The powerhouses of Power Street Theater

Over the last ten years I have had the pleasure of watching Power Street Theater continue to grow and evolve into much more than just a theater company. They are a collective of people changing the game of what theater has been for so long and proving that it can and should be so much more. Quiara Alegría Hudes, playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner, put it best when she said: “Power Street is building a new table. A Philly – and this nation – needs it badly.”

Power Street Theater has consistently made theater accessible, taking it to neighborhoods and communities where it didn’t exist before, while remaining true to its mission to “connect multicultural and intergenerational communities through the performing arts, by bringing original… Stories are told that are innovative and inspiring” (Power concept of street theatre). They have written, directed and starred in groundbreaking plays like MinorityLand and Morir Sonyado, which explore themes of gentrification and domestic violence. Among her many impressive accolades, Gabi was an honoree for AL DÍA 40 Under Forty and Erlina won the 2022 American Theater Critics Association Award for Young Money, produced by Azuka Theatre.

Erlina Ortiz and Gabriela Sanchez
Erlina Ortiz and Gabriela Sanchez by Morir Sonyando (unknown photographer)

What sets Power Street apart is that they consistently go above and beyond to provide valuable resources to the communities they serve. In the past they have provided free buses to and from certain locations for their performances and offered free childcare during performances. They currently offer Comunidades Conectadas, a virtual wellness workshop and story circle, Power Talks on Instagram with local multicultural artists, and free adult bilingual theater classes, hosted at West Kensington Ministry with their Land and Body (o Tierra y Cuerpo) series.

On the cusp of their tenth anniversary this October, I was able to sit down and chat with Erlina Ortiz and Gabriela Sanchez, Co-Artistic Directors of Power Street Theatre.

It’s not always possible to witness the development of a theater company, but I’ve been attending your events and seeing your plays for the past nine years. What I love about you is that your values ​​are so clear in every achievement and service you offer. You can see how much everyone contributes and how much you give of yourself for the good of the community.

Erline: It’s really cool to hear that perspective because this year we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary and are thinking about how we want to celebrate and what we want to highlight. I feel like it’s something like this…the persistence of our values…even though we’ve updated and changed our values ​​literally every two years. We dig deeper and deeper and ask, “What do we mean by that? What else is important to us now as we grow?” We learn what we need.

What can we look forward to with you?

Erline: The big thing is the tenth anniversary celebration. It will be in October. We obviously don’t have too many of the pieces in place yet. But the goal is for it to take place in October and for it to be a fun hoopla and something edgy to support and celebrate Power Street. We have the ongoing Social Media Power Talks and Spotlights. All these amazing artists are sharing their talents with us, I really feel like this is an untapped gem. There will be such a good archive there showcasing so many amazing artists and someone will discover it and go down a rabbit hole. I really hope people keep checking this because that’s one of the cool things about social media, it mostly doesn’t go away.

Barbershop Poetry is an idea presented by Jose Alicia, Director of Marketing & Social Media and it will be a multimedia storytelling event by barbershops. Since we were mostly women in our work and very focused on women, this will be a bit of a male perspective and go into areas that we don’t go into, which is barber shops. And we just had our Comunidades Conectadas story circle on June 22nd. It was a conversation with Rosalind Pichardo about anti-violence and the epidemic of violence in the city and the world.

After all this time I don’t think I remember how the name “Power Street” came about.

Gaby: Power Street actually manifested itself with a very different group of artists in Philly who had gone to different places. The reality was that the original people who created the name never did the fundraiser or personal stuff. That was really my initiative back then, and that was before Erlina really dived in. I think she dove because she saw me drowning.

Erline: I think initially we were the Power Street Theater Company and when we first took over the Power Street Theater we said, ‘Okay, Gabi and Erlina are Co-Artistic Directors of the Power Street Theater. Before that I had joined the Power Street Theater Company. Now it was as if Power Street Theater was a thing we’d embraced together. And then there was also the word “power” and a desire to further explore what it meant for us as women of color to create art in an underserved city. The retention of the name also pays tribute to the people who came before. Even if they couldn’t go on, they were still part of that seed, that idea that got us where we are today.

Gabi: I think the seedling, at least for me, was after MinorityLand. Wow, we did this together. We sold out this house with a packed multicultural crowd. We made something out of nothing with heart and mind!

Erline: That triumph gave us confidence that we’re saying, “Okay, we can actually do this.”

Gabi: And also that we trusted each other to do it. I think that trust and camaraderie led to the sisterhood. Erlina is like a life partner of mine. I couldn’t imagine my life without her because our dreams are so closely connected and yet we are so different. I think sometimes people can’t take care of us because we’re two Latinas, each occupying space in our bodies, languages ​​and stories in different ways. We showed people that co-leadership is possible, especially as women. Together we can create art and social change that leave a legacy of caring, understanding and creativity in the world.

Erline: That was our first baby!

minority country
Production of MinorityLand 2019 (Image credit: Louis Kang)

Speaking of babies, Gabi recently had a baby girl! As Co-Artistic Directors, what are you doing to prepare for changes like these to come?

Erline: Before Gabi went on maternity leave, we talked a lot about how to transfer. It was a strange time for me because I was so used to bouncing things off Gabi. For example, I never make a final call on anything until I’ve gotten back to her. Suddenly saying, “I can’t get in touch with her because she’s on maternity leave” was such a change in me. I was like, ‘This is such a weird thing, I’ll make the call, we’ll do X! It’s just going to happen and I’m not going to call Gabi three times to make sure we’re all on the same page. I just have to get going!”

Gaby: It was great that Erlina took the lead. Being a new mom hasn’t allowed me to be as productive as I used to be, and I don’t have a desire to do things the way I used to right away. I’m now entering a different phase of life that requires me to set boundaries within the organization as well, and I continue to encourage other employees to do the same. We’ve learned that less is more and if we really want to preach wellness, we need to create spaces where we can feel good. Being able to have the agency to prioritize wellness and boundaries as a leader in the arts feels powerful.

Certainly over the past decade your work and programs have helped fill a gap that has existed for so long, and I look forward to seeing what you have in store.

Erline: What I’m looking forward to is that we’ll continue to get the chance to be artists too. I think Power Street was originally formed because we were artists with no safe place to be artists. I really hope we can continue to tap into that artistic side of ourselves and continue to build and expand the community we’ve built. Both the artistic community and the amazing people we’ve worked with, but also the community in Philadelphia and beyond.

We have always had “and beyond” in our mission statement. I really hope we continue to analyze and understand our own leadership model so we can find a way to help others copy it or figure out how to build your own Power Street in your city. Just as we see churches as cornerstones of communities, I really wish theaters and community centers that make artistic work could be seen in the same way. It would be really nice if it was normal for Gabi’s daughter to have a theater down the road and not so much the ‘is it professional? Or is it community?” It’s just a society where neighborhoods can come together and experience art together and talk about what it means, and in that way build empathy and connection. So that’s the big overall goal. For example, if I’m a little old lady on my deathbed, it would be nice to know that the seed of the Power Street idea has given rise to other seedlings beyond.

Gabi: Erlina, that was so nice. I’m just like snap snap snap! I think aww I’ll be the Viejita right next to you.

Erline: That’s what I want me and Gabi to do in our rocking chairs when we’re 92 and say, “Oh, Power Street!”

Since my conversation with Gabi and Erlina, SILUETAS, a new musical by Erlina Ortiz and Robi Hager, has been selected as the Official Selection of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference in July 2022. Erlina also co-directed 72 Miles To Go at the InterAct Theater in June.

Power Street’s website is a wealth of resources and information about all of their amazing programs and productions, and you can donate to support their programs throughout the year. Be sure to follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Co Twitter Thanks to Jose Alicea, Director of Marketing & Social Media for being able to access all of her great content!

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