BY CARY GINELL
If you have the opportunity to see Cabrillo Music Theatre’s splendid production of Evita this weekend, you will no doubt be drawn to the electrifying performances by its stars, Cassandra Murphy, as Eva Peron, and Marc Ginsburg, as Che (profiled in our October 4 story – http://vconstage.com/marc-baron-ginsburg-talks-about-playing-che-in-cabrillos-new-production-of-evita/ ). But there is another, younger, performer who we predict will be a big star, whether it is on the stage, in films, or on television. Her name is Isa Briones. Isa, who is just 17, is a high school senior who comes out of the ensemble to play the part of Argentinean dictator Juan Peron’s unnamed mistress, who gets shooed out of the president’s palace by Eva and sings the lament, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” It is one of the most quietly exquisite moments in the entire musical. Prior to playing in Evita, Isa was astonishing in Pico Playhouse’s production of Next to Normal, in which she played the part of confused teen Natalie Goodman. We had a chance to visit with Isa, and found out that not only is she no novice in the world of performing, she has a perceptive and mature perspective on performing and working within a character in a musical.
VCOS: Isa, when I looked at your website and checked out your credits, I was stunned by all the things you’ve done and that you are still only seventeen. It helps when your parents are in show business, too, doesn’t it?
ISA: Yes, well, they’re both musical theater actors. My dad is going to Broadway in January where he’s going to play the Engineer in Miss Saigon. Yeah, they’re great. It’s been quite an upbringing.
VCOS: I see that you were born in England.
ISA: Yes, I was born in London because my dad was closing out the West End version of Miss Saigon there. So they happened to be there when it was time for me to come out.
VCOS: What was your earliest theater memory?
ISA: Watching my dad play the Engineer. I remember seeing him in his bright leather pants and going, “That’s my dad!” He just finished the West End revival, which started in 2014, and he came back in March. So in January, he’s leaving to start rehearsals for the Broadway revival.
VCOS: Did your parents have a plan for you to do this or did you develop the interest on your own?
ISA: No, they didn’t have any plan, I just grew up constantly on tours and back stage so it was kind of bred into me.
VCOS: You were a theater rat, then, as they call it.
ISA: Yeah, that’s me. And they made sure that I wasn’t going into it because it was all I knew. And I thought, “Well, let’s make sure this is what I want,” and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. This is what makes me very happy.
VCOS: How do you stay grounded?
ISA: My parents. They’ve seen every side of the business, highs as well as very lows, so watching what they’ve been through makes me know exactly how I have to behave in every situation and everything that I go through in this business. I know that I can’t get a big head when things start to go well because you never know what’s around the corner. It’s the life of an actor.
VCOS: I see that you’ve done everything already, TV, commercials, film, stage. Is your career going in any particular direction?
ISA: I love to do it all, but my first professional theater production was Next to Normal so it was the first time I was able to experience it first hand. I grew up around musical theater and now, since I’m home-schooled, it gave me the freedom to actually pursue that. Once that started, I thought, yes, this is what I want to do. But I also love film and TV as well. But for now, I’m trying to pursue musical theater as much as possible.
VCOS: Is it because of the immediate gratification of performing before an audience?
ISA: It’s just electrifying! When I got in the groove of rehearsing, I forgot that once there was an audience in front of me, it was going to be so different. So on opening night, I was standing back stage, about to go on, and I was going, “Oh my god, oh my god!” My heart was racing and I thought, “Oh, no, this is bad. I’m nervous. What if I mess up?” But as soon as I got on stage, it was like, “Yes. This is exactly where I need to be.”
VCOS: Actors develop a kind of muscle memory when they perform, don’t they?
ISA: Yeah! And it’s interesting how when you’re looking out into the audience, I used to think that it was going to scare me, but it’s really kind of poetic, looking out into the dim room. You kind of see their faces and you kind of don’t.
VCOS: When you were playing Natalie, were you able to obliterate everything else, who you were, who your family was, and just become your character?
ISA: I try to become the person I’m playing as much as possible but it’s kind of like a half-and-half for me right now. I don’t want to go all method and become, “I AM NATALIE!” and get into this deep, depressed, tortured teenager kind of thing. When that happens, you kind of lose the fun of “I’m doing a show.” That’s such a big part of doing this, because I’m doing what I love to do. But on the other hand, I know that I am Natalie, I know what she is going through, although I’m only an actor. So I keep both of those people in balance.
VCOS: Have your parents given you specific advice on performing?
ISA: The thing that I mostly get from my parents is “trust your stuff.” That’s what my dad always says. Trust your stuff. I tend to get very insecure and doubt myself, but then I think of that and I say to myself, “OK, you can do this. You know your material, you know what you have to do, you just have to trust it and have fun.”
VCOS: The other thing you have to realize is that from the audience’s point of view, they don’t want you to fail. They want to believe that you are this character. So you have an advantage from the beginning.
ISA: I think there’s that pressure of “I care so much” and I want them to see the best thing ever, because if I mess up, I think that I’ve cheated them out of a better experience.
VCOS: Do you play sports?
ISA: Not really. I used to do karate, but then as acting and school got a little more hectic, I stopped.
VCOS: Does being in a cast help you perform better?
ISA: There is definitely a team vibe in a cast, especially with Michelle Lane, who played my mom in Next to Normal. Every night you try to be as consistent as possible but you know every night is going to be different because that’s what theater is. So every night, it doesn’t seem like I’m acting, it’s just being with this other person and reacting, and you feed off that energy. And the audience is a big part of that as well so it’s kind of like a circular energy where you’re throwing something at them and they throw it back, so it’s a little bit like tennis. It’s weird seeing how much energy you can generate, it’s a sense of momentum you get, because you know you’re changing how an audience is perceiving a performance and how you think the show is going. It alters the way you say things, and that’s what makes theater so cool.
VCOS: Did you surprise yourself in Next to Normal?
ISA: No matter what, through all the jitters that I had, I always knew that I loved it. When I let it go and got into the groove of doing the show, I got to realize new things about Natalie. I knew my lines and my songs and everything, so now that I got past opening night, suddenly I was changing and evolving, and the director, Tom O’Leary, comes a lot throughout the run to give us notes and he came later into the run and said, “Man, it’s a different show!” and not in a bad way. “You guys keep finding new things,” and I love how we keep understanding our character more and more with every show.
VCOS: Are you home-schooled now?
ISA: My parents have always been my teachers when it comes to acting and singing, but this past year I started taking voice lessons with a teacher outside of my mom. But it’s mostly them.
VCOS: After high school, do you have plans for more formal training at a college perhaps?
ISA: Right now, I’m planning on taking a gap year. I’m moving to New York with my dad because he’s moving in January, so, with independent study, I’m going to be done with high school around February. So I’ll take that gap year to audition, take as many classes as possible, and then see where I go from there.
VCOS: Tell me about your role in Evita.
ISA: It’s funny that she doesn’t even get a name, but she’s just called “Peron’s mistress.” I think what’s so interesting about her is how she is Eva, but just at a different time in her life. And so Eva looks at her and faces herself, in a way, and she is so rude to her and so mean that you see how much hatred she has for herself. It’s a very revealing and sad moment but it’s really cool that I get to be a part of that.
VCOS: Does Eva feel threatened by you or does she just see herself?
ISA: I think she sees herself. When you hate people, sometimes you hate things that you see in yourself. She’s kind of looking in the mirror and trying to get rid of that part of her.
VCOS: Does this make you try and adopt some of her mannerisms or her personality when you do that scene?
ISA: I don’t know if it’s necessarily her mannerisms, but I think you see how Eva changes from being this young, naive girl and becomes this powerful woman. So I have that same kind of girlish excitement, but she starts to fall into that path of Eva just a little bit later, so when she gets kicked out, she’s going down that same sad, beaten path.
VCOS: Why do you think your character is nameless?
ISA: It doesn’t really matter who she is. You see in the lyrics how men talk about women in that time, especially in that place. Women were meant for sex and they were whores.
ISA: Yeah, and I think the fact that she has no name is a very clear and powerful statement about how she was just there for that moment so she can be ejected like she wasn’t a person. It’s just a sad statement about that time.
VCOS: Do you like your character or do you just not know enough about her?
ISA: You get a very small glimpse of her, but yeah, you definitely feel for her because she didn’t do anything wrong. She’s referred to as “the mistress” so there’s this impression that she’s a slut, but she’s just a girl trying to make it through life, and I think that’s a very relatable thing for any audience member. In the song, she’s so vulnerable and you wonder what’s going to happen to her now. It’s hard not to feel for her.
VCOS: Evita is your second professional experience on the stage. Your first was in this small 99-seat theater and now you’re working with Cabrillo in this gigantic behemoth of a theater. What are the differences in how you felt about each of these kinds of theater experiences?
ISA: I didn’t go in having any kind of expectations, but I knew it would be different, going from a six-person cast to thirty-three people. It’s still just as much fun, just a different vibe. It’s also a dancing show and I’ve never danced much but I’m having so much fun doing this. Every rehearsal is a workout! I was really looking forward to this adjustment especially, since before I finished Next to Normal I was overlapping between both shows. We closed Next to Normal the week before Evita opened. Next to Normal was supposed to close a week earlier but it got extended, but I thought, “Yes! I love this challenge” – this kind of busy is my favorite thing.
VCOS: And when you walk out on stage and there’s 1,200 people or more out there, what are you going to think?
ISA: I think it was great having Next to Normal as my first professional experience because it was a smaller production, but the pressure was still on, so I got used to performing before an audience every night and seeing how that feels and getting into that show mode. Now, with Evita, I’m on a bigger stage with a bigger company and there’s a different kind of pressure in playing multiple parts. So it’s a great transition into what doing shows is all about. I’m playing the mistress but I’m also in the ensemble and am in all these different dance numbers. I’m not used to having to retain all that and play a character as well.
VCOS: Remember the feeling when you come out for your first bow before a large audience. It’s going to be like an ocean wave. I’m looking forward to seeing your performance.
ISA: And I’ll probably cry. I’m a very emotional person (laughs) so when you come, you can take pictures of me sobbing.
Evita closes on Sunday October 23. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. See our review of Evita in this week’s Acorn.