Fringe benefits — Silver Meteor Gallery celebrates two decades

A Q&A with the community arts mini-institution's founder Michael Murphy.

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click to enlarge METEORIC RISE: Founder Michael Murphy on the Silver Meteor’s front porch. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
METEORIC RISE: Founder Michael Murphy on the Silver Meteor’s front porch.

Back & Forth, the 20th Anniversary of Silver Meteor Gallery
Sun., Sept. 13, at Silver Meteor Gallery, 2213 E. Sixth Ave., Ybor City
Works by artists who have shown in the gallery in the past: Chris Ballantyne, Don Butler, Chris Deacon, Charlie Doan, Ken Echezabal, Joe Griffith, Chris Millstein, Thomas Murray, Cindy Psynner, Shayde Sartin, Emiliano Settecasi and Brian Taylor.
Up through Sept. 27; event page on Facebook.

For 20 years now, the diminutive, unassuming space known as the Silver Meteor Gallery has been hosting new and nearly-new theater companies (and art exhibits) that couldn’t afford to get their start elsewhere. Located on an easy-to-miss alley in Ybor City behind the Columbia Restaurant and some railroad tracks, the Gallery, run by friendly, enthusiastic Michael Murphy, has presented both companies that went on to great success in other venues, as well as troubled theater groups on their way to extinction. Tiny and out-of-the-way as it is, the Silver Meteor is one of a kind — there’s no other Bay area space quite so welcoming to theater groups with little or nothing in their bank accounts. And occasionally there’s a production there — a Flannery O’Connor tribute only a few weeks ago, Butcher Holler a few months ago — that more than justifies the place’s existence.

I sat down with Murphy, 48, at the Silver Meteor recently and asked him to tell me how the Gallery got its start. “My father was a visual artist,” he said, “so I always grew up in that milieu. In high school I got involved in theater, but always behind the scenes, in production… One day we took a trip up to New York and rode the Silver Star — they changed the name from the Silver Meteor — and as we were going through Ybor, we said, wouldn’t it be cool to get one of these little houses and make an art gallery/mixed-use space out of it? And when we came back from New York, we made that happen.”

The house cost $20,000, Murphy told me, and from the start he and his father wanted both theater and visual art there. The space was inaugurated with a theater production by the now defunct Pig’s Eye Productions in July, 1995.

Subsequent presenters included New Image Theatre and Stageworks. “Jobsite got started in here. What is now called Improbable Athenaeum started as Alley Cat Players in here. Hat Trick was in residence for a while. Now we have Ghostlight and TRT-Squared, Tampa Rep’s incubator arm here, using our mainstage.” The theater only seats three dozen, so it’s easily filled up — and sometimes publicity has been so sparse, only three or four audience members have shown up to watch a play. Creative Loafing, Murphy said, has often sent a critic to Meteor shows; the Times and Tribune have seldom done so.

I asked Murphy to tell me some of his strongest memories of the last 20 years. He immediately thought of two shows that he personally produced. “I am so happy and pleased with the show we just did, A Peculiar Crossroads [the O’Connor tribute], I’ve been wanting that to happen for years.” The production brought in 130 patrons in total, and “it was a good show, it was educational, I thought it was a wonderful evening.” Then there was 2011’s production of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, performed by Dahlia LeGault and Nic Carter, and directed by Megan Lamasney. “It was brilliant, I thought.” [It was, indeed.]

He added that a favorite production by an outside company was Jobsite Theater’s True West, with David Jenkins and Alan Fessenden under Jason Evans’s direction. “It came together so well: the chemistry between those two, the loving but bickering brothers.” As for productions he’d prefer to forget, he declined to name names, but “there was one really bad show… They prepaid for an entire summer… and they didn’t have audiences, the reviews were scathing, and they ended up canceling as many shows as they ran. And you can’t build a company that way, and that was the end of that.”

As for the future, Murphy will keep balancing his work as a gallery assistant at the HCC/Ybor Art Gallery with “whatever needs doing” at the Meteor. The next play he’s got scheduled — for sometime in October — “is a new work called MMF, Male Male Female, by David Kimple… It’s about two men and a woman all involved in a relationship… The question there being, who’s going to end up being the couple?” The play was originally produced on the Atlanta Fringe, and probably would never get to the Bay area if it weren’t for Silver Meteor. Speaking of which, maybe that’s the best way to think of this space: it’s Tampa’s full-time Fringe Festival, the one place where you go to see the shows you’ve never heard of.

Twenty years of operation is pretty astounding for any theater space, especially one this modest.

Here’s looking to the next 20.

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