Festival Show Update: COME FROM AWAY

This month, we catch up with alumni Irene Sankoff and David Hein about the development of their 2013 Festival show, Come From Away, and their upcoming production at La Jolla Playhouse.
Come From Away is an original, rock-infused world-premiere musical based on the true story of when the isolated town of Gander, Newfoundland played host to the world. What started as an average day in a small town turned into an international sleep-over when 38 planes, carrying thousands of people from across the globe, were diverted to Gander on September 11, 2001. Undaunted by culture clashes and language barriers, the people of Gander cheered the stranded travelers with music, an open bar and the recognition that we’re all part of a global family.

What was the reception of Come From Away like at the Festival and what did you take away from the process of presenting with us?
Irene Sankoff: I remember sitting in the audience as the show started and thinking “oh my god, WHAT are we doing here?” I was SO stressed that I actually don’t remember what the audience response was. I just stared at our wonderful group of actors and was very, very thankful for all the people who had gotten us to that moment with our 2-month old daughter along for the ride.
David Hein: After the reading, we booted it out to our table. And as Canadians who didn’t know anyone—and who had written a show about an unknown Canadian story set in a place barely anyone had heard of—we were hoping someone—anyone—would come and introduce themselves.
IS: But as soon as the doors opened, it seemed like EVERYONE came and introduced themselves.
DH: We could barely finish with one person before another conversation started. We met off-Broadway and Broadway producers, AD’s of theatres and companies across North America and abroad. It was exciting to meet all these people that we’d only dreamed of meeting—and completely overwhelming at the same time.
IS: I kept glancing off and above the crowd to where my best friend and a few family members were with our daughter, Molly—who slept through the whole thing.
DH: One of the things we realized was that we’d been really fortunate to develop the show at The Canadian Music Theatre Project (where we were encouraged to create a 45-minute cut of the show) and also at Goodspeed’s Festival of New Works, both of which focused on simple staging at mic stands—so that helped us feel slightly more prepared for NAMT.
IS: And in terms of things we took away—capping the show at twelve actors taught us that we could get away with a smaller cast—which we’re now using. NAMT was also our first opportunity to see how our show worked with an age-appropriate cast—all the workshops beforehand had been with students (and some of them came to the NAMT presentation, which was really sweet). Finally, we were also so grateful that everyone was so open to new writers and new works—that’s not always the case, but it really is at NAMT.
DH: The first person at our table after the presentation was Kenny Alhadeff of Junkyard Dog Productions. Over the next couple months, we had the pleasure of speaking with a number of smart and generous commercial producers, as well as many incredible regional theatres—and (not because Kenny was the first out of the theatre and at the table) we eventually optioned the show to Junkyard Dog and are now figuring out its path with them.What has happened to the show developmentally since the Festival?
IS: Since NAMT, we’ve had two internal readings in New York and a three-week workshop out at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle with two public presentations hosted by Seattle Rep. We’ve also started to put together the creative team for the show, which we’re really excited about: Chris Ashley will be directing, with choreography by Kelly Devine, music supervision by Ian Eisendrath and orchestrations by August Eriksmoen.
DH: And while we’re so grateful for the work we’ve been able to do on the piece—equally rewarding was the week we spent with Chris and the Junkyard Dog team out in Newfoundland, where we fished out pieces of icebergs from the Atlantic and forced our team to get screeched-in and kiss the cod (a local tradition to become “honorary Newfoundlanders” that’s highlighted in our show)—plus, we were able to introduce them to many of the actual characters in our script! Something we think every writer wishes they could do…
IS: Also, you didn’t ask for this, but here’s a development update on Molly, who we brought to NAMT when she was 2 months old (we actually turned in the 45-minute cut of our script two days after she was born)… Because of Come From Away, she’s now been on 19 planes in her 17 months.
DH: She and the show are kind of growing up together like siblings. She got her first tooth in Newfoundland while staying at Beulah Cooper’s house (one of the characters in our show) and she turned one year old during our Seattle workshop—and in honor of the scene where everyone kisses the fish in our show, the producers made her a codfish-shaped cake. Kelly Devine has been teaching her Rock of Ages dance moves—and Chris Ashley is becoming an expert at opening strollers and installing car seats.

How has the script grown/changed over the past year?  
DH: We keep telling our parents that it hasn’t changed that much… but then they ask us why we’re still working on it and why it’s all taking so long… we finished the first draft of the script in January 2013. Two years later, we’re about to premiere at La Jolla.
IS: The major change is that the show is now a one-act—so we’ve tightened it up, consolidated some storylines and cut one song (which wasn’t shown at NAMT, so no one will ever miss it!… except us). We’re also working on a new prologue, giving the audience a bit more information about Newfoundland.
DH: Musically, we had the opportunity to expand the sound of the show with an 8-piece Seattle band—and since it’s such a book-heavy piece, we’ve really narrowed in on a lot of the instrumental passages. See, parents, we have done a lot!… And there’s still a lot more to do…

You have commercial producers, a new director and are heading to La Jolla Playhouse this Spring.  What are your goals for this production?  
DH: Well, first we have to get there—we still have some more notes we want to fix in the script and another round of casting. And I have a set and lighting design degree, so I’m really excited about some of the designers we’re talking to. But La Jolla is going to offer us a whole new level of development.
IS: We’ve seen the show semi-staged at the Canadian Music Theatre Project and at Goodspeed and then out in Seattle, but this is the first actual production, so we’re really looking forward to seeing the show with full staging, designs, choreography and orchestrations—and learning more about the show from the whole process.
DH: There’s a line in our opening song that says Newfoundland is “the farthest place you get from Disneyland”—so while we’re developing it on the opposite end of North America from Newfoundland—I think one of the biggest challenges for us will be to make as universal a show as we can, while staying true to the amazing stories and people that originally inspired us to write it in the first place. Also, we want to take Molly to Disneyland.

What challenges are you excited to overcome while getting the show on its feet for the world premiere?  
IS: We’re excited to get past the five-hour flight with our daughter, who always wants to meet everyone on the airplane. Everything else is gravy.
DH: There are pieces of the show that we’ve never seen staged, so we’ll be focused on those. We’ve got a new prologue, a streamlined epilogue and have made the piece tighter overall. And then there’s the orchestrations, arrangements, casting, staging, designs, marketing, etc. We’re excited and a little overwhelmed by each and every part of the process.
IS: And we’re equally excited and overwhelmed by all the contacts and opportunities that came up because of NAMT, which have led to other opportunities that are also exciting and overwhelming (there’s a theme here).

What is next for the show? 
DH: In March, we do our second round of casting at Telsey [+ Company] and then we head to La Jolla in April—where it opens June 11th! And then we see what happens next.
IS: Our current plan is to be squatters in San Diego and go to the beach everyday until they deport us.

Why should people come to La Jolla this Spring to Come From Away? 
DH: We’re from Canada where it’s currently minus “why-god-why-have-you-forsaken-us” cold right now, so I can’t imagine anyone NOT wanting to go to San Diego. But we’re also ridiculously excited to see everything our team is going to bring to it to make it even better. That’s why we’re going.
IS: For me, it comes down to a quote from Mr. Rogers—from his mother, actually. She said, “During a tragedy, you should look for the helpers—you’ll always find people who are helping.” Come From Away tells a true story about people being good to each other, strangers falling in love and lifelong friendships being formed—and those kind of stories feel a little rare these days.
DH: And for everyone who saw the NAMT reading, you get to see how it ends.

For more information about the upcoming production of Come From Away at La Jolla Playhouse visit


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