Isabella Gómez Giron: “You can’t control every aspect of your performance”

Having an accent does not make you less valuable as a creative. I didn’t even know I had an accent until I moved here, and for the first years, it felt like a burden. But now, even though I am working on an American Accent just to be able to access different kinds of opportunities, […]

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Having an accent does not make you less valuable as a creative. I didn’t even know I had an accent until I moved here, and for the first years, it felt like a burden. But now, even though I am working on an American Accent just to be able to access different kinds of opportunities, I know that the way I speak is part of what makes me special. My accent carries my culture and my heritage, and that adds, not subtracts to what I can bring to the table.

As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Isabella Gómez Giron.

Isabella Gómez Giron is a Colombian actress, dancer, and writer, born and raised in Barranquilla and now based in NYC. Isabella moved to New York at age 18 to pursue her BFA in Drama — Acting and Minor in Psychology at NYU, from which she graduated with honors and an Outstanding Achievement Award. She is passionate about community building, sparking laughter and joy, and spreading empathy through storytelling. Her experiences as an immigrant have intensified her desire to use art to create spaces for pure enrichment, designed to ignite reflection, change, and bravery. A place where underrepresented groups will get to see that their voices have power as well, and their experiences are as valid as everyone else’s. She is also the Vice President of PorColombia National, the largest organization of Colombian students and professionals in the U.S.

This past October, in an effort to keep theatre alive, to connect with others through art, and to share a relevant story that questions our virtues and vices, and explores trust within our communities and our leaders, Isabella produced and acted in a virtual production of Macbeth. This production, which explored a new medium between the worlds of streaming, film, and theatre, led to an unexpected boom in her career; she got her first feature article in the renowned Colombian newspaper El Heraldo, and the magazine La Revista Actual. She also made her debut on Colombian TV news channels: RCN, Cable Noticias, Red+ Noticias, Canal 2, and City TV.

Recently Isabella participated in Et Alia Theater’s online series “This Is Me Eating ___” which explores the intricate relationship one can have with eating, food, and body image.

During the beginning of the pandemic, Isabella wrote, starred, and edited a short comedic series about four eccentric characters who join (or are forced to join by their parents) an online program called Q-friends, designed to forge new friendships during this isolation period. This short series, where Isabella plays the 4 distinct characters, is soon to be released.

Learn more about Isabella through her website!

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been an explorer my whole life, curious about understanding how the world works, how humans think, and why we are the way we are. Art has been my channel to express not only my love and curiosity for life, but a place where I get to be the voice of those who are in danger when they speak, or of those that feel they are on their journey alone. I feel honored when I get to tell someone’s story and give life to what might have been a silenced experience. As the studious, determined girl I was growing up, in love with learning, it was a little of a surprise that I chose acting. When I went to ask my chemistry teacher for a recommendation letter, he said: “You are applying to med school right?” It was a funny conversation to have with him.

I had always been a storyteller; I spent many afternoons and vacations creating skits with my little brother and cousins, all of which my mom would videotape. But my first artistic passion was dance, specifically ballet, which I started practicing when I was six. When I dance, it feels as if every single cell in my body is flying, in sync with every musical note. Soon after discovering my passion for dance, my desire to live by the phrase “put yourself in other people’s shoes,” led me to the theatre, and as I went into my teens, I had an experience that stirred me deeply. I saw Andrea Echeverri, Colombian singer/songwriter, stand up for sexually abused and emotionally devastated mothers who had lost their homes and innocent children during the war conflict in Colombia. She showed me the power of art, the responsibility that comes with being an artist. I wanted to do that too. There are still experiences that are constantly silenced, stories full of plot holes, and voices waiting to be heard; I hope that one day my art and work can shed light on the obscured past and present. Allowing myself to choose NYU was not an easy decision, since an artistic career was not a common choice in my immediate surroundings, but I jumped and here I am today! Now I explore community building and healing through the intersection between the arts, education, and psychology.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I got my lip broken while performing in Rikers Island (the jail complex)! I was doing a community outreach tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; it was our first time performing at a detention facility: a unique experience in itself. I was playing Puck, which in this production was an extremely physically active character. This meant trying to do different types of stunts, while also adapting to a new space every time we performed (since it was a moving tour). This time we were performing on a small platform next to the inmates’ cells. In my first scene, Puck startles one of Titania’s fairies (if you haven’t read Midsummer, the point is Puck wasn’t very fond of Titania’s fairies). I jumped too close to my castmate, who was playing the fairy, and when she turned around, she elbowed me straight in my lip! We both gave each other an “OMG” look but continued acting while my eyes filled with tears and my mouth with blood. I finished the scene, but since on this tour there was no backstage, I turned around and tried to stop the blood with my shirt while I waited for my next entrance. The point is, it wasn’t the most effective solution, and as the play went on my lip started bloating; I was having a very hard time pronouncing any constants that involved me pressing my lips together, and it was very painful. After a lot of blood swallowing the play was over, and the audience hadn’t even noticed that I had been injured! I couldn’t believe I was able to hide it that well. They then took me to the detention’s infirmary, and the doctors thought an inmate had hit me! (They would have never; they were very kind and grateful). I will never forget that performance!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There was a scene in the play Dead Man’s Cell Phone, where my character, Jean, and my partner, Dwight, were eating a bowl of caramel popcorn — which was very exciting since I LOVE popcorn. Anyhow, before the show, I forgot to check the bowl of popcorn, so I didn’t realize, until I was in the middle of the scene, that the bowl had twice as much popcorn as usual! The issue was that there was a line that said “we’re out of caramel popcorn,” and we were pretty close to the audience in this scene, so they could clearly see the popcorn bowl. Moreover, after the scene, the bowl would be pushed across the floor. Therefore, to prevent a mess from happening all over the stage, the popcorn always had to be gone.

It was already a challenge to have a two-person fast-paced conversation while trying to finish a bowl of sticky caramel popcorn, and this time we had twice as much! We were approaching the line, and there was still so much popcorn left! My partner and I looked into each others’ eyes, and without a word, trying not to choke, we started frantically gobbling the popcorn right before the line. Luckily, for a scene where we were starting to fall for each other, it ended up being comical and endearing for the audience. It’s not as easy to eat while performing, as it is to eat while talking in real life haha. But some of those on-stage mistakes end up not only creating a closer relationship with the audience, but they plug you in as an actor in the present moment in a unique way, making you think on your feet and enriching the scene as a whole. It is part of the magic of live theatre! But also — never forget to check your props before every single performance, even if they are usually always right!

Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?

As a proud Colombian, I strive to bring my culture to all the work I do because I believe that through the sharing of history, culture, and beliefs we build bridges made out of admiration, compassion, and respect between our communities.

When I was the President of the University chapter of PorColombia at NYU, I organized a Carnaval Night to recreate the famous Carnaval de Barranquilla. We had traditional food, live music by Colombian students from the Berklee College of Music, and dance performances by Colombian artists based in Queens. I got to share this experience with 400 people, 50% of whom were not Colombian! Dancing the traditional Colombian styles in a space where most people weren’t from Colombia, teaching them the steps, watching them enjoy the music and the meaning behind our customs, brought me immense joy. More importantly, it became a way to show others the beauty of diversity. The U.S population is extremely diverse and we need to celebrate that. Through events like these, and others that I have now organized as Vice President of PorColombia National, you learn to make our differences an opportunity for enrichment and celebration. By giving diversity a space to be celebrated, the chance of having those in power hear those experiences and therefore offer them a space in bigger platforms, increases.

In PorColombia we facilitate the creation of connections that promote the professional and business development of Colombians in the U.S, and we work to build spaces to share our culture and highlight Colombian achievements so that our presence is felt in the U.S culture.

Moreover, as an artist, I am always looking to collaborate with diverse artists. I recently produced and acted in a virtual production of Macbeth with artists of different ethnicities, origins, beliefs, and sexual orientations. Sometimes in shows, because all the cast is supposed to be from a certain place and have a certain accent, we close ourselves up to enriching the actual project and to giving a voice to a plethora of experiences that we don’t get to hear from every day. Why should an accent or an ethnic trait matter more than the history, light, and wisdom that a person can carry?

Moreover, in this production of Macbeth, we challenged gender binaries by casting women in traditionally male roles, as a way to show that gender does not define the type of behavior or leadership position one could have. Gender as one less boundary. Additionally, this special cut of Macbeth was centered around the witches, a group of uncanny beings who have always been outcast by their society. In the end, we learn that their wisdom is as essential as the mortals’. It is our way to show that beliefs, shapes, and origins, are not reasons to classify others as more or less worthy.

Finally, another way to make popular culture more representative is giving back to communities that do not always have the same opportunities; with support and attention, their stories and projects can become part of popular culture. This is why for the virtual production of Macbeth we partnered with the theatre department of Norte Vista High School in Riverside, California, where we supported young aspiring artists, mostly Latin American, in the transition towards a world of virtual theatre.

Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?

I have to go back to the Midsummer community outreach tour. Performing at all these detention centers was unforgettable. There was a particular performance that marked me deeply. We were at the women’s facility at Rikers Island. As soon as the play started, these women jumped into the world of the play with us. They were on the edge of their seats, audibly inhaling and exhaling every time they were surprised. They laughed loudly and responded when our characters addressed them in the form of soliloquies and asides. What I didn’t expect was what they were going to say after the show ended. One of them said that earlier in the morning when they told her about the upcoming performance, she said she wanted to stay in her cell and sleep, but one of her friends convinced her to come. She then expressed how grateful she was to have come because she felt that we performed for her and looked at her as a woman, and not an inmate. As she said this, other women nodded, and one exclaimed: “You made me leave this place, thank you.” Just writing about it makes me emotional; I remember the sparks in their eyes, the tightness by which they shook our hands at the end. Art transcends all sorts of boundaries, class, experiences; it puts us on a plane where we are reminded that in the end, we are all human. Listen before you judge. Lend more hands and smiles. Inject less hate into the world.

As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?

  1. The entertainment industry produces content that is consumed by the vast majority of the population in the world, including kids, which means future generations. If we show children that the world is diverse and that that’s an AMAZING thing, they will grow up valuing it and craving to explore other cultures with respect. A diverse entertainment industry challenges the idea of white supremacy. When seeing others succeed, you start believing in the potential of humans as a whole, not in specific races.
  2. It is a wonderful way to learn about other human experiences other than your own, which can end up enlightening your way of living. In others’ words always lies a spark of wisdom.
  3. It will increase the opportunities for marginalized groups, decrease discrimination, build bridges, and eventually, we won’t be as afraid of the term “cultural appropriation,” because we’ll have learned through the entertainment industry about those cultures. Therefore, when we immerse ourselves in a culture other than our own, we will know how to do it with love and respect.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

  1. For any project creators, small to big scale production companies: seek diverse writers! It is hard to diversify the industry if the stories told come from the same group of people. This also means including the large immigrant community, part of the U.S culture. The immigrant experience is extraordinarily diverse, and many times we are boxed into one single type of journey — so it is important to seek out those stories as well.
  2. Next time you go on an entertainment platform or a store, looking for a new book, album, show, or movie, pick content with a non-white cast, creative or production team. Change also starts within the individual, in small communities, by watching content made by creatives from a different background than your own. In this way, we start giving other groups space, value, traction, and that can soon add up to more recognition, and therefore representation.
  3. For those in the education system as teachers, students, or administration, I would say it is vital to create a diverse curriculum. Many institutions do offer incredible courses on, for example, Latinx Theatre and African American Music. But usually, more than 50% of the people enrolled in those classes have that heritage, which still has immense value, but if perhaps it was required for students to take one class related to a culture/ethnicity that was different from their own, they would start seeing all art, regardless of style and origin, as part of the main canon of work. If the only required classes are those that touch upon the work created by less discriminated groups, then the work created by minorities, or by those who have been marginalized, won’t be seen as valuable. Instead, their work will always be seen as lying in the periphery, as extra-curricular.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is knowing how to give space, take space, and guiding others to do so as well. It means being able to let your ego go because as a leader you aren’t just speaking for yourself, but for a group of people that trusts that you’ll carry their voices within yours. A good leader knows how to look from the outside in, and the inside out, to be able to consider both individual and community needs in the most equal way possible.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You can’t control every aspect of your performance; a huge part of acting is trusting the process. Throughout the beginning of college, I was unconsciously focusing more on showing that I had done my homework. I was also trying to recreate past great rehearsals, rather than trusting that I was prepared and could let my creative self flow in the moment with the knowledge and body memory that I already had. Doing the work is as important as letting go of it and being in the present. If you are focused on trying to replicate last night’s performance, you are robbing the audience and yourself of a new magical experience.
  2. You won’t always get an A, and that is OKAY! The moments where one feels drowned in inescapable failure, also contain within them the essence of the words power, perseverance, and resilience. Once you find those, nothing will stop you from rising to the surface. There was a semester where I felt like the work I was doing was getting me nowhere, but that was exactly what I needed to learn how to embrace “no’s,” and to increase my self-confidence. Acting taught me how to embrace failure. It’s still not the most comfortable feeling, but someone once told me every “no” you get, means you are closer to a “yes.”
  3. Having an accent does not make you less valuable as a creative. I didn’t even know I had an accent until I moved here, and for the first years, it felt like a burden. But now, even though I am working on an American Accent just to be able to access different kinds of opportunities, I know that the way I speak is part of what makes me special. My accent carries my culture and my heritage, and that adds, not subtracts to what I can bring to the table.
  4. Art is subjective — there is no “perfect” state you can reach, and besides, an artistic piece is never fully finished: it always has the possibility of growing and evolving, and that is part of its magic. So don’t try to please everyone’s opinion, listen, of course, to the faculty and friends you trust, but work towards not letting negative comments demolish the belief in yourself. It’s about finding a balance between being humble and learning from others’ feedback. And also not taking in every single person’s opinion as absolute truth.
  5. When creating your work don’t forget to play! Focus on constructing the journey rather than on your expectations of where this creation “should” take you. I have always been both attracted and a little scared of the phrase: create your own work. The pressure of trying to create a groundbreaking piece, and the courage it takes to share your creation, without knowing if it will have the impact you wish, has sometimes made me reluctant to start. My brain would say: “There is no way you will get it to what you want it to be, what about the resources, what about the time, what about those who know more than you do!?” NO! Let your desire to tell your story be your focus; eventually, that work will help the piece build its path. A month after I graduated, still in the pandemic, my best friend from college and roommate, but at the moment away with her family in California, called me and proposed to do the virtual production of Macbeth I mentioned before. I said yes without really knowing what we were signing ourselves up to, but knowing that we wanted to recreate the magic of theatre on a virtual platform, to connect with others through art, to offer a revitalizing space during these times, and to ACT! We had graduated and no gigs were open at the moment. After months of work and days where I thought our project would be, to say it simply, “not good at all,” today I can say that last week we closed a show that got me to places I never imagined: my first articles in Colombian newspapers, my first time on Colombian TV, the beauty of feeling the magic of theatre again, connecting with audience members around the world. Working on overpowering the negative thoughts in my head, and focusing on the joy of getting to reimagine theatre, of getting to act, even virtually, and my need to tell this story, was key to making the project flourish.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This movement would be called “The Gift of Education.” With the holiday season coming up, a large amount of us will be spending money on gifts for our loved ones. This ideal movement would work in the following way: every time you purchase a gift, you would then go on our GoFundMe or another online fundraising platform, and donate to “The Gift of Education” movement. As always, any donation amount will eventually make a difference. At the end of the holiday season, we would transfer this money to different education charities, in an effort to increase the access and quality of education in low-income communities. This would include scholarships, breakfast and lunch at schools, infrastructure improvements, an increase in resources and teacher pay, and more!

Even if this movement isn’t formally organized, it would be easy to find education charities within one’s neighborhood and agree with oneself to donate to those every time a gift is purchased! 🙂 Let’s challenge ourselves to do that!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I keep coming back to this question because, throughout my life, there have been multiple quotes that have helped me find my center again. I decided to go with what my 14-year-old self had printed in large letters on her bedroom wall: a Justin Bieber quote. It’s simple and perhaps cheesy: “Follow your dreams and never say never.” It might not be the deepest quote, but throughout high school, I would read those words every single day. Every time I would think a career in the arts was impossible for a girl from Barranquilla, for a girl who was winning awards in Math and Chemistry, for a girl who hadn’t been doing theatre her entire life, those words would fight the voices in my head. And as I applied for college, I would look at them and feel that I was doing the right thing. Sometimes short, simple phrases hold immense amounts of truth in them. Paulo Coehlo and Gabriel Garcia Marquez both said it in ways that also marked me strongly later on:

It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” — Coehlo

“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” — Marquez.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I have been thinking about this one for a while, and there are so many ways I could go! I have decided to go with Paulo Coehlo. His book, The Alchemist, changed the way I saw my goals and fears, love, and pain. It reminded me of the immense amount of wisdom that lies within us, the power of the soul. I imagine it would be enlightening to talk to him about how he came to the conclusions he shares in The Alchemist, and what he has learned since he wrote it. I would love to share with him how his book increased my sense of self and the belief in myself. I want to learn about his life, his way of maintaining inner peace, how he sees the universe today, and his perspective on all the recent happenings in the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My instagram is @isabellagomezg and my facebook page is @gomezgironisabella !

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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