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Isabelle McCalla

1883 speaks with Isabelle McCalla about her high-flying role in Water for Elephants, her memories from the show thus far, and more.  

Actress Isabelle McCalla and her character in Water for Elephants share the Imperial Theatre stage with some major talents. Costarring McCalla and The Flash’s Grant Gustin (who makes his Broadway debut in the show), the new musical brings the circus to Broadway with a bevy of skilled performers who at various moments perform jaw-dropping acrobatics, fly through the air with silks, and more. As Marlena, a performer in the fictional Benzini Brothers Circus, McCalla also works closely with the production’s most sizable star: Rosie, an elephant brought to life by feats of puppeteering magic. Marlena’s bond with Rosie deepens alongside her relationship with Jacob (Gustin), a new arrival to the circus, which provokes the growing ire of Marlena’s abusive husband, the show’s ringmaster. 

McCalla, who last was seen on Broadway in Shucked, even takes a turn on the trapeze herself, a breathtaking feat in a show full of them. Having learned the aerial routine specifically for Water for Elephants, McCalla hasn’t limited herself in the circus acts she’s tried out throughout production: “I’ll also occasionally go down for training sessions and my friend Nico will be like, ‘Hey, come over here. Let me put you in my hand,’” she says of rehearsals with the cast’s circus performers. “He’ll lay on the ground and I’ll step on his feet, and they’ll train and I’ll do some hand-to-hand work with them.”

1883 speaks with Isabelle McCalla about her high-flying role in Water for Elephants, her memories from the show thus far, and more.  

First of all – how are you with heights? 

I go back and forth, honestly. Normally, I get a little freaked by heights—not terribly, but I’ve always been a daredevil. So that part doesn’t scare me as much. Also, I think because it’s a routine and I feel in control on the trapeze, I’m not really scared of the height difference. Also, I’m certainly not looking at the gap between me and the stage, so I feel good.

Circus acrobatics play a big part in the show; what was the process of learning your routine as Marlena?

It’s the most fun part about the role. I love it. I’d never had any aerial or circus experience before doing the show, but I did train as a dancer for twelve years. So my dance training lended itself to the lyricism of the trapeze routine that I got to learn, which was great. It’s so much fun, and I want to learn more. I’m such a curious daredevil that I’m like, please can I learn more intense choreography on it now? I’m hooked. 

What was it like working opposite some of the trained circus performers on the cast? Did you pick up any tricks from the other performers in the cast? 

The circus artists in this company are some of the most fantastic people I’ve ever met. Because of the nature of their job, where they’re literally launching themselves into the air and catching each other and doing these death-defying stunts, they also throw themselves into life in the same way. Being with them is like seeing the world as a playground, almost like every piece of architecture is an opportunity to have fun or to make an interesting shape on it or to climb or throw yourself around. There’s a lot of creativity and a lot of opportunities. In terms of just the lifestyle, I learned about living with abandon from them. 

What was your journey to Water for Elephants

I got an email from my agents two years ago, April of 2022, asking me to play Marlena in a ten-day workshop of Water for Elephants. I hadn’t read the book before; I had never seen the movie. I was just excited to work with Jessica Stone, the director, because I’d seen Kimberly Akimbo and loved it. I was like, I’ll do whatever it takes to work with this woman. Then I read the book and fell in love with the very colourful world that Sarah Gruen created, and also fell in love with this heroine who’s very demure, but also has this fire underneath her. I was curious as to why she chose to stay with this man who clearly was on the way to becoming very sick and violent. I wanted to map out the journey of her strength.

Then we got to rehearsals, and it was just some actors, some acrobats in a black box space. I was bowled over by the innovative talent and creative genius of PigPen Theatre Company and Shana Carroll, our circus choreographer. Even though it’s a show that takes place at the circus, it’s about what happens when you lose everything that you love, and who do you choose to become. 

Nostalgia plays a big part in the show’s narrative. What is one of your favourite memories from the show thus far?

There’s a moment that happens in Act I where Joe De Paul, who plays Walter, our clown, comes out and he does what’s called a look and see, essentially the term for his circus routine. He came out, and he earlier that day was like, “I’m gonna try something new.” And we were like, okay, what’s gonna happen? He comes out with an apple and a knife, and he puts on this leather glove—it’s the first time any of us are seeing this—he takes the knife out, he takes the apple out. The knife is on top of his hand as well as the apple. And he does three bounces, throws the knife in the air, catches the knife. The apple’s still flying and immediately, the apple landed on the knife. 

I’ve never been in a room that erupted. It was like the Patriots won the Superbowl or something. It was like that level of enthusiasm where everybody was like, oh my God! It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened, a moment where the entire room united in joy and excitement and thrill. The best part was, he didn’t know if he was gonna catch it. Funnily enough, it became very hard to repeatedly catch an apple, which is why he then switched to a piece of cabbage afterwards. But the first time he caught that apple, man, that will always live rent-free in my head. It’s one of those joyful moments. 

The show’s puppeteering is used to show the bond between Marlena and the animals in the circus. What would you say Marlena’s spirit animal is? 

I think her spirit animal is a horse! I’ve thought a lot about this. There was a moment where I thought she might be a bear, because she’s so motherly and she’s a healer, and bears actually signify medicine and healing in a lot of cultures. But I think she’s a wild horse. She’s a wild horse who has been domesticated, and she loves running, she loves playing, she loves the fresh air and nature, and just happens to be confined to a steel car for her life. At her core, she’s a wild horse. 

Do you, Grant Gustin, and the rest of the cast have any backstage rituals? 

Personally, I always take a moment. I pull an Oracle card to give my set an intention for each show, and then I take a second to thank my ancestors, who were circus folk, apparently. I found out they immigrated to Haiti with the circus. So I take a second and I thank them for being with me and for letting me play out their story of this show. And then there’s a tradition in the circus world, where you pick a word and you all come together with your hands, and you make sure the entire company is there, and then release. For our show, we use a specific line from the carnival barker. So we say “Step right up.” We all go “Step right up, step right up,” and it’s kind of the calling card. And once everybody’s there, we go, “And put some wind in your sails,” and we release. We do it every show, and it’s a really beautiful way for us all to come together and set our intention to tell the story with our communal spirit. It’s one of my favorite things we do. 

Water For Elephants is on Broadway now.

Interview Juliana Ogarrio

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