Treading the boards

Talking Broadway with its brightest new talent Isaac Cole Powell

Growing up part of the local art community in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, the famed floorboards of Broadway seemed a distant notion for US actor Isaac Cole Powell. But it’s here, within New York’s Theater District, where he’s found a home – twice. First cast as Daniel in the 2017 revival of forbidden love story Once On This Island, Powell captured the attention of critics and audiences alike. It’s his second role, however, that has spun heads. In 2019, Powell found himself on Broadway once more, this time as Tony in Ivo van Hove’s highly-anticipated Broadway revival of West Side Story.

shirt and jeans both by Balenciaga SS20

Rachel Grace Almeida: How did your surroundings in North Carolina help you develop as an actor?
Isaac Cole Powell: It was my motivation. I used to attend a local theatre and always kept my eye on the kids around me who were the most exciting to watch. I would follow in their footsteps, imitate them and just learn by watching how they did things. I noticed a lot of them started going away to performing arts schools, so I auditioned for the magnet programme at Weaver Academy in Greensboro – that’s where I really started to become interested in the craft of acting. It unfolded in front of me. As soon as I realised that acting was a viable path, I haven’t thought about doing anything else. Before that, I thought I wanted to be a landscape architect because, growing up, my dad owned a landscaping company. I’ve always loved plants, design and being outside.

RGA: What made you choose stage over screen?
ICP: There was no choice, I never chose. It’s just the hand that I’ve been dealt so far. Early in your career, you don’t really have a lot of power to choose. When you’re auditioning and first move to New York, you’re lucky to get work wherever you can. There’s no saying ‘no’ at first. It just so happened that my first big job was a Broadway show. So for now, I’ve been doing theatre because I really like it and it’s what I started out doing.

RGA: Do you ever find yourself getting the urge to try something new?
ICP: I would love to do more television and film, but I go wherever I can. I feel like we’re currently in a golden age of TV and film where there’s so much high-quality work being produced. It’s an exciting time for actors because there are many interesting stories being told. Rachel: The demand is also extremely high from viewers, maybe more than ever. Isaac: It puts storytellers in a really interesting position because they have more material to work with.


jacket by A.P.C. SS20; necklace ISAAC’s own

“You have to be able to recreate those emotions eight times a week and you can’t get tired of it. The audience is right there. You have to perform like it’s your first time and you have to make it magic because that’s what people expect.”

RGA: Let’s discuss the stories you tell on stage…
ICP: It’s hard to say what being on Broadway is like. There are so many facets to the experience. If I was to sum it up, it’s thrilling. I would liken it to being a professional athlete – it’s incredibly demanding, vocally, physically, emotionally. I’ve never worked this hard in my life.

RGA: What does it take?
ICP: It requires a lot of energy and a lot of breath. While I’m having so much fun and it is what I’m passionate about doing, it’s still a job – a really difficult job. It makes it easier because it’s what I love, and it’s a really wonderful tight-knit community to be part of. Everybody knows each other, everybody works within the same ten-block radius.

RGA: I think stage actors are extremely underrated. It feels like most prestige is placed on film, but stage actors have one take and cannot mess up – you have to operate like infallible machines, and that must be really difficult.
ICP: Many film actors cut their teeth on the stage and it certainly feels like a training ground for other mediums. On a film or TV set, there are many more hands supporting you. In theatre, it’s a grittier experience – there’s more of a grind to it, and that makes it really exciting. I think it gives you a strong foundation that you don’t take for granted as much because you know hard work. You have to be able to recreate those emotions eight times a week and you can’t get tired of it. The audience is right there. You have to perform like it’s your first time and you have to make it magic because that’s what people expect. To me, it’s like an exercise – every time I perform it feels like a workout where I’m getting better at telling the story and I’m getting better at performing because I get to practice every single day.

RGA: How does it feel to play an iconic character?
ICP: I don’t think Tony is an iconic character – he’s part of an iconic story. In the audition process, the director [Ivo Van Hove] said, “We’re not doing this like it’s ever been done before. So just go ahead and forget everything you know about this character and about this story.” It was liberating for me to be able to break out of this idea and just bring my voice. It’s been really fun for me to be able to view my character through a contemporary lens and through my own personal experience, to almost filter Tony through me.

RGA: What drew you to West Side Story?
ICP: Honestly, I just needed a job. Then when I found out that they were doing this special production, it wasn’t necessarily the story that drew me in, but the new interpretation of it.

RGA: Have you ever struggled to keep the same energy and passion every night?
ICP: There’s so much excitement at first, and then day-to-day it’s hard to maintain. Having that same level of passion and excitement that you did when you started is like a muscle that you have to continually use. For the first six months, it was the coolest thing ever. My friends were coming and we were excited about the show. Then once everything was sort of dying down and word-of-mouth around the show was winding down, it became a job. That’s when it became difficult to work every day maintaining that same passion.

RGA: How do you cope?
ICP: It’s really difficult and something I’m figuring out. This is only my second Broadway show. I reignite the flame by remembering that there’s a full audience out there. I think about kids that might be in the audience who are like me, who saved up every nickel and dime they had to go to a Broadway show. This might be that performance. If the audience shows up, not feeling up to it isn’t an option. I want to give them the full experience. I remember how lucky and grateful I am to have this opportunity.

RGA: What stimulates you?
ICP: Curiosity. You have to go about acting with a sense of openness, because if you go ahead and close yourself off to whatever experience might happen – especially in theatre – you’ll miss incredible little surprises, and that’s what keeps it exciting and fresh. For me, it’s just that little spark in the back of your head.


“If the audience shows up, not feeling up to it isn’t an option. I want to give them the full experience. I remember how lucky and grateful I am to have this opportunity.”

RGA: What sort of surprises have you encountered that have kept you going?
ICP: Sometimes you’re listening to the same character say the same words and then one day they’ll say one in a different way. Or maybe somebody makes a different vocal choice and suddenly it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever heard. If it doesn’t go to plan, you always have a second chance the next day. Another thrilling thing that happens is when an understudy comes in and you’re acting opposite somebody you haven’t previously acted with.

RGA: Has there ever been a time where everything has just gone completely wrong?
ICP: I wouldn’t necessarily call this a horror story, but there was one time I was doing a show and there was this huge barrel of smoke on stage. Inside the barrel, there was a fog machine hooked up to a keyboard. There was somebody off-stage controlling the amount of smoke and when it came out. One day, something glitched, and the machine went full blast. We’d never seen it do that before. The whole stage was getting covered in smoke, so I decided to try to carry it off-stage myself, but it was too heavy.

RGA: Oh god.
ICP: It was absolutely insane. A small army got it off in the end. It’s things that you don’t necessarily expect to happen that can light a little fire under your ass.

RGA: What inspires you?
ICP: Nature, people and music. I think one really awesome thing about being an artist is that you’re in a state of constant curiosity and openness for inspiration. I could be walking outside right now and find inspiration in my shadow if I want to. I love travelling, if I’m not working and don’t need to be in New York City, I prefer to be somewhere else.

RGA: What would you say have been some of your favourite trips?
ICP: Backpacking around Hawaii with my brother and dad for a week. Last year, I had a luxurious moment where I’d saved enough money to go on a couple of adventures before I had to start working again. I spent a lot of time in California, specifically San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’d love to travel more, especially internationally.

Interview originally published in HERO 23 [March 2020].

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