After Come From Away’s cast and crew left the stage, they found new roles in a pandemic
By Karen Fricker - Theatre Critic
Carly Maga - Theatre Critic
Wed., Aug. 12, 2020
13 min. read
Come From Away cast and crew, from left: actors Steffi Didomenicantonio and Saccha Dennis; John Gray, production stage manager; actor Ali Momen; music director Bob Foster; and David Hein and Irene Sankoff who wrote the book, music & lyrics.
“Come From Away” is the most successful show in Canadian-made musical theatre history. Three years into its run in Toronto, it was still packing houses.
Written by Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the smash-hit tells the true story of the 9/11 events in Gander, Nfld. when more than three dozen international flights were forced to land at the small, east coast city’s airport. Developed at three major American theatres, it played in Winnipeg and Toronto in 2016 — following a poignant, one-night concert showing in Gander. It then became a Broadway smash hit in 2017, picking up a Tony Award that year for Best Direction of a Musical.
It’s gone on to play in Ireland and Australia. Early this year the show was continuing to pack houses on London’s West End, on Broadway, and at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre after a hiatus at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre for most of 2019.
So when audiences started dwindling this past March, everyone knew something major was happening. Still, few suspected the coronavirus pandemic would shut down the international performing arts industry for five months — and counting.
“Come From Away” performed the final show on Friday, March 13. The Star checked in with several cast and crew members about their months being off stage, away from their show and their theatre family.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Book, Music and Lyrics
"We rented a car, we put our daughter and our two cats in it and as much as we could carry" to get back to Canada, said Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the writing team behind the book, music and lyrics for the Come From Away, about leaving their home in NYC after three years.
IS: A couple of weeks before everything shut, something tipped me off that things were not going to be good. I called one of our co-producers who is a doctor and who was in Toronto during SARS, Allan Detsky, and he was like, “Yeah, this is not going to be good.”
We started to hear that they were going to close our daughter’s school before March Break. We didn’t realize she is never going back to that school.
DH: It was heartbreaking on a million levels — losing our community and our lives in New York City after three years living there.
When Prime Minister Trudeau said it was time for all Canadians to come home, we rented a car, we put our daughter and our two cats in it and as much as we could carry, and got an Airbnb in Toronto.
IS: We were still ahead. People were like “the cats?” and I was like, “Give it a day or two.” We moved four or five times since we’ve been back and are in Newmarket now. My mom is in long-term care here. They had an outbreak but Mom didn’t get sick. We helped with sourcing PPE and went to her window to see her. Now once a week we are able to sit on a patio with her.
If you had said to me seven months ago that I’d buy a house in Newmarket, I’d say you were crazy.
DH: When we left we were about to celebrate the three-year anniversary of “Come from Away” on Broadway. That was cancelled at the last minute; it wasn’t safe for us to come together. Many of our cast and crew have got sick with coronavirus; luckily they’ve had mild cases.
It’s been a relatively soft landing for us. We’re near friends and families. There are thousands of people who’ve worked in all five companies of the show. What you see on stage is 12 actors and eight musicians, but that’s just the tip of the Newfoundland iceberg.
There are concerns about people not being able to pay their rent, being scared about that. We’re trying to make sure that everyone is able to apply to the Actors’ Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and that we can support them through those and other organizations.
IS: I am getting emails from people on our press and marketing teams, saying “I’m no longer working for our firm … this was not the way I thought I was going to leave your show.”
DH: We’re incredibly proud of Canada’s response in flattening the curve, especially out in Newfoundland. That continues to inspire us and our entire company — the level of what you can do in the time of crisis.
IS: In terms of work, we have our (seven-year-old) daughter at home with us, it’s challenging. She is handling it remarkably well, but at the same time we’ve noticed that there are signs of anxiety, of everything having changed so much.
DH: There are so many “kids from away” in our companies — so many artists trying to school at home. The balance for us is that there are wonderful moments. We’ve started cooking more, we’re around the table a lot more, more time as a family.
IS: I worry about women in the arts. I have got a lot of female friends in high positions who have to make the decision, or had the decision made for them, to leave their jobs in the arts to care for their families. I worry about what this is going to do in terms of representation of women.
DH: There is this circuitous feeling of being behind, of being unproductive. We’ve turned in a draft of the “Come From Away” movie, that’s exciting. There are countless more projects and meetings.
IS: I have this sign I’ve put up, that says you’re only unproductive by the old standards, and that world has changed.
DH: I don’t think that anyone doubts that theatre will come back. The question is how and when.
People want to be in the same room; it is a unique experience integral to humankind for thousands of years. Maybe I shouldn’t be quoting “Jurassic Park” but, life finds a way. Theatre finds a way. We can’t wait for that.
Performer: Hannah and others
"When this is all over, what do we want theatre to look like?" says Saccha Dennis, the actor who portrays Hannah and others in Come From Away.
That whole last week, there was an interesting parallel between the show and the coronavirus — when you’re performing to a half-empty house about a major global event and people coming together.
The thunderous applause you hear at the end of the show, it’s one of the peaks of my career. We were very spoiled. But the difference to that last Friday night was night and day. But they were so appreciative and wanted to be there, theatregoers are wanting to get away from the world and we provide that escape for them.
I think all of us were in denial at some point, and me at least, I like to feel in control. At the same time, I see the silver lining. We’ve been running for three years, six days a week, without an intermission. So this is our long intermission. I have a four-year-old, so I’ve become a teacher — that was an adjustment — but it’s a real blessing in disguise because I get to spend more time with her.
And I always have a creative project to work on, so this global awakening to Black lives was an opportunity for me to go back to my roots, go back to what I do, which is advocate for amplifying BIPOC voices. I direct too, and my theory as a director is to reimagine stories and to tell stories that are not often told … Right now I’m working on an adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar” through the lens of a Black Panther and the story of Fred Hampton.
It’s a matter of recreating theatre in a sense. When this is all over, what do we want theatre to look like? I want to challenge theatre companies and see who would like to join me in this idea. Obviously, this is a really sensitive time for the arts … but the urgency of what needs to be told takes precedence at this point. If I can get a hold of Andrew Lloyd Webber somehow, you know, this is the opportunity! It’s the time now for people to step out and stand in solidarity … I want Canada and Canadian theatre to get a little more uncomfortable, have uncomfortable conversations, and be comfortable with having those uncomfortable conversations.
Janice and others
"The pandemic has really showed us how we need each other more than ever," says Steffi Didomenicantonio, the actor who portrays Janice and others in the show.
That last show was the strangest experience. I have a line in the show, “Stop bringing toilet paper to the Lion’s Club.” It usually gets a laugh but people were going for minutes afterwards, because at that point toilet paper was a hot commodity.
What’s great about this show is that if you take it into any context it still applies. The pandemic has really showed us how we need each other more than ever. Not being able to hug anybody for this amount of time? It’s wild.
The person I’ve been talking to the most is our stage manager, Lisa Humber — we have an isolation talk show, “Check In From Away.” And we have interviewed a bunch of our “Come From Away” crew and cast on it. It’s been a lifesaver for me. We have had a bunch of amazing people on, Colin Mochrie and Deb McGrath, Lousie Pitre, Melissa O’Neil, Dan Chameroy, Melanie Doane, I’m name-dropping so hard. Unknowingly I think Lisa and I were trying to find a way to keep the arts and artists in the forefront of people’s minds, how we didn’t disappear.
I think one of my biggest struggles during this time has been, if I separate myself from being a performer and an actor, who am I underneath? So much of my identity has been tied into to performing. I’ve never had a moment not being creative or in a show, it’s the first time in I don’t even know how many years where I’ve actually had to sit in silence by myself in my apartment.
I think it’s like almost redundant to say I’m an extrovert because it’s so obvious, but being forced to be in an introverted situation has been interesting. I have definitely gone through ups and downs. Zoom has been great but it’s really just not the same. I feed off the energy of people and I love meeting new people and making new friends.
At the beginning I wasn’t leaving my house for five or six days at a time, I was really taking it to heart, but it also made me realize that I do like spending time by myself in the quiet sometimes. I’m just not used to it.
"Something happens when you play music with someone — you feed off each other. You give and get back,' says Bob Foster, music director of Come From Away.
My initial thought was, “Good, you know, for the good of everyone.” And then I thought, “Oh we’re done for a while.” The funny thing was that I had a big birthday party, my 60, on the last Sunday before the world went crazy, so for the first week of COVID I was thinking “Oh no, I hope I haven’t started a cluster.”
My work is not all of my life, although that’s sort of what I thought it was before now. And to be honest I’m probably more relaxed than I was.
Music direction has a lot of responsibility, I don’t just go in and do my own job but I’m often giving notes, making sure the music is where it needs to be every night. But I’m going to be pretty rusty on that old accordion when we get back, maybe I should go grab it so I can practice … I golf, I cook, I see my kids and I’m gardening, actually. This is my pride and joy, we’ve got squash, tomatoes, okra, broccoli, cabbage and carrots. Some of them are going well, some are not. But not bad at all. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I just never really got around to it.
When you’re playing in an orchestra, it builds a community, musically and personally. Something happens when you play music with someone — you feed off each other. You give and get back. There’s definitely something from the brain and from the soul we’re missing.
The band is pretty much always six feet apart from each other in this particular show. But some other orchestra pits, especially orchestras with a lot of brass instruments, it’ll be tough to figure that out … I’ve worked in some orchestra pits where one person has to go in before the next person because once they’re in they can’t get out, where the drummer has to crawl into his or her spot first. I think it’s possible to do, but it’s going to involve getting things in between people — like Plexiglas.
With technology you can do so much with isolation, in a studio you isolate all the instruments, anyway. For theatre, a lot of what you hear is coming through speakers, but the acoustic stuff, like a real orchestra, that’s a different matter.
Production Stage Manager
"I decided that afternoon that I was going to tape down all the carpets." He'd just learned the show was suspended, but Come From Away production stage manager John Gray couldn't leave the Royal Alex theatre without fixing the dressing room rugs.
I was at home when I heard, on March 14. I got a call in the morning from (Mirvish managing director) David Mucci and started texting groups of the cast, four at a time: “The show is cancelled, stay home, more information to follow.”
Mirvish Productions was moving offices that weekend. I went down to the new place and found an empty board room with my boss, his boss Brian Sewell, David Mirvish, and (director of sales and marketing) John Karastamatis … David Mirvish was contacting different producers. Everyone was trying to suss out the implications. It was wild, not crazy wild, just intense, very focused. “Hamilton” was a huge issue — people had waited a year for that.
I left after I had emailed the company with a fuller explanation. I went back to the theatre, actually. We had recently moved back from the Elgin to the Royal Alex. Someone had complained that the carpets and throw rugs in dressing rooms were a trip hazard. I decided that afternoon that I was going to tape down all the carpets. I pulled out the double-sided tape, to cement our presences.
I used to do a fair bit of work at the Stratford Festival and have a little house in Stratford. I made it my little sanctuary. Actually, I’ve been getting on great. It was unsettling at first, going through waves of missing the people who put on the show.
I never got summers off, so I’ve embraced it, and attacked all sorts of projects on my house. I’ve binge-watched all kinds of weird things, and all the wonderful theatre productions you can now watch online. Black Lives Matter and its impact — that was a huge deal at the Stratford Festival. I got quite caught up in forum events and online discussions. It opened my eyes.
My mother is 93 and still lives alone, 2-1/2 hours from me. I’ve visited her four times, and helped my sister open her cottage.
As a stage manager, when I am working my life is completely dominated by time. That’s the most liberating thing that’s happened — I suddenly am free of a clock. I hesitate to say it because I know people are having a tough time, but I’m not. I’m happy here in my little house.
Performer: Ali, Kevin J. and others
"What I miss most ... is the prose: the prose of being an artist," says Ali Momen, the actor portraying Kevin J./Ali and others. "Losing the routine has been difficult."
Walking over to the Royal Alex on (March) 13th, I had the feeling that this was it. There’s that Proust quote — if a meteor was coming to destroy the Earth, I would see all the beauty in the world that there is.
That final performance, there was a small house but there was a lift to it. It was (cast member) Barb Fulton’s birthday. We met after the show in what I call the seniors’ lounge (George Masswohl and James Kall’s dressing room). We had drinks and amazing food. We closed the Royal Alex down. We received a text the next morning saying don’t come into work.
It has been a process of, like, grief and growth; that’s the best way to think about it. You thought you’d go back to the way it was, now you realize there is not going to be an event, a light switch that comes back on. How are we going to do this — what is the world we want to wake up to?
What I miss most isn’t the poetry, it’s the prose: the prose of being an artist. Losing the routine has been difficult, that sense of concrete purpose.
I am working on a project called the Arts New Deal, a relief program in which artistic work is considered like any other work. During the Great Depression in the U.S., (president) FDR viewed a worker as someone not only who picks up a shovel but picks up a violin. That’s what I want to do, to build our country culturally. We have thousands of artists who are out of work, thousands of artistic muscles which are in atrophy.
We need a program in which artists are paid to produce all kinds of work … socially-distanced theatre productions in care homes, augmented-reality exhibits for the AGO or the Canadian Human Rights Museum or small galleries. We could be painting digital murals; we could be doing arts education around the country. What about when kids go back to school? Artists can provide arts education, digitally or socially distanced.
The arts are 3 per cent of the Canadian GDP; it’s 650,000 jobs. I didn’t know that before.