Things have changed for Lisa Powers. The actor, director and theater administrator remembers when she used to run from job to job, always worried about the next paycheck. But between 1997, when she lost her position as artistic director of American Stage and headed off to New York, and 2008, when she returned to the Tampa Bay area, she learned that there were other uses for her talents — and that she could afford to say “no” to projects she didn’t believe in. Now she’s much in demand, directing Sara Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play for freeFall Theatre (opens May 3), acting brilliantly in Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride at American Stage (closes May 6), and still refining her aesthetic as she considers offers for other jobs. We’re lucky to have her back.
Powers, 49, left Florida for New York in 1997, soon after disagreements with the American Stage board led to her dismissal as artistic director. She says that she was “hurt” by the events in those days: “It definitely set off a tone in me of disillusionment with how hard working in the theater is, and how sometimes there’s a lot of people who don’t understand that.”
Once she moved north, she found acting work with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, but says she “wasn’t having the same fulfillment just from theater… It wasn’t resonating as much with me.” She looked around at other uses for her talent — and for a career with some promise of stability — and came up with “drama therapy.” New York University offered a masters degree in the subject, and Powers enrolled, receiving her diploma in 2001. For the next six years or so, she worked as an “LCAT” — a Licensed Creative Art Therapist. “I worked in a hospital, and I helped to develop and grow an outpatient child psychiatry center in the Bronx, and it was really amazing,” Powers says. As for her stage days, “I thought I was kind of done, do you know what I mean? I’d sort of made this transition.”
But after 11 years in New York, Powers decided it was time to be nearer her family in Florida, and she and her husband-to-be moved back to the Bay area. She soon learned that there were no jobs for drama therapists available, but she didn’t let this stop her: she taught an introduction to the subject at USF and started, with a partner, an ongoing program called the ACT Project at Stageworks, “which is drama therapy with teens and children who have autism.”
But even as she was making great strides with these teens and children, word of her return was making its way to area theaters. At USF, she was asked to act in Women Beware Women, and then to direct The Waiting Room and David Auburn’s Proof. Then Anna Brennen of Stageworks — Powers’ first theater employer back in the 1980s — asked Powers to direct the production this past February of Marsha Norman’s ‘Night, Mother. The result was a stunning performance by Karla Hartley and Monica Merryman, and an unmistakable sign that Powers was still a formidable artist. The gigs at American Stage and freeFall followed — and the only question now is, who’ll ask for her talents next.
How does she compare Bay area theater at present with the 1980s when she was starting out? “It’s hard to say because you know… I was in my twenties, and everything seemed to blow your mind. Now I’m old and I’m jaded,” she laughs. But there has been a change, she says: local theaters, she’s noticed, “have lost a lot of financial resources, but are still under the pressure to keep things at the same standard, and just as professional. And I don’t know how they do that.” Still, she thinks the local scene is, paradoxically, thriving, and she’s particularly pleased with the work at Bob Devin Jones’ Studio@620. “What Bob Devin Jones has done for this community is probably one of the greatest contributions I’ve seen since I left.”
So spread the news: Lisa Powers has rediscovered her love of theater. “Being on stage is probably the closest to any sort of spiritual experience I will ever have — when it’s the right thing,” she says. Let’s hope that there are lots of “right things” for her out there, both as actor and director. And this time let’s make sure she has reason to stay.