Friday, 26 July 2019 13:00

Life as a Leading Lady: Isabella Abuan dances, sings and acts her way through a day with GRCT

Written by  Michaela Stock
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Isabella Abuan in "Newsies" at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. Isabella Abuan in "Newsies" at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. Photo by Studio3Twenty

When we see a show so amazing that it draws us in and makes us forget there are real people onstage, it’s so easy to not think about what performers like Isabella Abuan go through every single day to make that magical performance happen.

Seventeen-year-old Abuan from Lansing is an actress, singer and dancer with the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. She began musical theater at the age of seven with a small church production and has pursued the craft ever since, taking voice and dance lessons along the way.

It wasn’t until Abuan turned 13 and performed with Michigan State University that she got hooked into the theater world for good, though. Inspired by the passion and diversity at MSU, Abuan realized she could actually see herself pursuing life as an artist.

“Everyone in the musical was so different, but the fact that we could all come together and put on this show, and we all loved each other, made me fall in love with theater,” Abuan said.

Not long after that, Abuan found the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and has been performing with the company for years now, making her mark in the West Michigan theater world.

Abuan spent the most recent show season with the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre starring in Newsies as the lead female role of Katherine Plumber, a bold and outspoken reporter who drives the plot line throughout the musical’s entirety.

However, landing the lead was as much of a mental battle as it was physical for the Filipino actress.

“I rolled into callbacks and was like, ‘Oh, there’s no way I’m going to get Katherine, I’m ethnic,’” Abuan said. “My mind was already trapped. I’ve gotten a few leads in the past with other theaters, but for the most part, I’m the quirky best friend or the seductive role. It’s hard to see an ‘ethnic’ girl in the main role.”

As always, Abuan went into the audition just looking to gain experience and have fun. But she did more than just sharpen her skills — she landed the lead.

“When the stage manager called me and said I got Katherine, I was literally watching Newsies. I remember screaming, and my whole family was so excited,” Abuan said. “Civic Theatre is so amazing about having an open mindset about racial diversity and things like that.”

Getting the part was just the start of many long days in the theater for Abuan, however. It’s no secret that artists like Abuan live pretty different lifestyles compared to the typical student or nine-to-five employee. But, without daily gossip by the water cooler and back-to-back meetings to run to, how do artists spend their days at work?

To get the scoop, we asked Abuan to walk us through her day before, during and after a performance with the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre as the leading lady of Katherine in Newsies.

After all, not all power suits come with pants and a jacket — sometimes they’re made of wigs and tap shoes.

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Abuan at curtain call in "Newsies." Photo by Ashley Wierenga.

Hour by Hour: The Breakdown

9 A.M.
The beginning of my day is pretty chill. I wake up around 9 a.m. because I don’t have rehearsal, so I can sleep in and have a nice morning. I talk with my castmates because I live with them during the performances in an apartment in downtown Grand Rapids. We have our little breakfast together and our little chats.

12 P.M.
Around noon, my friend Josh and I work out together. We do Zumba videos to get our bodies pumping! We actually do videos at home, but we’ve also gone to a Zumba class together, just to get going and do dance-themed things. When you’re in musical theater, you want to get your body used to the exercise it’s going to do every night.

1 P.M.
I eat avocado toast for lunch, usually by myself. One of my weaknesses, if I can get my hands on it, is Synergy Kombucha.

5:30 P.M.
My call time is at 6 p.m., but I usually get to the theater at 5:30 p.m. because I have to do my whole makeup process. A lot goes into getting ready for the show. Oh my goodness, no one realizes how long it takes! Stage makeup takes me about 45 minutes.

6:15 P.M.
Every female actor in Newsies was wigged. Most had to do so many wig changes because they played multiple different characters.

To get wigged, you have to pin-curl your hair as flat as you can to your head, and then we have wig masters who put our wigs on for us. We’re not allowed to touch the wigs, because they’re real human hair, which is very expensive.

6:40 P.M.
We have our vocal warmups and fight call. In Newsies, we had a fight choreographer come in and teach the newsboys all the different moves for fight scenes. All of those scenes were so choreographed.

They rehearse it first at about 15-percent speed, so it’s super slow-motion, and then they build up the tempo and get it faster. It’s super important that they run that every night because if that gets sloppy, someone could get seriously hurt.

We also sing a song from the show just to get in the mood. Then we receive notes from things that went wrong and things we need to fix from the previous performances. We also go over who’s going to be in the audience. This is a time just to get us excited.

7:15 P.M.
Before every show, we also have our physical warmups in the theater’s dance studio. It’s always the same thing. We have three different songs we do the warmups to, and we’ve been doing them since the first rehearsal. It’s pretty intense stuff, like burpees, just to get even more ready.

7:30 P.M.
After that, we all stretch out and get in our zen moment. Then we run the show.

INTERMISSION
During intermission of the show, I’m getting dressed and changing all of my costumes — it’s so fun. The magic of theater is crazy. You can change characters like that.

10 P.M.
The show ends around 10 p.m. It takes a while to leave the theater because people aren’t allowed to see you in costume. That’s a big no-no. It ruins the magic, and those costumes are not cheap. You have to get completely out of costume, put all your set pieces away, and get out of mic before you can go.

10:45 P.M.
Sometimes after the show, we like to have cast bonding. We often go to Cottage Inn, so a lot of times you’ll catch us there.

Sometimes we all park at this church parking lot and hang out there, where we just sit in a circle and talk for 30 minutes or an hour. We’ve even hung hammocks between our cars. We’d sit in the hammocks and just talk and talk and talk.

Theater people are the craziest people, but they’re also just the best friends.

11:30 P.M.
I go to bed and rest before I do it all over again!

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Abuan performing in "Newsies." Photo by Studio3Twenty

A Hustle and a Bustle

Even reading about Abuan’s day as an actress with the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre sounds like a lot, but to her, it’s all worth it.

“Being an artist is a super stressful lifestyle. Everything is so crazy,” Abuan said. “I’m so passionate about it though, and if you’re really passionate about it, you have to do it.”

When she’s not performing, rehearsing or taking community college classes, Abuan is planning for her next onstage role. Despite what the nonstop pace of live theater demands of its artists, the craziness has become a routine for Abuan.

“As a performer, you’re always auditioning for the next thing or planning for the next audition,” she said. “When you’re not in a show, you’re planning for the next show. When you’re in a show, you’re still planning for the next show.

“Theater life is all a hustle and a bustle, but when you get into the swing of things, it’s like muscle memory, and you know what you have to do. When you get it down, it’s just so magical to be a part of telling a story to the audience.”

When the curtains close, Abuan is in the game for more than running the race to the next production or leading part. Her long days as an artist at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre have given her an irreplaceable community unique to the experience of being involved in theater, and for Abuan, that’s the reward of every long day and night she spends honing her craft there.

“Yes, I love performing. Yes, I love telling a story,” Abuan said. “But it’s really the people behind the scenes that make me fall in love with the experience.”

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