The Powerhouses of Power Street Theater

On the brink of their ten-year anniversary, I chat with the Co-Artistic Directors and founders of Power Street Theater, Erlina Ortiz and Gabriela Sanchez.

Power Street with current and past Resident Artists; L to R: Krystal Rosa, Erlina Ortiz, Rachel O’Hanlon Rodriguez, Diana Rodriguez, Gabriela Sanchez, and Asaki Kuruma (Photo Cred: Jen Cleary)

Over the past ten years, I have had the pleasure of seeing Power Street Theater continue to grow and blossom into much more than just a theater company. They are a collective of folks who are changing the game of what theater was for so long and proving that it can and should be so much more. Quiara Alegría Hudes, Playwright & Pulitzer Prize Winner, put it best when she said, “Power Street is building a new table. One Philly–and this nation–desperately needs.” 

Power Street Theater has consistently made theater accessible by bringing it to neighborhoods and communities where it did not exist before, always holding true to its mission of “connecting multicultural and intergenerational communities through the performing arts by sharing original stories that innovate and inspire” (Power Street Theater Mission Statement). They have written, directed, and acted in groundbreaking pieces like “MinorityLand” and “Morir Sonyado,” which explore issues like gentrification and domestic violence. Among their many impressive accolades, Gabi was an honoree for the AL DÍA 40 Under Forty and Erlina won the 2022 American Theater Critics Association Award for “Young Money” which was produced by Azuka Theater.

Erlina Ortiz and Gabriela Sanchez
Erlina Ortiz and Gabriela Sanchez from Morir Sonyando (Unknown photographer)

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

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

You don’t always get to witness the evolution of a theater company, but I’ve been going to your events and seeing your plays for nine years now. What I love about you is that your values are so clear in every performance and every service you offer. You can see how much everyone puts in and how much you give of yourselves for the greater good of the community. 

Erlina: It’s really cool to hear that perspective because we have our ten-year anniversary this year and we’re thinking about how we want to celebrate and what we want to bring to the forefront. I feel like it’s something like that…the consistency in our values…even though we literally have updated and changed our values every two years. We’re always digging deeper and asking “What do we mean by this? What else matters to us now as we’re growing?” We’re learning what we need.

What do you have coming up that we can look forward to?

Erlina: The big thing is the ten-year anniversary party. It’s going to be in October. We don’t have too many of the pieces in place yet obviously. But the goal is for it to be in October and for it to be a fun shindig and something fancy to come and support and celebrate Power Street. We have the ongoing social media Power Talks and spotlights. All of these amazing artists are sharing their talents with us, I really feel like it’s this untapped gem. There’s going to be such a good archive there showcasing so many amazing artists and someone’s going to discover it and go down a rabbit hole. I really hope that folks continue to check that out cause that’s one of the cool things about social media, it mostly doesn’t disappear.

Barbershop Poetry is an idea that was pitched by Jose Alicia, Director of Marketing & Social Media, and it’s going to be a multi-media storytelling event from Barbershops. Since we’ve been mostly women and very women-focused in our work, this will be a little bit of a male perspective and going into spaces that we don’t go into which are barbershops. 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 throughout the city and the world.

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

Gabi: Power Street actually manifested with a whole different group of artists in Philly that had gone on to different places. The reality was that the original people that created the name never ended up doing the fundraiser or in-person stuff. That was really my initiative at that time, and it was before Erlina really became immersed. I think she became immersed because she saw I was drowning.

Erlina: I think initially we were Power Street Theater Company, and then when we first adopted Power Street Theater, that’s when we were like “OK, Gabi and Erlina are Co-Artistic Directors of Power Street Theater. Before, Power Street Theater Company was a thing I had joined. Now it was like Power Street Theater was a thing that we adopted together. And then it was also that word “power” and wanting to continue to examine what that meant to us as Women of Color creating art in an under-resourced city. Keeping the name acknowledges the people that came before as well. Even if they weren’t able to continue, they were still part of that seed, that idea, that led us to where we are today.

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

Erlina: That triumph made us feel confident that like “OK, we can actually do this.”

Gabi: And also that we trusted each other to do it. I think that trust and camaraderie led to sisterhood. Erlina is like a life partner of mine. I couldn’t imagine my life without her because our dreams are so interconnected and yet we’re so different. I think people can’t wrap their heads around us sometimes cause it’s two Latinas, who both take up space in different ways in our bodies, languages, and histories. We’ve shown people that co-leadership is possible, especially as women. Together, we can create art and social change that leaves a legacy of care, understanding, and creativity in the world.

Erlina: That was our first baby!

Minority Land
2019 production of MinorityLand (Photo Cred: Louis Kang)

Speaking of babies, Gabi recently had a baby girl! As Co-Artistic Directors, what do you do to prepare for foreseeable changes like this?

Erlina: We did a lot of talking ahead of time before Gabi went on maternity leave about how to transfer over. For me, it was a strange time because, for me, I was so used to bouncing things off of Gabi. Like, I never make a final call on something until I’ve checked in with her. Now to suddenly be like “I’m not going to be able to check in with her because she’s on maternity leave” was such a shift in me. I was like “This is such a weird thing, like, I’m making the call, we’re gonna do X! It’s just gonna happen and I’m not gonna call Gabi three times to make sure we’re all on the same page about it. Just gotta go for it!”

Gabi: Having Erlina take the lead has been amazing. Being a new Mom has not allowed me to be as productive as I once was, and I don’t have the desire to immediately do things the way I used to. I’m now stepping into another part of my life that requires me to set boundaries even within the company, and I am always encouraging other staff members to do the same. We’ve learned that less is more and if we really want to preach wellness, we have to create spaces where we can be well. Being able to have the agency to prioritize wellness and boundaries as a leader in the arts feels powerful.

Over the past ten years, your works and programs have certainly helped fill a void that existed for so long, and I’m excited to see what you have in store. 

Erlina: What I look forward to is us continuing to get a chance to be artists as well. I think Power Street was initially founded because we were artists without a place to be artists safely. I really hope that we can continue to tap into that artist side of ourselves and continue to build the community that we’ve built and expand upon it. Both the artistic community and the amazing folks we’ve worked with, but also the community in Philly and beyond.

We’ve always had “and beyond” in our mission statement. I really hope that we continue to analyze and understand our own model of leadership so we can figure out a way to help others copy it or figure out how you make your own Power Street in your town. The same way we see churches as cornerstones of communities, I really wish that theaters and community centers that do artistic works could be seen in that way as well. It would be really beautiful for it to be normal for Gabi’s daughter that there’s a theater down the street and there’s not so much the delineation of “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 build empathy and connection that way. So that’s the big, overall goal. Like, if I’m a little old lady on my deathbed it would be nice to know that the seedling of the idea of Power Street led to other seedlings beyond.

Gabi: Erlina, that was so beautiful. I’m just like, snap snap snap! I’m like, aww, I’m going to be the viejita right next to you.

Erlina: That’s what I want, me and Gabi rocking in our rocking chairs when we’re 92 being like “Oh, Power Street!”

Since my conversation with Gabi and Erlina, SILUETAS, a new musical by Erlina Ortiz and Robi Hager was chosen as an 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 InterAct Theater in June.

You can find an abundance of resources and information on all of their amazing programs and productions on Power Street’s website, and you can donate to support their programming year-round. Be sure to follow them on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter to access all of their great content thanks to Jose Alicea, Director of Marketing & Social Media!

    • Aubrie Williams is a writer/comedian who has been performing sketch and improv comedy in Philly and comedy festivals across the U.S. for over a decade. She was a member of […]

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