The Spotify playlist on the car radio ironically played Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi: “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Not twenty minutes before, on Thursday, September 22, 2022, Fran Powers, a staff member, and supporters spoke on behalf of Powerstories Theatre and its twenty-year history on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa. They passionately plead with City Council not to turn a theatre nationally recognized for giving voice to women and girls into a mammoth eight-story high-rise apartment complex.
Despite contacting and being interviewed on every network, when the last vote was called, a St. Louis developer won the necessary votes to rezone, rebuild, and erase the small businesses thriving in the complex.
And now the work has begun.
The 23rd season has already been announced, and very fittingly, it features Strong Women in science, sports, and literature. If you knew anything about Fran Powers or Powerstories, you would realize she surrounds herself with Strong Women who have always filled the theatre, whether on stage, behind the scenes, as volunteers, or as staff.
She is on a quest for a new larger space to create a theatre that will grow with them as they turn the page in this new, utterly unexpected chapter in their story.
Powers is, by no means, giving up. That is not in her nature.
Powers graduated from Fontbonne University and applied her theatre degree to create a drama program at a local high school in St. Louis. After five years, she ventured into the business and nonprofit sector, but she still wasn’t satisfied. Powers knew she hadn’t found the career she was supposed to be doing. She took an arduous bike trip in 1998 from Seattle to Washington 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 an intimate, professional theatre that focused on empowering women to tell their true stories.
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 2002, Powers brought her dream to what she thought was its permanent home on Kennedy Boulevard.
Only five years into producing a season of shows that focused on stories about women with women featured as writers, cast, directors, and tech, Powers created Girlstories to 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, storytelling, and leadership. The girls regularly hear they are worthy, talented, smart, and beautiful. They discover how to tell their personal stories to identify who they are, bonding with other girls in the troupe.
In this small professional nonprofit theatre adorned with original artwork from local artists, 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. The theatre doesn’t boast thousands of seats but offers an intimate experience, close to the actors on stage, limited to 50 audience members. A first-time patron once described the theatre as “walking into a hug.”
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. In 2010, five years into creating the Girlstories Leadership program, Powers won a prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award, presented at the White House by Michelle Obama. Just three short years later, Powers’s dedication to the theatre community was recognized again. She was honored with the Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero Award and given a $50,000 donation for Powerstories.
For decades, Powerstories has been recognized as the small professional theatre on Kennedy Boulevard that showcases women-centric true stories to sold-out houses. The pandemic hit in 2020, during what was supposed to be a huge 20th anniversary celebration year. After the final bow of its first musical, Working, the entire theatre world went dark. Immediately, Powers and her team brainstormed ideas to be able to reach their patrons during a time of social isolation. PositivelyPowerstories.com was born as a real-time virtual time capsule of life during the pandemic and beyond. The theatre produces episodes of stories, videos, and artwork from participants around the globe.
When Powers realized 2021 would not be safer, she invested in high-end camera equipment to turn Powerstories into a hybrid live and live-stream theatre. Continuing with the global reach of PositivelyPowerstories, she and her team created an opportunity to bring theatre to patrons in their homes. In 2021, three worldwide virtual theatre festivals debuted: The Voices of Truth, The Voices of Youth, and The Voices of Women, to showcase experienced and emerging playwrights of all ages.
Since their inception, over seventy men, women, children, playwrights, directors, and hundreds of actors have been given a virtual and live platform to tell their stories.
The success of the festivals continued into 2022 with the return to live theatre after a nearly twenty-four-month intermission with Real Women Have Curves, the Florida debut of Conspiracy of Silence: The Magdalene Laundries, The Voices of Truth and Voices of Women Theatre Festivals, Steel Magnolias, and the upcoming Raising Twelve on a Nickel and a Prayer, an original musical by Powers and by Terez “Firewoman” Hartmann.
Despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, when other small theatres permanently closed their doors, Powers’ faith never wavered.
And now, having survived the trauma of the pandemic, prepping for an exciting 23rd season in 2023 that includes the debut of an original production from the Voices of Women Theatre Festival: In McClintock’s Corn, Girls in the Boat, the third annual Voices of Women Theatre Festival, The Alabama Story, summer’s Girlstories Leadership Theatre, the return of Seek and Speak Your Story workshops, Open Mic, and the holiday classic Raising Twelve, Powers had the rug ripped from beneath her feet.
But like the Strong Women theme of 2023, Fran’s conviction is strong. She will never let the theatre’s positive impact on the community or their history be erased.
She is asking the community for help, suggestions, and insight. Despite the long road ahead, she is confident they can succeed with “a little help from their friends.” With the support of the vibrant theatre community that she’s been part of for twenty-two years, she knows that the theatre can continue on better than before.
Today more than ever, her calling remains to empower women and give them a platform and a voice. As the theatre’s lease is up in June, she is hoping to stay in the theatre until that time. But the future is uncertain. Now she just needs a building to house this extraordinary theatre that has touched the lives of many.