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Come From Away cast finds home here

Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press</p><p>Irene Sankoff (left) and her husband David Hein, who wrote the book, music and lyrics of Mirvish’s Come From Away.</p></p>

Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Irene Sankoff (left) and her husband David Hein, who wrote the book, music and lyrics of Mirvish’s Come From Away.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/1/2018 (916 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In June of 2017, director Christopher Ashley got to bask in the warm glow of receiving a Tony Award for his direction of the musical Come From Away, a musical by Canadians David Hein and Irene Sankoff set in Gander, N.L., during the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Six months later, Ashley, 53, is in Winnipeg doing tech rehearsals for the Canadian remount of the play at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre before it moves to Toronto, where it begins an open-ended run on Feb. 13 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Ashley says the dynamic of coming to Winnipeg in January is not unlike that of what some 16,000 travellers must have experienced when they were forced to bivouac in the remote community of Gander after air traffic throughout North America was effectively shut down.

Michael Zorn / The Associated Press</p><p>Director Christopher Ashley won a Tony for Come From Away.</p></p>

Michael Zorn / The Associated Press

Director Christopher Ashley won a Tony for Come From Away.

"I would say the Royal Manitoba Theatre staff have been spectacularly inviting and warm," he says during a phone interview. "The story of Gander is retelling itself at the staff level of the MTC.

"I can’t say the same thing for the weather," he adds. "Warmth is not a word I would use."

The production, currently in previews on the stage of the Royal MTC until Jan. 11, is performed by an all-Canadian cast, which distinguishes it from the version playing on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where it is still playing to capacity houses.

Ashley took time out from rehearsals to speak with the Free Press about the hit musical.

FP: How is this production different from what you’ve done on Broadway?

CA: The staging remains very similar. But it’s the first time we’ve had an all-new cast since we started workshopping the show four years ago — all Canadian — and the difference that makes on the show is immense and absolute.

It’s so much the 12 people who inhabit the show and bring it to life. They really are the event of the show. It really feels fresh and new and it’s really been a re-exploration process finding this show with these 12 new people.

FP: You don’t ever want to repeat yourself...

CA: Ever. The production is so simple. There’s 12 chairs, There’s two tables. There’s a turntable. Really, the event of the show is watching 12 people transform and transform again in, what, 16,000 roles? It’s the story of 16,000 people in that one week in Newfoundland, so those 12 actors are transforming, they have to be able to turn on a dime (with) different dialects, different physicality, different vocal qualities, so that kind of acting bravura challenge, it’s really fun to explore with a whole new cast.

FP: It’s an international story, of course, but it’s also a very Canadian story. Does that come through more strongly with an all-Canadian cast?

CA: I would say this cast’s understanding of the kind of character of the Newfoundland population is much more innate than the first American cast.

The Gander dialect is really hard. The ear just wants to take you to Ireland immediately and while it’s related to that, it’s also very very different.

You can also hear in the background (music). Having an onstage band, a Canadian band who has been in the pubs playing this music, they bring a wealth of knowledge as well as a passionate specificity that’s been a real pleasure.

FP: When you first read Come From Away, a musical structured around the events of 9/11, the premise must have been concerning.

CA: Yes. I picked it up because the producing director at my theatre in La Jolla (the La Jolla Playhouse, where Ashley is the artistic director) had been a reader for a festival of plays and David and Irene submitted 45 minutes of a first draft of this at that festival. She had loved it, but I picked it up with real trepidation because I was in New York during 9/11 and I had incredibly strong and unresolved feelings about that attack, that day and that week.

But with the play, you discover it’s really more of a 9/12 musical. It’s really about the response to those events rather than the events themselves.

And at this moment in history, with so much division and conflict, a story about people being so generous and so kind to each other, is so satisfying. It’s part of the reason that all the designers are back here again, David and Irene are here and the choreographer and the entire original creative team, plus this new group of Canadians have come together. I think everybody feels so passionately about it because it feels like such a satisfying story to tell at this point in history.

FP: Did working on the musical help you personally with those unresolved feelings?

CA: It did. Whatever kind of upset that was stored in my body, I’ve had lots of opportunities to cry. It’s so interesting to work on the show and some little unexpected moment will have everybody crying and it’s not always the moments you expect. Sometimes, it’s just a moment of simplicity.

But yes, I would absolutely say that mounting this show and thinking about the show and staging the show and now testing it and re-rehearsing it, has really helped me bring a sense of centre, if not calm. I feel like I’ve grappled with that week and it’s really fun to watch over 1,000 people a night go so quiet at the serious moments of the show, and get so raucous at the party aspect of the show, and watch them take the roller-coaster of it and that’s very satisfying and moving.

It was so amazing to (get an opportunity to) meet all the characters from the play, the real people and have them tell other stories about that week. There are these stories about people taking care of each other at such a difficult moment.

FP: Now you’re attached to a film version of the play, correct?

CA: That is absolutely true. David and Irene have written a first draft of a screenplay, beautiful work, and it’s not an easy screenplay to write because what they’ve written for the stage is so theatrical and thinking about how you translate that to the big screen is tricky and exciting. And the plan is very much to try to shoot it in Newfoundland.

FP: By the time that’s done, you will have spent a good portion of your life on this one work.

CA: It will actually be a decade of my life, which is what you hope for, that a play resonates enough that it has a life in the world, and this musical certainly has.

I think America over the last century has taken a lot of pride in itself as a kind of beacon and I have to say right now, Canada looks a lot more like a beacon than America. I have, since Trump’s election, experienced a lot of compassion from my Canadian friends mixed with pity.

But one of the things about this play is that it isn’t about political division. It’s about connection with people, so whatever your politics are, this show has a story to tell about people taking care of each other despite huge gulfs of language and culture and religion.

"They had so much difference with these people that showed up on their doorstep and they didn’t care. They just said: ‘I’m going to feed you, I’m going to house you, I’m going to take care of you.’ The media is obsessed with stories of division but this story is kind of a solution to that, which is: How about we all think of each other as connected?


Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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