DEGREE: B.A. with honors in theater and dance; M.A. with distinction in Shakespeare,
Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom (Fulbright Scholarship); certifi cate in arts administration, New York University
JOB TITLE: Freelance stage director; since mid-2009 facilitator, teacher and director
with Rehabilitation Through The Arts at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York
FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: One afternoon during the week immediately before
graduation, I sat in Professor Josh Karter’s office, talking with Josh and Professor Arthur Feinsod about what awaited me in the outside world. I became aware, as we talked, that we had just shifted from mentors and student to colleagues. Seamlessly. Given the high regard in which I hold both of those men, that was thrilling.
REPORTER: When did you become interested in theater?
POWERS: When I was very young. I grew up in a noisy Irish family. While neither my parents nor grandparents were involved in theater, they were all great storytellers. My grandmother played piano in a silent movie house in Urbana, Ohio, about 50 miles west of Columbus. My grandfather was a reporter who later taught journalism. He often went to the movie house, and that’s where he met my grandmother. I saw my first play with my mom, when I was about six. It was Mary Melwood’s The Tingalary Bird, which is a classic absurdist play for young people. It’s a mystery, and it has many striking special effects, such as thunder and lightning on stage. I remember that after the play was over and we were headed home in the car, I said, “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.”
REPORTER: Did you ever contemplate being an actor, or were you always focused on directing?
POWERS: I did some acting when I was in high school and college, but by the time I was a senior in high school, I knew that I wanted to direct. As an actor, you’re a little at the mercy of the director. While the actors have some room to interpret the individual characters, it is the director’s task to interpret the play. I wanted to be the one who decides what story we’re telling.
REPORTER: You transferred to Trinity midway through your undergraduate work. Why? What role did your Trinity education play in preparing you for your career?
POWERS: I started my undergraduate work at Carnegie Mellon as a directing major. It was one of the top schools for theater; it had a strong reputation, and the program was challenging. At the same time, I found it restricting. There were limitations on what I could study. An operating philosophy of the program seemed to be cruelty, to prepare aspirants for the often brutal realities of a life in the theater. There may be some value to that, but I knew that was not the kind of theater I wanted to make. Certainly a theatrical life can be difficult. There’s zero job security. The money is terrible. You’re often without health insurance. The decision to leave Carnegie Mellon was very difficult. Midway through my sophomore year, I decided to leave. At Trinity I found a program with an equally challenging curriculum but wider options to study other things. Certainly there was rigor and the expectation that students will work hard, but Trinity expected me to have a multidisciplinary minor, so I got to read and study all sorts of things. It was a different approach to preparation for a career in theater, and it has served me well.
REPORTER: On your Web site you describe yourself as making “smart, thoughtful, entertaining, socially aware theater.” Has it been consistently important for you that your productions not only entertain but also serve as agents for change?
POWERS: It has always interested me. One of the first plays I directed, in high school, was about a teenage love triangle that resulted in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. I want to challenge my audiences. I want them to think about complexity and ambiguity.
REPORTER: How did you become involved with the Rehabilitation Through The Arts program at Sing Sing?
POWERS: I had heard about the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky, and I was very interested in it. I got involved with Rehabilitation Through The Arts almost five years ago, and the first play I directed was Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts. I invited Michael McKean, who played the lead in Superior Donuts on Broadway, to come to Sing Sing. He came up on Good Friday in 2011 and spoke with the prisoners. It was a terrific experience for the men, and for Michael, too.
REPORTER: Part of being a good director is being an effective educator. But how much are the roles reversed? How much do you learn from the actors? Especially at Sing Sing?
POWERS: There are 50 men in the program, and they get a lot out of it. It’s not really about acting skills. It helps them develop leadership, communications skills, and conflict management skills. It boosts their self-confidence and respect for others. The program is a community and a safe space for self-expression. Participants develop their literacy skills. Many prisoners want to participate, but not everyone gets in. The men in the group decide whom to admit. The prisoners teach me things all the time. This year we produced Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. When we fi rst read it, many of the men thought this play about life in a small New England town had no meaning for them. But I asked them to read it again, observing all the mentions of birth, death, the stars, the eternal. Gradually they began to discover the universal truths in Wilder’s play and to understand the connections to their lives. They also discovered their own interpretations of the characters and unexpected insights. These men are acutely aware that they have been thrown away, and they’re grateful for the opportunity that Rehabilitation Through The Arts represents. I believe everyone who wants a second chance should get one. I wouldn’t want to be identified by the stupidest thing I ever did.