It’s hard not to talk about Garry Breul without sounding like a Hallmark card. Words like humanitarian, inspiration, and even guardian angel come to mind.
Twelve years ago, Breul founded the Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project to raise funds for cash-strapped HIV/AIDS charities. Moved by personal loss and the illness’ pervasive stigma, the lifelong theater professional made it his mission to provide people living with the virus hope and dignity. Breul’s productions, priced by donation only, typically raise $2,000-$3,000 in one night, and deal directly or indirectly with LGBT-friendly themes.
Usually presented as staged readings so they don’t have to take up too much of the actors’ limited free time, SATP’s offerings have ranged from parodies of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz to a riveting script-in-hand rendition of The Normal Heart that spawned freeFall Theatre’s well-received production in January.
For this year’s Prelude to Pride production, a fundraiser for Metro Charities, SATP is taking on a Bette Davis classic. All About Steve stars Matthew McGee and Scott Daniel, with Eric Davis, Joey Panek, Sara DelBeato, Brian Shea, Joe Parra, Jonelle Meyer, Drew DeCaro, Jerid Fox and a “surprise guest” completing the ensemble. The show takes amusing liberties with the original screenplay and will run one more night only, this Sunday at American Stage.
Breul broke from the cast’s only rehearsal to talk to CL. He says that his faith in God has helped him through the biggest challenge of his own life: In April, Breul was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer.
“I’m not angry,” he says with a reassuring tone and gentle arm squeeze. With not a whiff of self-pity, Breul shares that he’s had 15 radiation treatments so far. His first chemo appointment and a shot to boost his white blood cell count were last week.
The cancer talk doesn’t bring him down. Donning a jaunty black captain's hat, Breul smiles a lot, giving us his full attention and saying he doesn’t want to take too much of our time.
“I’m 63 now, but don’t tell anybody,” he says. “I’ve had to take steroids with the chemo, which makes your face puff up and you lose your hair. I usually don’t have these big fat cheeks.”
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Breul was a jock in high school and didn’t get involved in theater until college, where he became a DJ and hosted a TV show, which the university canceled after Breul called a Mormon preacher a “dildo.” He was discussing his early foray into comedic script-writing, Mt. Vernon RFD, an anti-war play the preacher deemed “un-American.”
“I’m not even sure I even knew what a dildo was at the time,” Breul said with a laugh.
Shortly after, Breul acted and directed with the Experience Theatre Company, where he began his first openly gay relationship, with a man named Michael who was graduating from Marquette University. They were lovers till 1983, when Michael moved away to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but remained friends. Breul recalls a time “we both marched in the gay pride parade there wearing gay pride T-shirts. I guess that was when I officially came out.”
In 1985, saddened by the AIDS deaths of so many in the Milwaukee theater community (including a close friend who was only 18), he moved to Sarasota to assist in Asolo State Theatre Company’s production of the AIDS drama As Is, a play that he says he would like to stage with SATP in November. Breul recalls how the theater would empty even before the house lights came up because audiences were embarrassed to be seen at a play about AIDS.
While in Sarasota, Breul participated in posh fundraisers for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, working with celebrity headliners like Amanda Plummer and John Raitt. It was there that he learned the ropes of fundraising and began the Sarasota AIDS Theatre Project. When he joined American Stage in 2002 as stage manager, he changed “Sarasota” to “Suncoast” to reflect the project’s broadened scope.
Through the years, Breul has encountered distaste at the mere mention of the AIDS Theatre Project’s name. A journalist for a Sarasota arts publication said he needed to leave it out because AIDS was too unpleasant of a topic in a community geared to tourism. “The name is there on purpose,” Breul says with proud defiance.
“[People with AIDS/HIV] come up to me and tell me what they’re going through — they’re white, black, young, old, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter — they come to to me and tell me what they don’t get out of the clinics is hope, support, kindness. We’re about helping them and letting them know there is still hope.”
Breul’s steadfast work has earned him no end of support, including a fundraiser organized in his honor earlier this month at Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre, another of the many local companies he has worked for. (He has also stage managed for freeFall, the Palladium, and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, among others.)
“Garry is part theater worker, part saint, and I’ve never described anyone that way because few people deserve that,” sums up American Stage’s about-to-be-emeritus Artistic Director Todd Olson via email.
“Even going through chemo and radiation, he chafes at thinking about himself and actively pushes back on any attention toward his own personal cause. He is a rarity in the arts world: an authentically optimistic man of the theater, and, as such, his energy is contagious. Garry is the person in the room who sets the tone, whom artists feel comfortable around. Which is another reason why his heart is always so open to those in need. So many people are rallying to Garry’s situation now because he has rallied for so many others for so long.”
Actor McGee, starring as Margo Channing in All About Steve, has been the drag prima donna for SATP’s last two parodies (both written by T. Scott Wooten with Breul’s input; music by Michael Raabe). McGee gives a glimpse of another reason Breul is so adored: The good Samaritan has a twisted sense of humor.
“Each year, I get in a new and outrageous get-up and do and say some of the raunchiest things! I’m like Divine to Garry’s John Waters. Maybe we should do a reading of Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble next year?”