Tampa's Powerstories Theatre Moves To National Stage

Wyoming took Fran Powers by surprise.

Amid a grand vista of mountains and a field of white flowers while bicycling across America, she found the path toward her future, and a story to share back home in Tampa. Her singular story has turned into thousands of life-changing stories told by women and young girls through theater performances and workshops at the nonprofit Powerstories Theatre.

In 2014 Powers is taking her theater of life experiences to a national audience with a series of shows that will be performed in cities across the country. It turns out the art of storytelling can take a powerful hold on a woman's life.

"I just believe in taking the next step," she says.

Her journey began more than 15 years ago when Powers signed up for a 3,300-mile bicycle trek from Seattle to Washington, D.C. She took The Big Ride Across America to benefit the American Lung Association. For Powers, it became a personal journey away from the corporate world and back to her teaching roots in the theater world.

"I literally stopped my bike," says Powers who was on a Wyoming highway straggling behind other riders. The song, "Little Drummer Boy", with its refrain 'I have no gifts to bring' ran through her mind.

"There's so many people who feel that way," she says. "I knew then I wanted to start a theater program."

A Dream Becomes Reality

Back home in Tampa she founded Powerstories Theatre, Inc. to empower girls and women to become the storytellers of their lives. Workshops help them find the stories and discover how to communicate their emotional meanings during a live theater performance. It builds self-confidence, fosters dreams and shapes relationships.

"I wanted young girls to feel great about who they are, and women too," says Powers. "They are getting clarity about some things. It feels good not to be alone. It says I'm not so isolated. It breaks down barriers. It increases feelings of diversity."

Today the theater is located in a storefront at 2105 W. Kennedy Blvd. Board members, donors and volunteers have converted a small former retail shop into a cozy theater complete with stage, full lighting and curtains, and seating for about 35.

For the next national phase of Powerstories, Powers is searching for 20 to 25 stories that a professional troupe of about three actors can perform on themes such as body image, mother/daughter relationships and finances. The overall theme for the shows is "What Advice Would I Give to My Younger Self...From My Older Self?"

The first show will be "Always Know Where Your Lunch Money Is!," a look at women and financial independence. Anyone wanting their stories to be considered for inclusion in the initial national show should submit them to Powerstories by March 15, either written in 500 words or less or in a 5-minute taped recording.

"It will be very fast-paced," Powers says. "The actors will need to change body, change voice and personality. They will be telling a lot of different stories. Anything is possible. You've got to make (an audience) laugh. You've got to make them cry, even make them uncomfortable for awhile."

Each show also will have a guest artist, a woman telling her own story. There may be one-woman shows or possibly men performing stories written by women.

Corporate sponsorships and grants are being sought. Powers estimates it will cost about $100,000 to mount the first two shows.

Powers also is close to hiring an artistic director who will create a season of shows for Tampa audiences of Powerstories.

Empowerment From Storytelling

Women's Inspirational Theatre got things started in 1998 months after Powers cross-country bike ride. She held an open house in rented space at an old cigar factory on Armenia Avenue. About eight women, ages 30 to 72, showed up. Their stories were pulled together into a play.

"They just had to totally trust me that it would be good," Powers says.

The first public performance for Powerstories Theatre was in 2000 at the Friday Morning Musicale. Since then shows have been seen by sold out crowds at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. In 2010 Powers and young girls with Girlstories Theatre Project went to the White House to receive a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama.

Powerstories has helped more than 10,000 individuals and about 60 organizations. GirlStories recruits middle-school girls who tell their true stories before elementary-school students. They can be funny, touching and at times raw as when a young girl tells how she coped with her mother's breast cancer.

Lisa Ferrer came to Powerstories initially to help her now 14-year-old daughter, Sarah Ferrer, build her self-confidence. But mother and daughter both have found a purpose in storytelling. And Ferrer now is Powerstories' director of development.

"Now it's not just telling a story," Lisa Ferrer says. "It's giving a gift. It has deeper meaning."

Open Mic Nights

On a recent Open Mic/Story Night eight women proved how powerful storytelling can be. They stepped into the spotlight to bring to life memories of vulnerability, youthful mishaps, life-changing decisions and unexpected love.

Rae Mercurie remembered her mother in the 1970s dressing in the latest Halston design, getting ready for a night at the celebrity-packed Studio 54 nightclub in New York. She had "mushroom hair falling off her shoulders and little gold belts. I was impressed about how beautiful she was. It just filled my soul," says 33-year-old Mercurie.

But 10 years later Mercurie saw the ugly side of her mother's partying, including drug use and abuse. She vowed to be the complete opposite of her mother, to be an honor roll student and someone with a focus on her future as a writer, singer and songwriter.

"It was very therapeutic," she says of telling her story. "It actually inspired me to bring my feelings out. I'm very much an introvert. I feel I have a lot more stories to tell."

Juliann Nichols, 50, is another who came to check out Powerstories and stayed as a volunteer. Her eclectic career choices include disc jockey and private detective. She moved from Kansas to Tampa and is now co-owner of marketing company, Marketologie. Nichols is heading up the nonprofit's annual fund-raiser, The Gift of Story Gala. It will be held at 7 p.m. March 22 at the Tampa Garden Club.

"It's a place I can relate to," says Nichols. "This really spoke to me in a lot of ways. You can realize your dreams."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.