Getting to the roots of Come From Away with writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein

“You are here… at the start of a moment, on the edge of the world where the river meets the sea…”

Irene Sankoff and David Hein | Photo by Alex Coppel

20 years ago, a small town called Gander was just a province outside of Canada. But now, thanks to the inconceivably kind actions of its townspeople, their story is told almost daily. Come From Away is a beautiful display of this kindness, following true stories of those living in Gander and those forced to seek refuge during the aftermath of 9/11. The Australian premiere cast of Come From Away began their rehearsals last week, preparing for what is set to be a show like no other. 

Having previously spoken to various cast members including Zoe Gertz (Bev), Richard Piper (Claude) and understudies Jensen Overend and Kathleen Moore, it seemed only right to go to the source itself. We have the endlessly talented Irene Sankoff and David Hein to thank for this show, a byproduct of years of research, study and interviewing. The pair have a special connection to the story, both originally from Canada themselves. Despite their insanely busy schedule, I managed to squeeze a few questions in about the writing process and inspiration for Come From Away.

Irene and David with the Australian cast of Come From Away

How did the process of writing the show begin?

David: We went up to Gander in 2011, there was a commemoration ceremony there on the 10th anniversary and we started collecting stories. Every single story was better than the last. We’ve been working on the show, we brought it to Broadway after 6 years, and now we’ve taken it all over the world – Melbourne is our 5th company. It’s been 7 years working on this and you could not ask for a better group of people to represent and for a better story to tell everyday.

Irene: You know, the Newfoundlanders would never toot their own horn. It’s kind of great to be able to use the story to shine a light on them, one that really deserves to be shone.

Melbourne is definitely the furthest location that the show has travelled in its 7 years – how has it been seeing the story of a small town travel globally?

David: Everything we hear about Melbourne is that it’s an incredible theatre town, that so much happens here. When we first started developing the show, we took it as far away as we could to see how it resonated – we went to San Diego, which was as far away from Gander as you’d get in North America. But what surprised us all along is how much it resonates… this story about being kind to one another and coming together. I think this is about as far away as we could possibly bring [Come from Away], and to still see it connecting to people is a true testament of the story we’re telling.

Amongst all the glitz and glamour of Broadway musicals, Come From Away really stands out due to its simplicity. Why do you think people love that so much?

David: Our producers talk about how when they first picked up the show it was title that no one could remember, it was an ensemble show so it wasn’t about one movie star being in the cast, and it was a story about 9/11 the musical. So no one expected us to get to Broadway, no one expected us to have 5 companies around the world. And what’s amazing is that the story has trumped all that, it’s not “9/11: the musical,it’s “9/12 the musical” – it’s about how this little town responded to it. It’s not about remembering the title, it’s about remembering the story. And it’s about seeing this ensemble do this amazing magic trick on stage every night of taking 12 chairs and 2 tables and turning them into legion halls and busses and airplanes. We’ve seen it a thousand times and we never get tired of it.

The show has drawn so much attention to Gander, Newfoundland, an often overlooked part of Canada. Have you noticed a change in people’s attitudes?

Irene: Newfoundland is its own thing. They’ll be the first to say that Canada joined Newfoundland in 1949 [laughs]. It’s not the other way around. Another wonderful thing about telling this story is that for the longest time growing up, Newfoundlanders were the butt of jokes, the poorest province. If you talked to people who travelled a lot they’d say “Oh, I’ve been to every province except Newfoundland,” and that’s just not the case anymore.

How are you feeling about Australians doing ‘Newfie’ accents?

David: Every step of the way we wanted to get it right, and I think the cast want to as well! It’s so interesting seeing the Australian accent being transformed into Gander. But they’re brilliant at it! This cast is amazing, and wait ‘till you see them. They switch from character to character and accent to accent. They do so much on stage that just what they do is enough to come see the show, or the story is enough reason, or this amazing Newfoundland music that you’ve never heard on a stage like this before.

Come From Away premieres at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in July 2019. Tickets and more information are available at Comefromaway.com.au

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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