Gypsy Rolls On

St. Petersburg's gay theater company vows to persevere

With National Gay and Lesbian Pride Month coming to an end, I thought I'd pay a call on Trevor Keller, artistic director of St. Petersburg's Gypsy Productions. For a couple of years now, Gypsy has been presenting gay-themed theater at the Suncoast Resort, and while I've been critical of the quality of many of its productions, I've been more than a little impressed with Bent, Slap & Tickle, and parts of Torch Song Trilogy.

I wanted to talk with Keller about where Gypsy stands artistically and financially, and what sort of reception it's gotten from the outside world - the gay and straight communities, and the press. I also wanted to understand what motivates Keller: why he's committed to running a specialty theater in a community that's not always there even for mainstream work.

What I discovered, as we sat in the small lobby at the Suncoast Theatre, was a lanky, genial, soft-spoken 40-year-old who literally feels called by a Higher Power to bring gay theater to local audiences, and who's committed to persevering in spite of financial difficulties and the reluctance of the Bay area's two daily newspapers to review his productions.

Keller, I learned, is an HIV/AIDS survivor who believes there's a reason he's still alive and who intends to give Gypsy the kind of staying power that its model, Central Stage Theatre, didn't have after the death of its artistic director, Brett Lassiter. Keller is aware of Gypsy's challenges - including the problem of attracting audiences to unknown new plays and overcoming gay and straight resistance to patronizing the Suncoast Resort - but he's devoted nonetheless to the theater's evolution.

We talked first about finances - particularly, Keller's allegation (reported in the Planet some weeks ago) that his treasurer had embezzled some $6,000 in company money, leaving the theater with about $5,000 in debts. The company's status is "fragile," said Keller, and "living paycheck to paycheck." But "we re-use, we recycle, we … beg and borrow to get our productions going right now. We're going to make it, and I just have a strong belief that the company was brought into existence and that we've stayed in existence this long because it's meant to be that we're here."

Keller said he's filed a complaint against his treasurer with both the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's office and the police, but that the case has been moving too slowly: possibly "we're going to have to find a lawyer that will do either some pro bono work … or something that will help us to at least get into a civil court." Contributions to the company, since the financial malfeasance was made public, have been few and small.

Still, with Gypsy's budget per show seldom surpassing $1,000, it wouldn't take much - just more than 60 percent attendance over the run of a show - for the theater to make a profit. But audiences for most offerings have been "mediocre" - largely, said Keller, because Gypsy has been producing little-known plays from the New York and regional theater.

Still, season ticket holders have grown from 27 in 2003 to 135 presently, and Keller said that walk-in audiences have also been steadily growing. And more than that: A classic like the recent Torch Song Trilogy came close to selling out, leading Keller to wonder, "Do we want to go toward more shows that people are aware of, and sell more tickets, or do we want to stick with our mission and say, OK, we're going to have to struggle and suffer a little bit, but we're going to stick with our mission of bringing new works … I'm leaning toward, let's stick with our guns."

Another problem may be trickier to solve: resistance to Gypsy's home base at the gay-oriented Suncoast Resort. "There's a large portion of the gay community," said Keller, "male and female, that doesn't come to the resort for one reason or another. Either they think that it's sleazy, because the rooms are here, and there's that interpretation of a bathhouse or, you know, loose sex everywhere, or because of the party atmosphere, of all the bars and the alcohol.

"… And then of course with the straight community, 'Why would I want to go to a gay resort even to see a show?'… I've got a large portion of people that I know that say, 'Hey Trevor, we want to support you, but we just really don't want to go to the resort.'"

A further obstacle has been the failure of the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times to review most of Gypsy's shows. Former Tribune critic Joanne Milani refrained from coming to all Gypsy shows until the straight-oriented Parallel Lives, "but then," Keller said, "never came back to anything else."

Nor have her successors. Current drama and visual arts critic Amanda Henry said, "The Tribune primarily reviews professional productions and it's my understanding that Gypsy is a more community-based theater." She did leave the door open, however, by adding, "I'm the new theater critic here, and I'm still getting acquainted to the area."

The St. Petersburg Times was initially responsive with previews and reviews, says Keller, "but it's been very sporadic."

Times entertainment editor Charlotte Sutton said that it's purely a question of budgeting time and reviewers and that the paper has covered five Gypsy plays in the last couple of years. "I wish we could review every single production that they do," she added.

Alleged embezzlement, overcautious audiences, a lack of reviews - it might be enough to scare off a less courageous soul. But Keller's been through a larger battle: Some years ago he was in the hospital with HIV-related illness, "and basically was told I wasn't coming out of the hospital."

But he prevailed, and now his immune system is "stronger than it's ever been." The experience made him think about his purpose: "It really led me to believe that I was kept alive for a reason. I have a definite strong faith, so I had been asking, 'Why am I still here when hundreds and hundreds of my friends have been dying' … and this past year … I've really gotten the answer to that: I've been kept here to get this started, to get Gypsy Productions open, to get a theater where people can come in and perform without worrying about who they are, who they love, what they do in their private lives. And to bring people together."

Keller said he has a rule: "Here the show will go on as long as there's more people in the audience than there is onstage."

In other words, Gypsy Productions isn't going away.

Not while stubborn, resolute Trevor Keller has any say in the matter.

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