'Come From Away': Seeing the best of humanity

Dan Rosales, Spencer Glass and the cast rehearse 'Come From Away.'
Dan Rosales, Spencer Glass and the cast rehearse "Come From Away."

It's a story that few people know - especially in America, notes Canadian writer/composer David Hein.

On 9/11, when the U.S. closed its air space, planes that were already headed to America had to be diverted to other locations. Thirty-eight planes landed in Gander, Newfoundland. Gander - whose population sat at 9,000 - was inundated by the 6,595 people from those flights.

They accepted those visitors with warmth and hospitality. The people who "came from away" stayed first in high school auditoriums and church halls. But over the next five days, Gander residents invited them to stay in their homes.

"It changed people's lives. They say that, while the world was witnessing the worst acts of humanity, they saw the best of humanity at the same time," Hein says.

Hein and collaborator Irene Sankoff created a new musical, "Come From Away," based on that history. They are developing the show as part of the Goodspeed Festival of New Artists, with a public performance Saturday.

The show, which features a score informed by the East Coast folk tradition in Newfoundland, pulls from interviews that Hein and Sankoff did when they travelled to Gander for the 10th anniversary events on Sept. 11, 2011. Many people returned for the annivesary, and Hein and Sankoff say that their stories were incredibly inspirational. And at least one was romantic. A man from England and a woman from Texas fell in love during their five days in Newfoundland. He moved to Texas, and they returned to Gander for their honeymoon.

While Hein and Sankoff were in Gander, he says, "We were very fortunate. We got welcomed into the commmunity there. People put us up in their houses. They fed us. They entertained us. It was similar to what happened in 2001 to the passengers who were diverted there."

Long before 9/11, Gander held a vital place in the history of flight. Before there was jet travel, planes crossing the northern Atlantic landed in Gander to refuel. The Beatles first set foot in North America there. Queen Elizabeth stopped, as did Albert Einstein and Muhammad Ali. Because it took a little while for the plane to refuel, the famous folks would often hang out with the locals, so there are stories of, say, Fidel Castro going sledding at Gander.

Jets, though, don't need to stop to refuel. Consequently, Hein says, "This town that had one of the largest airports in the world kind of lost its purpose and went down to about six planes a day - little flights. What's wonderful is, (what happened there after 9/11) is not only a story about Canadians embracing people from around the world, but it's also a story of a town finding its purpose again and finding a place in the middle of this tragedy and finding something they were able to do."

Hein and Sankoff, meanwhile, were in New York City on 9/11. They were uptown, living in the International House, a residence that was filled with international students. They remember going up on the building's roof and seeing the smoke and feeling - as so many people did - a sense of helplessness.

It was a sense of helplessness that, in a way, helped fuel the Gander residents' desire to aid the travellers stranded there.

At the same time that "Come From Away" is being workshopped here, it's also being rehearsed in Toronto, as part of the Canadian Musical Theatre Project. It will be given a staged reading there Feb. 14-24.

"Come From Away" is Hein and Sankoff's second work together. They previously wrote, produced and starred in the hit Canadian musical "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding," which is based on Hein's mother's story. It won more awards than any other show in the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Hein explains the origins of the show and that memorable title: "My mom moved to Ottawa when I was 13, and she discovered that she was lesbian and fell in love with a Wiccan woman. She then had to come out to me and come out to my dad - her ex-husband; she had just gone through a divorce - and to her homophobic mother. She also rediscovered her Jewish heritage. They got married, and so they had a lesbian Jewish Wiccan wedding."

Hein and Sankoff perform in the show and get married onstage each night.

So, yes, that show is very different from "Come From Away."

Yet, Hein says, in both, "there's a balance of humor and sadness and loss and anger. We like to run the gamut of emotions."

With "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding," he says, it was a tightrope walk worrying about his mother's liking the show. With "Come From Away," it's a tightrope walk in terms of writing and staging a show about 9/11.

"That's the wonderful thing about this festival - it offers us the chance to workshop it and try things out," Hein says.


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