The power nature has on our mind and overall well-being is extraordinary. Living in large cities, nature is hard to come by - and often, we'll just have to settle with a small, curated green patch to get our much-needed fix of 'fresh-er' air and space. Though, we're probably forced to share it some well-meaning tourists. Actor Isaac Powell revels in the hustle and bustle and excitement of New York City, getting to do what he loves, and does best, every day - namely, performing - but, sometimes, he finds himself longing for those simpler, quieter times of his childhood home in North Carolina, where untainted nature existed in abundance upon his doorstep. The solitude and silence and perspective nature provides are precious commodities in the manic design of today's society, and that is something Isaac really subscribes to.
From his family's house in the middle of the woods - which sounds amazingly tranquil - Isaac could barely begin to fathom where his love of performing might eventually take him. As it was to be, his talents brought him out of the woods, across state lines, and all the way to the concrete jungle where he was to become a smash hit. Enjoying a whirlwind second round on Broadway, Isaac is playing the coveted role of Tony in the beloved Broadway classic West Side Story. For this revival, the 1950s story inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet was revamped and adapted by director Ivo van Hove and choregrapher Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to fit a 21st-century audience. By incorporating modern technology and a cast that reflects 2020 youth, audiences are in for a surprise as they are presented with a unique take on a familiar forbidden love story.
On a Monday morning, Isaac danced with Nicole Fara Silver's camera. Her attentive lens established an immediate connection with him, catching an organic display of movements and moods. Stylist Jamie Ortega went along with the blues and supplied the shoes, making sure to dress him like the 2020s Broadway star that he is. The following morning in New York and afternoon in London, I linked with the actor from across the pond as we escaped into nature, wandered across Times Square and discussed "crippling" labels and the importance of mental health, all in one phone call.
I'm just going to get right in there with the serious questions, who is Isaac?
I would describe myself as a human being, a work in progress, an art maker, a creative, a traveller. I think I would describe myself as a work in progress; I'm constantly evolving and shifting. I'm somebody that's constantly changing and morphing and whether that's in my art or in my personal life. I don't necessarily know who I am. I don't know if I could wrap that up into a sentence or put that into words. Because that, I think, is always subject to change moment to moment even.
It's sometimes hard to sort of describe oneself, it may be easier to describe other people, you know what I mean?
Yeah, it's hard. I mean, like, who we are intrinsically is different than like the story that we tell about ourselves. When someone asks you who you are, it's so easy to sort of go into the story of yourself and the label that you attach to your person. But I think who I am is something that's intrinsic and unchanging and not bound to any sort of label. It's something that's indescribable: a soul or an essence or a consciousness that transcends any sort of language that you can use to describe it.
I'd like to ask you, what makes you happy?
Many different things make me happy. I think being creatively fulfilled makes me happy. And again, happiness is not necessarily a constant state as much as it is like a moment. When I have things that I can be grateful for... I think I'm happy when I'm able to find gratitude, and right now I'm finding gratitude for being employed, for being in love, for being healthy. I guess you could say that all of those things make me happy. Travel and nature and family and security and also freedom.
So, living in New York City. How do you connect with nature?
Yeah, it is a little difficult. I try to get out as much as I possibly can. But when I can't, there are certain little pockets in the city that I find, where I can enjoy nature. The Botanical Gardens up in the Bronx is absolutely beautiful and it's a place I can always go to escape and find some very well-curated nature. But it's a great little escape. There are some little pockets of Central Park that you can escape to that aren't completely crowded. I think my favourite thing about nature is that it's a chance for perspective. It's a chance for me to feel small, to almost get lost in something that's greater than me. It's sort of an escape I would say, not even so much just like the green and the leaves and the trees as much as it's just a chance for solitude. I think that's my favourite thing about being in nature and that's what's hard to come by in New York City. You can observe beautiful flowers and plants, and that does give me a sense of satisfaction, but what I do miss is the solitude of being able to walk through nature alone, unbothered in an unspoiled location, somewhere that hasn't been crafted and curated and landscaped. That's what I miss of it. Being from North Carolina, I grew up very much in nature. Our house was out in the woods and I would spend a lot of time just out there by myself. I learned the most about myself out in the woods.
That sounds really idyllic. Do you get to go back often to North Carolina? Is your family still living there?
They are. I don't get down there as much as I'd like to as I'm usually quite busy with work, thankfully. Though, I get very homesick; I miss my home a lot. My family comes to visit, but, you know, it's not necessarily the same. Of course, I miss my family and I want to see them, but North Carolina is my home and there's something a lot quieter about life there that I sort of miss. That's what makes me want to go home, but I don't always get to. I've been home a few times since I moved here, but not as much as I would like.
Yeah, I can imagine, but yes, with your occupation, New York is kind of the place to be.
It's a great place to be. I mean, it's the best place to be for what I do and I love it for that reason, but I do long for the quiet country life I grew up in.
Earlier you mentioned that happiness isn't necessarily constant - if we look at the other side of things, what makes you sad?
Injustice makes me sad. I think that injustice and the way human beings treat one another oftentimes. When I see people being treated as if they're not human beings or people being treated without compassion, or even when I find myself treating somebody without compassion, I get sad.
Let's talk a little bit about West Side Story. Tell me about premiere night.
It was a very long day. We started off the day with a TV interview at 7 am. And then, of course, we had all the events of the day and it culminated in the premiere and then the party afterwards, so it was a very, very long day and long, long night. It was extremely exciting.
That sounds like a very intense day to have a premiere on! Do you ever get nervous?
I get nervous on days like that, so when there's a lot of excitement or when people build up these moments, like opening night. When people make a big deal out of a certain night, I get nervous. But then I remember, you know, it's just like any other performance. I think, today, there are just more people that I know than usual in the audience. It makes me nervous when people start making a big deal out of one single performance, but in general, I don't really get nervous - not in like a debilitating nervous way. I get butterflies; I get the excitement - usually right before I enter the stage, but I wouldn't necessarily say it is nerves.
On the Today Show, you said you're doing West Side Story for the 21st century. Could you talk a little bit more about how you and the cast and the director and the choreographer have worked to adapt this to the 21st century?
I think that they started by choosing a cast that reflects the youth of America today, so what you're seeing on stage is a very diverse group of people from all different cultures and creeds and racial identities and gender identities. They started by finding a very youthful cast that reflects the 21st century in America. And then we had a look at what this specific group is capable of and how we're able to tell the story and bring it into the 21st century, and part of that was through the use of technology with video. There are moments where you see a cell phone and things like that which brings it into the 21st century. We also approach these characters as if they were alive today in 2020, and sort of let them behave as if they are urban youth in 2020 as opposed to this sort of idealised 1950s archetype - the way that they're usually played. So, yeah, we approached the text as if it was written recently, as opposed to it being written in the 1950s.
This is a musical that's very familiar to a lot of people and they hold it near and dear. Do you feel like this is a new experience for the theatregoers that will surprise them?
I do. I think it sort of exists in an almost new form of theatre. I think that the template and the bones to it form a very classic American musical. I think what we've really done is heightened it with the use of a lot of contemporary theatrical devices. I just really feel like what we're doing is at the height of theatre. I feel like it defies any sort of category that you could throw it into. I think it really depends on who the audience is and how they're viewing it, but I wouldn't even necessarily call this like an American Broadway musical as much I would say that it is just a piece of theatre. It's a very unique form that we've created and I've never seen anything like it before. And it's been really thrilling and exciting as an actor to do this because I've never seen it before and I don't know if I'll ever see anything like it again.
How did you go about preparing to play Tony?
I really just approached it as I was approaching any character that was written today. First, I tried to sort of clear my mind of any preconceptions I had about the character and the story and this piece specifically, and really just tried to look at the naked words on the page and figure out how I would bring myself into these circumstances and how I would feel in these circumstances as a young guy in 2020. How do these words make me feel? How do these words make me move and think? I just didn't tell myself 'no' based on how it's always been done before, and that was with the help of Ivo [the director] and the creative team. They really helped us by liberating and freeing us from the constraints of performing this the way that it's always been performed. And taking this out of the context of West Side Story, and really enabling us to approach it as if we were approaching a new piece. So, that's kind of how I came to the character and then, of course, I did research about gang violence and sort of the psychological implications of gang violence on youth. There was that whole aspect of it as well as but a lot of the work was really what we did in the room; just finding relationships with the different characters and the different actors who were performing these characters in new exciting ways. I didn't do a whole lot of prep work because I knew that this was going to be different - and I didn't want to come in with all these notions and ideas about how I was going to perform the role. I didn't want to come into the room and not be able to be flexible or spontaneous with the director and the other actors. I learnt my music and my lines. Then I came in and just tried to allow myself to play it with the director and with the other actors.
Yeah, I guess with theatre it is very collaborative so you really need to be in symbiosis with everyone and build upon that. How long were you guys rehearsing for?
I believe our first rehearsal was at the beginning of October and our last one was last week, so a long time. And then in between all of that, back in December, we had our preview period where we began to perform for audiences while we continued to rehearse the piece and change it.
There's something I thought about earlier when you were talking about opening night and the particular emphasis that is put on this one night. With theatre, you're playing the same story and part every day, so it can easily become a sort of habit, I can imagine. How do you counter that?
Very easily. I think most actors sort of develop this at some point, but I don't even know what I would call it... I'm going to call it like a variety theatre, so if I feel like I'm doing the same thing all the time, there's like a switch inside of me that will just make me do - I don't want to say ridiculous - something different, just to sort of shake me out of what I'm used to doing. Usually, that helps me find something new or I fall flat on my face. And then I'm like, 'well, I'll never do that again'. I just allow myself to stay on my toes and remain observant and curious and continue to find it. As humans we are different, and from one day to the next, we're different, and I can only ever come from where I am, from where I enter the theatre and what kind of day I've had. All of that determines what happens on the stage. Because I'm constantly shifting and morphing, likewise the character does too if I allow myself to stay curious and stay interested and not just go on autopilot. That's the really easy thing to do, especially when you're in a long-running show and you've been doing it for a while. Right now it's not too hard for me to stay spontaneous because everything is still quite new, but I imagine in six months or a year, I might have a harder time keeping things fresh and spontaneous.
What's your favourite scene/song in West Side Story and why?
I think Tonight - the balcony scene that happens between Tony and Maria, which is like the first time that you see them alone. I just think that that piece of music is so beautiful. It always gives me chills. It's really, really exciting. I feel like the underscoring or the orchestration really reflect the momentum of falling in love with another person. And then always, it just moves me more than any other piece of music, I think, in the entire show. I think that's my favourite piece of music and my favourite scene to perform too - it's a lot of fun.
So, on the topic of love, or falling in love, I have a little bit of a creative exercise. How would you sort of visualise the feeling of 'falling in love'?
Maybe like really warm rain falling into a cold ocean and turning the entire ocean warm. I feel like it starts very slow and it sort of drifts and then it just spreads and infiltrates every inch of your being and changes your entire emotional temperature.
That's amazing. Love it! Did you always know you wanted to be on stage?
I think I did, even if I didn't know. As a kid, I loved performing for people. Before I even knew what acting was, I knew what performing was; I just loved the power of having someone's undivided attention on me or being able to make someone laugh. My parents told all sorts of stories about how I used to manipulate people for laughs and affection and attention when I was very, very small. I've always been a natural performer. I didn't walk on the stage until I was probably 12, and as soon as that happened, I knew that there was nothing else I really wanted to do. At that point, I didn't know that I could do it professionally, I just knew that I loved doing it. I loved it as a hobby. Life went on and I ended up on a path towards doing it professionally and now I'm here.
How did you get involved in theatre, music and dance? Is your family interested in these things?
No, my family is not. They were never very involved in the arts, actually. My sister was babysitting these girls this one summer and I just by default always ended up with them because my older sister would babysit me too. I went with them everywhere they went and they were very involved in theatre and they would come up to New York and do all the big Broadway boot camps and everything. They were the ones who encouraged me to audition for community theatre, and I mostly went along with it because I didn't really have a passion when I was that age. Sports weren't really my thing. I wasn't very good at visual arts. Yeah, so I thought, 'why not give this a shot?'. And I did, and I absolutely fell in love with it. That's sort of how I got involved and then I just continued to do every possible show I could do at the community theatre. Actually, the very first piece that I ever auditioned for and that I didn't get into at community theatre was West Side Story, which was so terrible. They always needed boys because there were never enough boys, so I used to get into everything I auditioned for just because they needed the boys and had nothing to do with how talented I was. So, to not be cast in West Side Story was just heartbreaking.
Well, obviously, your Tony was meant for a bigger stage. Was Broadway the dream growing up?
I would say from about the time I was 13, it was the dream. Since I saw my very first Broadway show, it became the goal; it became the dream. Legally Blonde: The Musical was the first Broadway show I saw. Well, there was this reality TV show that aired on MTV called The Search for the Next Elle Woods and they were looking for the next lead. They created a reality TV show around finding the lead for this new Broadway musical. That was my only outlet to the theatre. I'd never been to New York. My only sort of connection to Broadway was through this reality TV show that I could watch from my home in North Carolina and so I became obsessed with that show. And through that show, I got to see what the process was like to audition for a show and to maintain a show and all that stuff. It was very, very interesting to me. And actually, the man who cast that show in the TV show also cast me in West Side Story all these years later. Really cool, full circle for me.
I've seen Legally Blonde: The Musical, but I'm too connected to Reese Witherspoon's Elle Woods. I love the films and I've probably watched them a million times, so, I had a really hard time letting go. She empowered me as a fellow blonde woman.
Honestly, it's such a good film.
So, moving on to a little bit of a different topic. We're very passionate about encouraging active conversations around mental health - what is your relationship with mental health?
I think it's one that's evolving. I never had therapy before, but I'm actually right now looking into finding a therapist. I had never really given much thought to my mental well-being as a facet of total health and wellness. I grew up in a family that was very fitness-oriented, so when I thought of wellness, it was always to do with my body and what I was putting into my body, but now I see it so much differently because my work and my life is so mental and psychological and emotional. I think a lot more about what I'm putting into my mind and what information I'm taking in and how that's affecting me and how it's affecting my mental and emotional well-being and temperature. It is something that I've recently become very aware of and hope to learn more about, and I think I'll start by finding a therapist. I think it's so important and I think in America, society is a little surface; it's a little superficial. It doesn't really go much deeper in general, but I think that there is a movement here of mental health awareness and wellness. It is beginning to become very popular and I'm grateful for that because I think, at the end of the day, no matter how you look or what you've eaten, you're alone with your thoughts and those thoughts can either eat you alive or they can sort of heal you to go on living a fruitful life. I certainly hope that I can cultivate a sense of mental well-being that will help me live a fruitful life.
Masculinity is also a really big topic for us, so what does being masculine mean to you?
I think masculinity can be a crippling label to adhere to. Especially in 2020, you hear a lot about toxic masculinity. I wish I could reframe that word and reshape it and I wish that we could just assign it a new label because I feel like the term masculinity is almost antiquated. It doesn't feel like it fits anymore. We've worn it out. It gives me kind of a sad feeling, like sinking feeling in my stomach. Hear the word 'masculine' or 'masculinity' and there's almost like violence in the words that I don't really care for. I wish that we could reframe our ideas around masculinity.
You've made it to Broadway twice. What is the next dream?
I mean, career-wise, I'd love to be a series regular on a TV show so that I can develop a character. I've never had the chance to develop an original character, I've only ever played characters that have already been performed by other people. I think that would be really fun - to develop the character and to get new scripts every week and learn about this character as I continue to play them. That's the career goal. I think, just personally, I would love to find my footing. Buy a piece of property. I would love to really settle down and find some roots in my life. Those are my two dreams right now that are sort of brewing beyond.