in 2007. Straz CEO Judy Lisi founded the company 16 years ago.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

If you go

Gorilla's 2011-12 season

Sept. 15-17: Aubrey-Fest, a celebration of the plays of Aubrey Hampton; Oct. 13-30: The Sea Horse by Edward J. Moore; Dec. 1-18: The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner, starring Jonelle Meyer; March 15-April 1: The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez; June: Young Dramatists' Project.

Performances are at Gorilla Theatre, 4419 N Hubert Ave., Tampa. (813) 879-2914; gorillatheatre.com.

Gorilla Theatre's future uncertain after benefactor's death 08/30/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 8:45pm]

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