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Play showcases Newfoundland spirit

Former Gander mayor discusses hit musical Come From Away ahead of its Winnipeg run

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/1/2018 (941 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After 21 years serving as mayor of Gander, N.L. Claude Elliott called it quits last September.

"I thought it was time to do some other things," he says, adding, "If I had run again, I would have won."

At age 67, Elliott has more time to devote to being an ambassador on behalf of the musical Come From Away, currently playing in previews at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre before it begins its official (sold-out) run Jan. 11 to Feb. 3. He is in Winnipeg to catch an all-Canadian cast in the regional theatre debut of the Tony-winning work by David Hein and Irene Sankoff — his 13th viewing so far.

Bear in mind: he’s not just a fan. He’s a character.

As mayor, Elliott played a pivotal role in setting a welcoming tone to the 6,000 people whose planes were forced to land in Gander after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, which saw hijacked passenger planes turned into weapons. Many of those passengers wound up bivouacked for five days in a town that could only accommodate about 500 visitors in its hotel rooms. It fell on Gander’s population of 9,600 people to help.

And help they did.

"The people that was in Gander from the United States, they were scared. They were frightened," Elliott recalls. "When they heard what had happened, they weren’t sure what their country was going to look like, they weren’t sure what their communities would look like. Would they feel safe anymore?

"So, for five days, we reassured them that, yes, you’re going to be fine. We showed them this love and compassion and it wasn’t just something that was just special for that occasion, it’s something we do on a daily base.

"One lady said very clearly to me when she was leaving, ‘When I landed in Gander and I saw the television and heard what happened in my country, I had lost all faith in people. But you’ve restored that. There are still good people lifting this world.’"

That spirit, Elliott says, runs deep in the culture of Newfoundland.

"Go back in the history of Newfoundland: we’re an island out on the Atlantic, and you go back to the 1930s, survival meant helping each other.

"If you had a loaf of bread and the next-door neighbour didn’t have one, you gave him half of what you had. And that was instilled in us by our fathers and grandfathers, as children.

"You have to be there to help people, not only in difficult times, but in good times, and you have to do it wanting nothing in return," Elliott says. "That’s how we survived on that island."

That spirit is very much reflected in the musical, according to Elliott.

"David and Irene did a fantastic job of putting that play together," he says, acknowledging that he had not been a musical fan prior to this show, and he was stumped when he heard what Hein and Sankoff were up to.

"I just couldn’t figure out how they were going to take sandwiches and blankets and pillows and put that into a musical," he says. "We never thought it was going to go where it’s gone today."

He allows it’s a bit surreal to sit in the audience and watch an actor onstage pretend to be you.

"The guy in New York is doing a great job and I’ve been told by people who have seen it here that the guy who’s playing you here is doing a good job. I think the only thing they’re having a problem with is mastering the language," he says of the particular Newfoundland dialect.

In a way, the ambassador role he is playing began in September 2001 and it continues in his championing of the musical, notwithstanding its tragic beginnings.

"My grandfather was a wise man and he always said that it’s an ill wind that don’t blow somebody good," Elliott says. "I think what we saw on 9/11 was probably the worst of mankind, but in another part of the world, we showed the best of mankind.

"Love and compassion outweigh evil every time," he says.

"We get knocked down but we come back bigger."

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King

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

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