By Deborah Bostock-Kelley
During a recent Homeowner’s Association meeting, Fran Powers saw a woman she knew and embraced her in a hug.
“Your program changed my daughter’s life,” the mother exclaimed, telling her how her daughter had a leadership role in her school, dealt well with confrontation, and was now fearless speaking in public.
Though this type of validation doesn’t happen daily, it does happen because of what was born from a grueling cross country bike ride in 1998 from Seattle to Washington.
A graduate of Fontbonne University, Powers applied her theatre degree to create a drama program at a local high school in St. Louis. After 5 years, she ventured into the business and nonprofit sector, but she still wasn’t satisfied. Powers knew that she hadn’t found the career that she was supposed to be doing. She took this arduous bike trip to reflect on finding her calling.
Stopping her bike at the border of Wyoming, Powers had an epiphany. Her passion was theatre. Her last name was Powers. She had both the experience performing and teaching theatre and a background in business; she would merge her skillset and her name to create a professional theatre that focused on empowering women to tell their true stories.
Exchanging inclement frigid temperatures for warmer weather in Tampa, in November 2000, Powerstories debuted at Friday Morning Musicale. Sold-out audiences enjoyed the theatre’s performances at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in August 2001. In May 2012, Powers brought her dream to its permanent home on Kennedy Boulevard. Though it is not easy to spot, once you know it’s there, you become privy to the magic inside.
“We’re an unexpected theatre. It feels fun and funky when you walk through the door,” she said. “When you come to my little theatre on Kennedy, you are part of the production. You are right there with the actors on stage practically. I think that’s what our audiences like most about it.”
Five years into producing three to four new shows per season that focused on stories about women with women featured as writers, cast, director, and tech, Powers created Girlstories for further her mission of empowering women. She reached out to middle school girls in the formative years of ages 9-11 to provide a comprehensive theatre leadership program.
Over three weeks in the summer, ten to 20 girls learn theatre, singing, choreography, story-telling, and leadership. The girls discover how to tell their personal stories to identify who they are, bonding with other girls in the troupe. At the close of the third week, they present their true story or one about a woman in history.
In addition to founding the Tampa Girlstories Leadership, Powers partnered with Redlands Christian Migrant Association to provide this life-changing experience to migrant girls in Wimauma.
“Adding the girls to Powerstories came naturally. When I started the women’s program, foundations asked if I could do this for girls,” she explained. “Girlstories is probably the sweetest, strongest, and most impactful thing that Powerstories does because we are working with the next generation. We are working with young girls that are getting huge doses of inspiration, leadership, hearing ‘you’re worthy,’ ‘you’re talented,’ and ‘you’re beautiful.’ When you feel validated by somebody other than your family, all of a sudden of things that mom and dad have been saying is suddenly true. We get to validate the girls and send them on their way.”
Upon graduation to ninth-grade, five girls are invited back to mentor the next generation. High school and college students have been so positively impacted by their time in Girlstories Leadership Theatre, they continually return to mentor to be part of the experience again.
In this intimate theatre adorned with original artwork, show posters, and messages of positivity, you immediately feel a sense of warmth and welcome radiating from both the staff and the venue. The positive energy is perceptible. Your eye is immediately drawn to the framed photo in the center of the green wall of Powers shaking the hand of First Lady Michelle Obama.
The Federal Government has a program called the National Humanities Youth Program Awards, and a board member encouraged Powers to apply.
After years of being turned down, in 2010, five years into creating the Girlstories Leadership program, Powers received an incredulous phone call from her husband.
“You’ve got a FedEx package… from the White House. Do you want me to open it?” When she agreed, he opened the box and said, “It’s an envelope. Do you want me to open it?” She said yes. “It’s a letter. Do you want me to read it?”
Powers vacillated between wanting to be there and being impatient to know what it said, finally telling her husband to read the contents.
“From the moment he read, ‘congratulations, you’ve won the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award, it was a major turning point,” she said. “It was our validation.”
In 2010, Powers, along with only 9 other organizations nationwide, attended a week-long leadership meeting.
Though Powers was wide-eyed at the level of talent and experience of executives at the meeting, they were telling her, “you are the future.”
At the close of the event, she was presented with the prestigious award by Michelle Obama at the White House.
Now in 2020, her 20th anniversary, Powers is delving into her inaugural musical, the first one not written by a local playwright or herself called “Working.”
“It’s something the audience has asked for. It’s something that fits our mission, new and creative, so it’s not all the same, all the time. I want them to hear an unexpected story in an unexpected place. It’s true stories of working people – the waitress, the fireman, the millworker, the mason – unconventional, blue-collar workers who have a dream but have to put three jobs together to make it happen.”
Powers looking for corporations interested in synergistic sponsorships and partnerships for talkbacks after the productions.
She is also bringing on a couple of new employees to help better engage with the community and get the word out about the little theatre on Kennedy Boulevard sandwiched between a piano studio and an interior decorator.
Shevolution, her special event, now in its third year, will
showcase original works during May 2020.
Powers is excited to use her venue as an experimental lab to bring original women-centric stories to the public. Shevolution is the opportunity for a creative artist to test the waters, workshop a new innovative idea, and get feedback from the audience.
“Offering a space for women to safely explore their creative voices in front of an audience is at the core of our mission,” said Powers. “I am giving the theatre to women who want to experiment in the arts in whatever form they desire. I wanted to create a safe space for women to experiment with their artistic voices at no cost to them.”
If a male playwright wants to participate in this special event, he must submit a female-centered story to put on stage.
When asked what she wanted her legacy to be, Powers thought for a moment then said,
“I want to be someone who valued happiness, worked hard to empower others to be happy. Theatre lends itself to empowerment, creativity, teamwork, and synergy. It’s a little microcosm of the family, the city, the state, the world. Let’s just play here locally and try to make something happen that will create a positive ripple effect in people’s lives going forward.”
If any corporation with a connection to the message of the show being produced is interested in partnering with the theatre, email Fran@powerstories.com. To learn more about auditions, to purchase tickets to Working, find out about upcoming shows or Shevolution, Girlstories Leadership Theatre, or ways to volunteer, or donate to the theatre, visit www.powerstories.com.