An interview with Irene Sankoff and David Hein, writers of the upcoming Festival show Come From Away, about exploring an unexplored topic, composing a musical inspired by Newfoundland and how the Festival has challenged this writing team.
Come From Away depicts an aspect of 9/11 that is not often focused on. How did you hear about the event in Newfoundland, and what inspired you to write about it?
Irene Sankoff: Our friend Michael Rubinoff (a NAMT member through Sheridan College and the Canadian Music Theatre Project) suggested the idea – and after a quick Google search we found so many articles and news clips that we’d be sitting there for hours looking at them with tears in our eyes. We saw that there were events planned in Newfoundland to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, and we noticed many of the people who had been stranded there so unexpectedly were returning to visit the friends that they had made 10 years earlier – and so we decided we had to be there too. We applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to spend close to a month out there – and we got it.
When we arrived everyone was so willing to share their stories with us, and they spoke of one another and their memories with respect and love and gratitude toward the Newfoundlanders for putting them up, feeding them, entertaining them and befriending them during such a terrifying time. It was such a positive response to a hateful act and the people who were there to experience the Newfoundlanders’ hospitality really want this aspect of history to be shared. The stories are not only touching, there are humorous ones, too. At one of the shelters, a local asked a passenger if there was anything she needed – she said “A cup of coffee… and my dog.” The local left the shelter and then returned a while later with a cup of coffee and the family’s pet dog to keep her company. That’s just one story of the many amazing stories we heard…
What is the intended function of the story as a re-telling instead of happening in the present tense?
IS: We were inspired initially by The Laramie Project. Both shows are about a town’s response to a tragedy as told through the people who were affected by it. It’s important to underline how much the time spent in Newfoundland still resonates with the people who were stranded there after 10 years. And we wanted to relay the stories as much as possible in the way they were told to us.We weren’t interested in a fictionalized retelling of history, since what actually happened was so amazing (having said that, we still needed to take thousands of stories from hundreds of people and turn them into a musical, so some of the people we met are merged into one character, and some events that happened we ascribed to different characters, but while it’s not a documentary, it’s all based on truth). Finally, the story we wanted to tell wasn’t just that people were treated incredibly when stranded in Newfoundland—we wanted to show that they and the Newfoundland community were changed by these events—and we felt we could only do that by showing what happened next when the passengers returned home. The town felt emptier and quiet for the first time. And passengers who returned home wrestled with their experience being so different from everyone else’s – and they all mourned losing something amazing that they never expected to find. It was really only ten years later, when these groups reunited, that the story finally felt resolved.
The Newfoundland accent is fascinating. What was it like writing for this dialect, and what were your considerations for how quickly an American audience would catch on?
IS: Ow’s dat, B’y? Oh, my ducky, the Newfoundland tongue – she’s right difficult! But she’s a beauty too, B’y!
We were immersed in the dialect while visiting Newfoundland in September 2011, and found some
folks were easier to understand than others! We missed the punch line of many jokes because when the locals got together they would speak faster and faster as they got excited, and once a joke landed they would look at us expectantly and we would just stare back blankly! We recorded a lot of verbatim interviews and we also got ourselves a copy of the Newfoundland Dictionary. We tried to keep speech patterns and figures of speech as intact as possible, and while workshopping made changes to clarify intent if people were confused. What’s emerged still represents the richness of the language, but doesn’t lose anyone along the way.
What cultural aspects of Newfoundland informed the musical composition? Were you aiming for a specific genre of music or did each song evolve from a different musical style?
IS: Newfoundlanders told us that at least one person in every house plays an instrument and David grew up on
East Coast music and folk festivals. He couldn’t wait to start composing for a bodhran (a hand drum), accordion, fiddle, penny whistle and ugly stick (basically a stick stuck in a boot with bottle caps screwed into it…no, really). But along the way, we got really excited about trying to represent through music what happened in Newfoundland over those five days – a merging of cultures from around the world over top of a base of Newfoundland folk. For passengers who came from Moldova, we listened to Russian and Moldovan music. For passengers who came from Texas, we listened to country rock. We added African percussion for passengers from there and somehow we found common denominators to create a musical metaphor for the world coming together.
One of your main characters is American Airlines captain Beverley Bass, the first female captain of a commercial airline. What was it like writing a character with such real-life historic import?
IS: We are in awe of Beverley! She told us that as she was growing up she had no understanding of sexism, so when she decided at a very young age she wanted to be a pilot, she saw no reason why she couldn’t become one. It’s amusing that even in 2013 people assume that she’s a flight attendant until the script reveals otherwise. Women especially respond to Beverley’s song in the second act detailing what flying means to her and how she got where she is today – lyrics which were very close to the verbatim story that she told us herself. Beverley is a huge supporter of us and fan of the show – she just sent our new baby daughter an adorable welcome gift and she’s constantly cheering us on over Facebook! We have shared the music with her as the show has developed, and she saw a live streaming of the show as it was performed in Canada from her home in Texas! Beverley, like many of the people we spoke to, continues to keep in touch with us and follow the show’s development. In fact, we might have a couple special guests at NAMT!
When you two work together do you more or less stick to respective categories as book writer or composer, or do you both dabble in everything?
David Hein: We write everything together – book, music, and lyrics – although since I used to be a singer/songwriter, I tend to start the songs and write the majority of the music – but by the end, we can barely remember who wrote what. We each work in different ways. I tend to slap things on a blank page and Irene goes in to refine them, and what follows is usually hours of conversation and debate before anything else goes down on the page.
Has the Festival process presented any challenges or elucidated anything for you about Come From Away?
DH: What challenges HASN’T it presented? From script cutting, to finding our newborn daughter a passport, to casting from Canada via google and youtube…but despite all that, the NAMT staff, our advisors, and our director and music director have really shared the workload, and really jumped in when Irene gave birth at the beginning of August, which has made it a completely wonderful experience. From a script and music perspective, it’s really forced us to take a step back and look at what’s essential to our piece – which is wonderful, because one of our challenges was that we felt our Act 1 was a little long. Fitting it into a 45-minute reading required tweaking each line and really being economical, and we’ve had to kill some of our darlings, but we feel like we’ve made it leaner and faster in the process. Having said that, some of our favorite stories and songs are in Act. 2, or have ended up on the NAMT cutting room floor… but we’re crossing our fingers that this isn’t the last time we’ll see them!