One of Tampa’s oldest professional theaters is undergoing a revival with the help of a South Tampa church.
The 24-year-old Gorilla Theatre, once on the brink of folding following the death of its founder, is now planning its first fundraiser in its new permanent home, Unity of Tampa church, 3302 W. Horatio St., in South Tampa.
“We see this as a new beginning for the theater,” said Sandy Lynne Locher, president of the theater’s board of directors. “We’re so excited to have a place to call home and to partner with Unity of Tampa.”
Aubrey Hampton and his wife, Susan Hussey, founded the theater in 1990. For years, the Gorilla Theatre operated out of a warehouse in Drew Park, providing Tampa Bay-based actors with a professional venue for their craft and Tampa audiences an opportunity to enjoy offbeat musical productions rarely seen outside New York City.
However, with Hampton’s death in 2010, the nonprofit theater lost its major benefactor along with its home.
However, Locher and fellow Gorilla Theatre supporters were determined to keep the theater open.
“When Aubrey passed and we lost all of our funding, we decided to reinvent ourselves,” said Locher. “For the past two years, we’ve been figuring out how to revive our board and come up with fundraisers to support the theater.”
Fortunately, said Locher, a first-time $8,000 grant from the Hillsborough County Arts Council gave the nonprofit the momentum it needed to rebuild. And the collaboration with Unity of Tampa provided the venue.
Locher said Gorilla Theatre supporter and owner of Strictly Entertainment, Pat Fenda, was the inspiration behind the collaboration with Unity of Tampa.
A member of Unity of Tampa, Fenda put Locher in touch with the church’s co-pastor, the Rev. Debbie Moss.
The 200-member church had just completed a major renovation and was looking for an opportunity to get more involved with the community, said Moss.
“We’re really reaching out to form a strong connection with the community, and having the Gorilla Theatre here was a great start,” Moss said. “They needed a permanent home and we wanted a chance to support the community. I’ve been to several Gorilla Theatre productions and really enjoy it.”
The theater and church will seal its partnership with a holiday benefit cabaret, “Dreaming of a White Christmas, on Friday, Dec. 6.
The cabaret will feature award-winning actress Katherine Michelle Tanner and pianist Viktor Nikolov, performing holiday classics as well as Tanner’s original songs of the season in the church sanctuary.
“It’s a great way to get into the spirit of the season,” said Locher.
The theater will follow up Jan. 10 with its first mainstage production, the one-man show “An Illiad,” based on Homer’s “The Illiad.”
“An Illiad” will be presented at the historic Springs Theater in Sulphur Springs and the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin as well as Unity of Tampa.
“We feel it’s important to reach out to culturally underserved areas in the county,” said Locher.
In addition, the theater will host its 2014 Reading Series of new works this spring in the church’s Creative Café.
“We feel this nonprofit theater serves a niche in Tampa’s cultural life, providing work for professional actors while encouraging new playwrights through our Young Dramatists’ Project,” said Locher. “And now, with the help of Unity, we have what we need to continue our mission.”