The Human Stories Behind Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre: ‘There’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness, but right now it feels important.’

Anthony Walker-Cook and Carleigh Nicholls had the chance to attend a press event for the five-star hit Come From Away. Anthony and Carleigh spoke with the real-life people and the actors that play them in this hopeful tale based around true events in the wake of 9/11.

What can you remember of those five days after 9/11? What first impressions come to mind when you think of those days?
Derm Flynn, former Mayor of Appleton, Newfoundland: Obviously we remember very fondly the time that all the people came, but we remember sadly at the same time about why they came and how things were going in New York. I think the tragedy of New York was to some degree driving our reactions as well because our people were all affected.
Bonnie Harris, head of the Gander Area SPCA: I actually think of the following morning. Just learning about what had happened, and watching those images on TV, we were sort of in shock. It was actually later that evening that I thought “I wonder if there are animals on the planes,” but it was the following morning before I found out there were. We contacted the people who were dealing with the planes and we just collected everything that we could think of that we’d need and we just started going up and down the steps of the airplanes. 
Tom McKeon, an engineer Come From Away: I guess the weather. It was such a beautiful time and that added a bit to the survivors’ guilt that was affecting almost everybody. It was so beautiful. We were getting such loving care and so that was all mixed together. We were feeling like we have to be back in New York: I really felt the need to be there doing something. My impression of it was this glorious thing and at the same time being pulled back to what was going on.

Diane Davis, teacher at Gander Academy: The first thing I heard about the attacks was in the morning. My husband was on strike. I was at school, and a parent came in and said a plane hit the twin towers, and I’m here to get my son. I didn’t see that being related. Ten minutes later, another woman came in and said ‘the second plane just hit, I need my kids’, and there was an intensity to it. Years later, I realized those were probably spouses of air traffic controllers who had inside information and were probably not just taking their children out of school, but may have been taking their children out of town. As far as the show goes, when the passengers arrive, and that scene where they say welcome to Gander Academy and they ask what really happened, I cry and sob. Standing there, watching them watching the television, was like seeing it for the first time over and over and over. There were some people who slept in the room with one of the televisions, where they spent the whole four, five days in that room. Other people never went in that room again, because they couldn’t handle being around the media. All of it, the way it’s portrayed, we stood shoulder to shoulder for the moment of silence in the school. There was no sound but sobbing. 

The cast of Come From Away.

How was it like for you meeting someone who’s then going to play you on stage? 
Diane Davis: Well I always expected that it would happen. No, it’s overwhelming and flattering. It’s inspiring to see how hard working these people are. I have a whole new appreciation for theatre, for people who work in theatre on stage and back stage and the people who are always around the show. It’s been a wild adventure. 
Beulah Cooper, Head of Gander Legion: Oh my god. I’ve got another family member! When all the planes landed in Gander, they landed as strangers. A couple days later, they were all friends. When they left, they were all family. That’s how we looked at them. We’ve often talked about this among ourselves, but every one of the cast members we meet, they’re so sweet. They’re family and we’re just so proud of them, and the job they do on stage. You know it’s not easy trying to portray somebody else, and they switch from one to the other. I don’t know if I could do that! 
Bonnie Harris: It’s surreal and it’s bizarre, and it’s unbelievable. Something that we do every day and something we think of being a normal thing, it’s surprising to see being played on stage. We certainly hope that this shouldn’t be necessary, this should be everyday, and that’s the way that Newfoundlanders are. This should be an everyday occurrence. It shouldn’t be a big deal. 

How does it feel playing an actual person?
Nathanael Campbell, who plays Bob, a composite character inspired by Tom McKeon: I did my prep work. Reading the script, I think every now and again remembering this is all true, and that this stuff really happened. Would I do that? I hope now telling this story everyday that I would. It’s a question I ask myself quite a lot. I have that scene where Derm does say “Come Inside,” and I’m like how would I react in that moment. It’s lovely to tell that story every day.
Rachel Tucker plays Beverley and Annette: I love it. It’s the first time I’ve had to do it actually, and having them in the audience, it’s such a buzz. It’s such a feeling. It’s very exciting, and Beverley told me loads of information that I didn’t know when I met her, and she’s a real hero of mine, actually.

Cat Simmons, who plays Hannah: You have to grow a really big pair of balls, and just trust it, be really confident and go for it. It’s fun as well. It’s forever exciting to do that. And also, what you’re paying homage to is human kindness and these wonderful things that these people did and the friendships that were made in the wake of the atrocities that happened. It’s quite nice as well telling that story as best as you can.
Mary Doherty, who plays Bonnie: Yeah, I think it adds a detail that you want to honour. You know you can kind of get away with it when someone’s not real. When someone’s real, there’s this everlasting fountain of knowledge that now I’ve met you, it’s incredible. I’m saying I want to grill Bonnie all day. But knowing it’s real, other than the pressure, is actually a really incredible thing because you need to obviously tell the story truthfully as an actor and knowing that the words you are saying are pretty much verbatim, it really helps you because you know it’s real and there’s no make believe going on. It’s just facts, so it’s really great.
Jenna Boyd, who plays Beulah: It’s incredibly overwhelming. It’s very humbling. I don’t want to use the word ‘pressure’ in a negative way, but there is an added pressure to do it justice, to show the story and the hard work that was put in by the people of Gander and by the two remarkable women, I am fortunate enough to be able to portray. But no, the first time we met was in Dublin where I met Diane and Beulah at the same time and I was able to see within the character Beulah Davis exactly where Diane Davis begins and Beulah Cooper ends and the merging of the two. I can clearly see it now. 

Rachel Tucker and the female cast members of Come From Away.

It’s amazing how rapid the show’s staging is and you really show the organized chaos that must have taken hold of the town. How did the show get to that stage: is it a matter of continuously rehearsing and going quicker and quicker? 
Rachel Tucker: We are in previews now, and we’re still tweaking it. We’re still cleaning it. It fascinates me. When I watched it on Broadway, knowing that they’re actors, I questioned are they actually actors or are they real people that they’ve just gotten in off the streets. That’s how realistic and natural it was. So to get to that point, took us eight weeks really. Four weeks of rehearsals and then the first four weeks in Dublin, we were really still finding the show. It’s just rehearse like full time, morning to night, go home do homework on it, re-rehearse, until it’s in our bones and our bodies.
Mary Doherty: It’s all in the rehearsal period. You have to really trust the team. The rehearsals were different than any job I’ve ever done in twenty years. They were very, very different. We spent a week on the music. We learnt the entire show in a week. And then a lot of work, and homework every time you go home. We had to get off book, we had to learn our lines before the first day we walked on our feet, and we were all like “can’t we just learn our lines as we go?” They warned we wouldn’t have a spare hand for a script. Then it was the chair choreography. The chairs go on different coloured spikes on the floor depending what scene you’re in … green, pink, brown, red. It’s learning your numbers at the front of the stage, everything’s on a grid. And once you get your head around that, it’s definitely your friend. It was integral to know I’m on three because it’s lit so specifically as well. The whole thing is a dance. Now it’s lovely, slick and should look like a fairly effortless thing. It’s knackering but brilliant. Without an interval, you get so into it, which, as an actor, is great. 

What would you like UK audiences to take away from Come From Away, being slightly different to the American and Canadian audiences as people who lived the experience?
Derm Flynn: We’re known to come together pretty fast and not wait to be asked or wait to be told. Just go out and respond. I think as Newfoundland and Labrador people, we say we’re hospitable but I don’t know if that’s the right word but we’re open to meeting anyone. If the devil shows up at your door, you’ll invite him in. I’m not sure if we had the devil, but we had a few characters show up at our door, but it was all good and it was a good reaction from all the people and it made such a special bond that has been transformed and brought forward in this musical, and been brought forward in such a good news way. Think of people first as being good. Start from that basis instead of having doubts about everybody else. We all have our own reasons for doubting this on different days, but basically, if humanity continues to be at war with one another, continues to be neglecting one another’s needs and issues, what the hell is going to happen to all of us? We’re all going the one way at one point in time. Openness, kindness, respect, a little bit of love, and understanding doesn’t cost very much and goes a long, long way. 
Beulah Cooper: I just feel so proud that I’d done something to help somebody else. I just feel so proud. These people were under a lot of stress when they came, not knowing where they were, or who they were dealing with. I mean they didn’t know who we were anymore than we knew who they were. But you go down, and you give them a smile, you give them a hug. Now to this day, I don’t give anybody handshakes, or very few, but you know I say, I don’t do handshakes. I do hugs, they’re warmer. It just doesn’t hurt when you can do something for somebody. No matter how big or how small it is. Like I said, sometimes, a smile or a hug can do a lot. 

‘Think of people first as being good. Start from that basis instead of having doubts about everybody else.’ Come From Away certainly teaches audiences how to be ‘good’ in difficult times.

We also sat down with David Hein, one of the creators of Come From Away, and spoke of the show’s conception. 

AWC: How did the show start?
DH: We got a grant from the Canadian government to go out to Gander. We found out there was going to be a commemoration ceremony and all of these people ten years later were coming back to reunite with these life long friends. We got a grant to go out there for almost a month, and we had a budget for staying with hotels but we didn’t need to use it because they would not let us stay in hotels. This one family gave us the keys to their house and said just feed the cats, and they left. We didn’t know them. They actually said you might want to lock the door just in case someone comes in, nothing bad is going to happen, but someone might drop in for tea. We thought they were joking but I think Irene put out the cat or something like that or let the cat in and left the door open and in the morning, there was a guy sitting there drinking a cup of tea and said “oh good you’re up. I heard you were in town and thought I’d give you a tour.” It was just amazing. We saw the same generosity that the people at the time saw.

AWC: Please tell me you went around taking people’s barbeques. Please.
DH: We did not, no. We did go to a barbeque, but we did not actually steal anyone’s barbeques, sadly.

CN: One thing I find interesting is that you don’t really see many musicals set in Canada, especially on international stages. What do you think about Come From Away makes it feel Canadian? 
DH: Well, I’m a dyed in the wool Canadian. What’s interesting is when we started this, we expected Canadian high schools maybe would be forced to do it in some way, and what we’ve discovered is that even though we see it as a Canadian story and it exemplifies Canadian values of partnership and welcoming and overcoming our differences. You know it’s the mosaic rather than the melting pot, that everyone can be different but can still be part of the community. I think what’s interesting and what’s a testament to the show’s success, is that the story is actually universal, and on that day, and on days like that, we come together as a broader community. It reminds us of our humanity, it reminds us that in times of crisis we can respond with kindness, and, in fact, that we don’t have to wait for crises, we can respond with kindness everyday. 

AWC: Can you remember what the first and the last scenes were that you wrote? 
DH: You know we wrote from the beginning to the end. It’s the same process that the audience goes through. The first thing we wrote was “Welcome to the Rock.” Newfoundland has this amazing tradition of Newfoundland pride songs so we wanted to write something that celebrated them and we also wanted to write something that said for anyone that was worried about what the musical was, don’t worry, come with us to Newfoundland. We’re going to go to this amazing place you’ve never heard of, and we’re going to tell you a story about these people. Part of us being in New York on 9/11 was we didn’t want to write a story about that tragedy, we wanted to write a story about how this town responded so the first thing we wrote was “Welcome to the Rock,” inviting the audience in. The last thing we wrote was the ten year anniversary, this party that brings everyone back. 

AWC: What would you like UK audiences to take away from Come From Away?
DH: This was 9/11. They had every justification not to bring them off of those planes and to keep them on there, and instead, they not only brought them into the airport, but brought them into their Legion Halls, and their churches and schools, but then they said you don’t look comfortable, why don’t you come into my house, why don’t you sleep in this bed, let me wash your clothes, have a shower, stay with me, and the Mayor of Gander, Claude, he says, on the first day, they had 7000 strangers on the tarmac, by the middle of the week, they had 7000 friends, and by the end of the week, they said goodbye to 7000 family members. I think compared to keeping that anger and that fear and that uncertainty bottled up on the planes. You can imagine it turning into a riot. Instead, it was diffused by welcoming people, and it was diffused by saying you’re probably just as scared as I am, come into my home and let’s share food, and let’s come together as a community because we are all a community at this moment regardless of our differences. I think that’s been important for us to remember. There’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness, but right now it feels important. 

CN: You mention how with “Welcome to the Rock” you wanted to make it have a maritime tone, and it’s interesting how you have maritime tunes throughout in all the different songs. Did you do any research beforehand? What did you look at or what did you listen to? 
DH: I grew up on Newfoundland music, so this was a joy to dive into that sandbox. Irene was initially not sure that it should be a musical. We talked about shows like The Laramie Projector maybe Peter and the Starcatcher as a first-person response to tragedy. But, Newfoundland has music in its DNA. Everyone plays three instruments out there. In the middle of our interviews, people would bring out instruments, and it’s also how they responded to crisis out there in their terrible winters which are like two storeys of snow and being trapped in your home. They dig out, they come to each other’s kitchens, they bring instruments, they tell stories and they sing songs, and that’s how they survive by coming together to stay warm in these kitchen parties. So we wanted to welcome the audience to a Newfoundland Kitchen party and show them that you can respond to tragedy with life affirming music that makes you want to dance and remember that we’re all together in this instance.

Finally, we asked each actor, Ganderite and Come From Away to summarise the show or their experience in one word. We collated the responses and made the following word cloud. Clearly we all need a little more kindness these days.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to chat with London Student and to CornerShopPR for organising.

Photograph credit: Matthew Murphy.

Read London Student’s five-star review of Come From Away by Carleigh here:    

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

Help us produce quality journalism

London Student is not supported by any university or students' union. All our activity is funded by donations.