Just announced: Come From Away has secured Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre where it will open for previews February 18, 2017.
Come From Away, a new musical at Ford’s Theatre, tells of how the small town of Gander on an isolated island in Newfoundland took in almost 7,000 stranded strangers, or “Come From Aways,” for a week following the 9/11 attacks. Their incredible generosity and openness is a shining example of hope and humanity in the darkest of times. The show comes to Ford’s after a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse (of which director Christopher Ashley is the Artistic Director) and Seattle Rep. After its run in DC, the show will continue on to a one night concert in Gander, a run in Toronto, before moving to Broadway.
Sarah Scafidi speaks with director Christopher Ashley and cast members Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, and Joel Hatch about the production:
Christopher, how long have you been with the show and how did it get connected to Ford’s Theatre?
Christopher Ashley: I’ve been working on it for three years, and Paul Tetreault, the Artistic Director at Ford’s Theatre, was one of the early champions of this piece. From the time the show was just the first twenty minutes of what it is now, Paul has been tracking it and throwing his hat into any ring he can find. As we started to look for a route and a path for it, his early enthusiasm was tremendously persuasive.
Also, there is something really amazing about performing a show where people are incredibly generous in response to a terrorist action in a room where one of the most famous acts of political violence happened. There is something about the way that the history of Ford’s Theatre and the events of the play, though not the same, rhyme with each other.
How has the show grown and developed since you’ve been with it?
CA: The early drafts had more characters, and it was written for more actors than it is now. As time has gone on, we’ve kept shrinking the cast so that fewer and fewer people tell the whole story. Part of the theatrical event is watching the actors transform themselves and play someone from Gander, then someone from New York, and then someone from Moldova – changing on a dime! There is something really exciting about directing actors who transform so quickly and confidently.
We also keep on stripping away any language that is extra, so it is increasingly essential. We are trying to leave only the language and moments of the story that are core and alive and theatrical and electric. Because it’s a huge story. We are telling the story of 7,000 people who arrived in a town of 10,000. There are almost 20,000 potential characters, so a lot of the work is editing away until the parts of the story you are telling are the necessary ones.
Joel Hatch: The basic story that David Hein and Irene Sankoff [the writers] have put together is kind of brilliant. They took something like 4,000 hours of interviews from people who had flown in on planes and from the people of Gander and the surrounding communities who had been involved, and they assembled this storyline that gives a very strong impression of how that week transpired. That story and many of the basic tunes they composed have been rock solid from square one.
I asked David and Irene how many songs were composed for the show that they did not use, and they said twelve. That’s a lot of music that they put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that will never make it into this production. And there are a lot of scenes that have been rewritten, even in the last week [before opening]. We are still working on it and fine tuning it. I’ve worked on other shows that have been on their way to Broadway, and sometimes at this point, you see desperation changes – where they are just making changes because they feel they need to make changes. That’s not the case with this. Every change has made the story a little bit clearer, the characters a little bit sharper and the stakes a little bit higher.
Christopher, you actually traveled to Newfoundland, right?
CA: Yeah, I went up with David and Irene. They did a lot of the original research and interviews for the piece in Gander at the ten-year anniversary in 2011. Then about a year and a half ago, David and Irene and I went back, and I met many the characters and saw all of the locations. We re-experienced that same feeling of incredible generosity. People were constantly feeding us. I think I gained five pounds in three days of research. And when you try to thank people, the answer is always, “ah, you would have done the same.” So it’s generosity and self-effacement simultaneously. It’s very moving.
I keep hearing about the generosity of Gander. Do you think if that same event happened elsewhere, it would have been met with the same level of kindness?
CA: It’s interesting. I was in New York the week of 9/11, and the people of New York took amazing care of each other. I’ve heard a lot of people say the same thing about Washington, D.C. in the wake of the Pentagon attack. Both of those cities behaved beautifully, and people really took care of each other in extraordinary ways. I do think moments of crisis can bring out the very best in people.
But I’ve been thinking about this a lot: in the wake of the Paris attacks (and there are so many attacks all the time now), you turn on the television, and people don’t always behave beautifully. There’s an opposite response, too, which is: “let me close my border. Let me keep the other away from me and hunker down and protect the homeland/tribe/family.” And I think there is something enduringly important about talking about generosity of spirit in times of crisis, because it’s not universal, and it’s important to find that generosity in ourselves.
I keep thinking how timely this is with our current national and global political climate.
CA: I think that’s absolutely right. There are parts of this show that I think will remain universal. We’re at a point in our history where those kinds of actions are going to keep on happening. There is also something about this story that is very specific to what happened in Newfoundland. Those people took care of these strangers across boundaries of culture, language, religion, and race in ways that were really extraordinary, and I think parts of that are unique to the Newfoundland character. The winters are really hard, and it’s an island, so it’s quite cut off. You can’t drive there. And I think that they are used to taking care of each other and getting through it together.
JH: Yeah, there are so many ways in which this story hits on what is happening now today. And I keep thinking it’s an Our Town of the 21st century; it’s universal. It tells about man’s basic nature, and how we’re all basically the same. It doesn’t matter what kind of clothes we wear or the color of our skin, we are all basically the same and we all need the same things.
The show is essentially coming fully formed from its runs at La Jolla and Seattle Rep. Alyssa, as a local actress, what has this process been like for you?
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan: It’s been really extraordinary. I think that it’s a unique situation for me. I’ve never been in a production where everyone else was extremely familiar with one another and had done the show together a number of times. It almost felt like I was the out-of-towner, but they never made me feel that way for a moment. This is a really exceptional collection of people that Chris has put together. They are not only extremely talented and professional, but they genuinely care for one another, and they care about the reason this show was created.
How did you become involved?
AK: One of the cast members, Petrina Bromley, is from Newfoundland, and she got a contract at the Stratford Festival in Canada. She is doing a couple of shows in rep up there during this DC run. So, they let her out of the contract and were looking for one local person and local understudies. They held auditions, and I was cast.
Joel, what is your history with the show?
JH: I started with it when we did the premiere at La Jolla. We have people in our cast who go back to earlier workshops. Both Rodney and Kendra had done early workshops in Seattle, but I got on board when they were ready to do the first production of it.
Each cast member plays multiple characters, correct? But you have one core character. Who are your core characters?
AK: My main character is named Bonnie Harris who is a real woman who lives in Gander and runs the local ASPCA animal shelter there.
JH: Mine is Claude Elliot, the mayor of Gander. And he has little bits of another character from Gander: Jake, the City Administrator. The two of them worked very closely in organizing [the events of that week]. As a matter of fact, when they heard all of these planes had landed, it was Jake who said, “the government asked me to put together a manual for our city, planning for such an event, and I happen to have it in my file. Let me go get it.” And they opened up this big thick book that he had put together, and they started at the first page and followed his directions all the way through. Of course they had to improvise quite a bit, dealing with people for five days, but having that plan at the outset helped them a great deal.
And Claude is a great people person. I got to meet him in Seattle, and he is as warm and as big-hearted and generous and full as you could ever hope to meet. And it’s really nice to be able to play somebody like that.
What is most exciting about this production for you?
CA: The score is extraordinary. The Newfoundland rock has so much energy and color in it. And I love that this show doesn’t try to take on 9/11. It’s really a 9/12 musical. It’s about what happened in response to that day. It’s not about the day itself in New York or Washington.
Come From Away
closes October 16, 2016
Details and tickets
Most people I know have incredible retention of that week and what was happening in their lives; it’s really ingrained in their memories. So, the audience is having a memory of their own story of that week while they’re watching these people’s stories, and it makes the audience really emotional with very simple input from the show. For example, we never show the building coming down; there’s no imagery of the attacks. It’s twelve actors playing the moment when they see those images for the first time, just looking out at the audience and taking their breath in at the moment they see it. Something as simple as that can be incredibly emotional for the audience. I love how much feeling the audience brings to these stories.
I also love the moment after the show when you walk through the lobby and everybody you meet wants to tell you their story of that week. It’s a kind of necessary story that everybody wants to share, and there is a community of storytelling about something that is really basic and urgent and central to our culture that I find very moving to work on.
AK: I don’t think I could have known this until the last few nights at the final dress and preview: it’s the audience. There is this eruption at the end of the show that I have never experienced in my professional career. And it’s not just that the performances are great or the book is great or the score is great. It all is, but I think the thing that makes this special, and in this city very compelling, is that the audience is that last character to be brought in.
Everybody has a story of 9/11. Everybody has his or her own experience through [the show], and that’s usually the case with theater, but with this storyline in particular, everybody who was alive on 9/11 has a 9/11 story. After the show, they don’t want to come up and compliment me, they want to tell me their story. I heard that everybody was shaking the ushers’ hands last night. Their hearts were open again. It was like the way America was for the first couple of weeks after the tragedy. It reminds people that there is this great humanity within all of us, we just don’t tap into it the way that we should.
JH: have never been involved with a show where when the lights go down, we are hit in the chest with this burst, this roar, from the audience. I have never experienced that in my 30 years of theatre. It’s not that they are cheering for us necessarily, but they need that release. They need to go “YES! There is something good about humanity that we can all celebrate.” That is what is most exciting about telling this story, it’s a celebration of what happened on 9/12 and the days beyond in which there were real life heroes that we never hear about and that never got [media] attention: people who donated their finances, their clothing, their food, their work to help other people. And that’s an exciting story to tell.
What is your 9/11 story?
CA: I was working in New York City. It was the day of first rehearsal for a play I was directing at the Manhattan Theatre Club. I had already left for rehearsal and was midtown in the Broadway area when all of this information was coming out. Clearly, we canceled rehearsal that day and the next. But I was living downtown about two miles from the attack site in Manhattan, and the whole area had gotten cordoned off by the military, so you couldn’t get into my neighborhood unless you had something that proved you lived there. The smell of the smoke was all over my apartment. It felt like I was living in the center of a war zone for a week. But I was mostly so struck by New York, where people can be so driven and ambitious and involved in their own lives. I’ve never seen New Yorkers be as generous and open, noticing what other people needed. It was extraordinary.
AK: I grew up in Michigan, and I was in undergrad at the time. I was in a movement class, and somebody had come into our class and said there was an accident: a plane flew into the World Trade Center. So we all left the class to go look at the news. It was an early class, so we were one of the only sets of students in our theatre complex. They put the TV on, and we just sat there and watched, and then I saw the second plane hit the second tower live. It was starling and shocking and horrific. Almost immediately, my best friend and I and a whole collection of us from the class, rushed over to the hospital to ask if we could donate blood. They weren’t taking any blood at the time, so we just sat and waited to see if they would change their minds. For an hour we just sat at the hospital, and they finally sent us home. We spent the rest of the afternoon just talking with one another about life. I was 20 at the time and had so much life ahead me, or I thought that I did, and the idea of facing mortality in an instant like that was shocking to me. It’s still hard for me. It opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t really have an awareness of.
JH: I was on the road with the national tour of Beauty and the Beast, on the West Coast in San Jose, California. I was totally unaware of what was happening on the East Coast. I got up in the morning and went down to the gym in the hotel where I was staying. The TV monitors were playing in the gym, and I didn’t know what was going on; it was surreal. There was a man in the gym sitting on the floor sobbing. And I said, “do you know anybody there?” And he said, “I’m a pilot. I know the guy whose plane went into the Pentagon. I know that guy did not fly that plane into the Pentagon. He had to be dead.” It still hits me, as it does every American, or anybody in the world. It’s such a violation of everybody’s sense of what’s right.
Is there anything else DC audiences should know?
CA: We had a really amazing tour of the Pentagon with the whole cast and creative team. Many of the people who went through that attack were very generous with their stories and experiences. One of the reasons were really wanted to come to Washington was to see what it was like to perform for people who were directly involved with the attacks. So far, it’s been a really extraordinary experience with the audience. Their ability to laugh, cry, groove with the music, then laugh and cry again is tremendous. They’ve taken the roller coaster journey with the show in such a generous spirit.
Come From Away plays at Ford’s Theatre now through October 9th. It next travels to Gander, Newfoundland for two benefit concerts on October 29th, six weeks in Toronto before beginning its Broadway previews on February 18th. You can catch also catch Christopher Ashley’s directing work at Signature Theatre this October with Freaky Friday.