Cotton-candy-colored wigs were draped across the backs of kitchen chairs. Rehearsal necessities like soda and pizza covered the countertop. My Little Pony dolls lay scattered around the adjoining den.
Arlene Jacobs stood behind a coffee table, pink binder in hand. She watched the action unfold in her den on the other side of the couch. She called out blocking, stage directions and occasionally lines to help prompt the practicing actors.
Nearly every Sunday for the past few months, a group of about 20 My Little Pony enthusiasts, including her daughter Jessica, 17, have converged on Jacobs' Valrico home to rehearse for the stage show of the Grand Galloping Brony Gala, a one-day celebration set for Saturday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Riverview.
The convention begins at 9 a.m. with brony-related panels covering everything from stage makeup and costume design, to My Little Pony yoga and voice acting. The formal gala begins at 7 p.m. and includes the stage show.
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Bronies are the teen and adult fans of the animated show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a new take on the My Little Pony cartoons that started in the '80s. The "bro" and "pony" combo was coined to refer to the male fans of the show, but women often claim the "brony" title too, and it has become a catchall for any fan.
The adoration for the animated show may draw jokes and derision from some, but it's a serious pursuit laced with strong friendship bonds and admiration for the show's story lines.
Many of the fans at Jacobs' living room rehearsal met last year at the annual anime convention Metrocon in Tampa. Some knew one another from other conventions, and some had interacted through online brony groups. They talked about putting on their own brony convention in Tampa Bay.
Jessica Jacobs had the idea of turning the convention into a fundraiser for All Children's Hospital in Brandon and the Children's Miracle Network after her friend Brooke Pasch, 19, died last May after battling a chronic illness. She had attended Blake High School, where Jessica will be a senior in the fall, and had been a patient at All Children's.
"It's pretty amazing that everything's come together," Jessica said. "Every day we're getting more tickets sold. It just started from nothing and now we're here."
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My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic premiered in 2010 on the Hub Network. The show follows the adventures of Twilight Sparkle and her friends in Equestria.
With the show came the fan-grown conventions, such as BUCKcon in England, TrotCon in Ohio and BronyCon in New York. The first BronyCon in 2011 had 100 attendees. The summer 2012 event drew 4,000 attendees and 110 artists showcasing brony-related work, according to the BronyCon website.
Jacobs has been working on organizing the Riverview convention for about a year with Yadzia Roa, 23, of West Palm Beach, who became friends with Jessica after Metrocon last year. Volunteers have helped find vendors and artists, create and schedule panels, put on the stage show and coordinate the evening gala.
Bryan Rosander drives back and forth for rehearsals from his home in Orlando. The 30-year-old software engineer and Web developer is the gala's panel coordinator and is also in the stage show. He has helped carpool other cast members from Orlando to rehearsals.
"Sometimes I think, 'This is a lot of time and money I'm putting into this. Is this worth it?' " he said. "But when I'm with Arlene and the group, I think, 'I'm a fool for even thinking it.' "
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Rosander, like some of the other convention volunteers, was drawn in to My Little Pony by the production quality, characters and storytelling of a show that many assume is just for little girls. He said the show's mix of drama and comedy is similar to the Web comics he reads.
"Working those two together is really brilliant and allows you to do a lot on your own that you can't do with just drama and you can't do with just comedy," he said.
Joshua Villarreal, 24, of Winter Park was drawn in by the storytelling and the moral lessons weaved into the show that he says make it more complex than the average cartoon. His favorite character is the intellectual Twilight Sparkle.
"She's pretty much a bookworm," said Villarreal, who is the convention's vendor coordinator. "I can kind of relate became I'm programming a lot. I like to further my studies and learn new things."
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Friendship is the main theme of the show, Jacobs said, and the friendships the cast and volunteers have cultivated have become a main theme for their lives, too.
Before the gala, the introverted Fluttershy served as Jessica's favorite character. But after being cast as the outgoing Pinkie Pie in the stage show, she has grown close with her fellow castmates and volunteers over months of rehearsals.
"Now that I've hung out more with bronies, I feel more like Pinkie Pie," she said.
Finding fellow bronies has brought stronger friendships into Kimmi Eisner's life, too.
"Some of my friends, I met through the fandom," said Eisner, 22, of Valrico. "Life used to be, not like depressing, but not as happy."
She has become close to the other brony volunteers and is the convention's assistant panel coordinator.
"The friends you meet through different fandoms, whether it be My Little Pony or Star Wars or anything, you have something to connect on," she said.
At the rehearsal, the cast laughed and joked with one another between scenes. A few had to leave early, but they couldn't leave without a hug.
"This fandom has brought them into a community where they aren't outcasts," Jacobs said. "They couldn't do that in high school, they couldn't do that in public. They're a family. They support each other."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2453.