In Conversation With Come From Away‘s Irene Sankoff and David Hein
David Hein: Every step along the way has been a pinching-ourselves moment. We were never focused on writing a Broadway show. We always just wanted to share an incredible story about these amazing people.
The musical is about the 38 airplanes forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001—and the town’s touching hospitality for all those travellers. How did you first become involved in writing that story?
Irene Sankoff: We had closed our previous show, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, and were having trouble finding our next project. Toronto theatre producer Michael Rubinoff asked to meet us. He shared the idea for Come From Away.
Hein: From there we were fortunate enough to get a Canada Council for the Arts grant, which funded our trip to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. All of these people who had been stranded there a decade ago—passengers and flight crew from around the world—came back to commemorate what had happened. Gander is a hard place to get to, but they all wanted to be there.
Did the idea of writing a 9/11 musical feel daunting?
Sankoff: I don’t think it felt that way. The story of what happened in Gander was immediately familiar to us. On Sept. 11, 2001, we were living in New York in a residence with students from 110 different countries. By the end of that day, someone pulled out a piano and started playing, and we all gravitated to the music.
Hein: What I remember from that time in New York is that you could walk up to any person in the street and say, “Are you okay?” And that’s what we saw 10 years later when we went to Gander. Strangers invited us to stay in their homes.
Did you worry about accurately representing the wide range of their experiences?
Hein: Yes. We joke that we had 16,000 stories to tell because there were 7,000 people on the planes and 9,000 residents in Gander. While we couldn’t include everything, we wanted the real people to come to the show and feel like we got their story right. One of the things that happened in real life is that the air traffic control crews didn’t have anything to do after the planes landed so they spent days making chili. Originally, we had three scenes in the show about chili. In the end, it was just one line, but it’s in there. The positive reactions we have gotten from the real people who inspired the show have been so rewarding.
Do you now have a favourite Newfoundland tradition?
Sankoff: Mine is more of an idea. It’s a line from Les Misérables—“What we have, we have to share.” If someone shows up at the door, you help them.
Hein: I love the kitchen parties, the whole concept of getting through the winter by bringing over instruments and singing and dancing together as a community. That’s what we wanted to do with Come From Away—create a kitchen party for our audience every night.
What is it like to be a husband-and-wife writing team?
Hein: People always say they can’t imagine working with their spouse, and it’s not for the faint of heart. When Irene has a plan A and I have a plan B, we have to work our way through that, but coming up with a plan C together is our strength.
Sankoff: We have rules about trying not to work on the show when we’re hungry or angry or in bed. It’s incredibly not-sexy when the show gets brought up in bed. Also, over the years, we’ve learned that it’s better for us to work in public because there are witnesses.
You wrote Come From Away long before the current political landscape came to be. How does it feel to be at the helm of a musical about inclusiveness and tolerance during the Trump era?
Hein: It’s been healing. With the things you see in the news and on social media, it’s been good for us—and everyone else, I hope—to celebrate human kindness and to tell a story about people coming together despite their differences.
For an interview with an iconic Newfoundlander, check out 15 Minutes With Rick Mercer!