TAMPA — In a way, the Gorilla Theatre's journey has been as much an epic narrative as An Iliad, its show that debuted last weekend.
When the theatre's last living founder, Aubrey Hampton, passed away in 2011, the 23-year company's funding went with him. That year also saw the theatre leave its home in Drew Park and begin a search for new places to perform.
However, the challenges didn't halt productions. With the help of directors, including Bridget Bean and President Sandra Lynne Locher, they formed a new board of members and began raising funds independently.
The results tilted in their favor when they received their first grant of $8,000 from the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. This and other efforts fueled their survival, enabling the theater to continue bringing plays to the Tampa Bay area, including An Iliad, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare.
"This play is a contemporary version of Homer's The Iliad," Locher said of the one-man show. "It's just as important today because the conflicts in it keep happening."
Brendan Ragan, 29, stars as the Poet, recounting the 10-year journey of gods, heroes and tragedy.
"In many ways, it is the most challenging thing I've ever attempted on stage," said Ragan, a Boulder, Colo., native. "What's great about the script is that, even if you aren't a Greek mythology enthusiast, you'll connect to the love, the jealousy, the heartbreak and the modern-day delivery. It's very relatable."
Ami Sallee, a member of the Artistic Committee at the Gorilla Theatre, is the director. She has a major presence in the Tampa Bay area theater scene, having worked at American Stage, Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Patel Conservatory and the University of Tampa.
This year, the theater chose storytelling as the theme of its productions, which epitomizes An Iliad. Though it opened at the Springs Theater in Sulphur Springs, it continues this weekend at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin. It returns to the Springs for performances Jan. 23-26, Jan. 30 and Feb. 2 (for tickets and information, go to gorillatheatre.com.)
"The Ruskin Cultural Center is a big space with nice brick walls and no permanent seating, but it still has an intimate feel," Locher said of the venue.
Georgia Vahue, executive director of the Firehouse, retained the same excitement.
"It's the beginning of a partnership," she said of the Gorilla Theatre's new home. "They stand out for their longevity and the types of productions they select. They choose lesser-known ones, which are the gems.
"You can always be assured of quality with their plays, their directors and their actors."
The Springs Theater and the Firehouse Cultural Center are just two of the theater's new homes since their rebuild in 2011. Another, smaller space they call home is the Unity of Tampa church. A mutual friend introduced Locher to the church and, although they need larger venues, the church is just right for rehearsing, hosting intimate productions including the Creative Cafe and cabarets, and assisting in the theater's growth.
"Everyone was very receptive. Folks enjoyed the space," Locher said of the public's reaction to the new home. "Everything's new for Gorilla."
Not only does this professional theater keep the arts alive, but it's just as important to Tampa Bay area thespians as it is to audiences, since they pay their actors, designers and directors a livable salary.
Gorilla Theatre's goals are to keep bringing live theater to Tampa, strengthening its board, improving professional skills and raising funds.
"We were invisible for a while and wanted to make sure we would go forward," Locher said referring to the rebuild of the past two years. "We are still coming up with quality, although there may be more time in between shows."
After An Iliad, the group's next production will be Or, a 17th century comedy.
Arielle Waldman can be reached at [email protected]