Downtown Events

The Kindness of 9,000 Strangers

November 29, 2018

DTLA -Everyone has their “Where were you on 9/11?” story.

For nearly 6,700 people, the answer unexpectedly ended up being the small Canadian town of Gander in the province of Newfoundland. That’s because, after the terrorist attacks began and planes were redirected to nearby airports, 38 international aircraft were grounded there. Many people stayed for five days.

The “come from aways,” as the visitors would be called, nearly doubled the town’s population, but the inhabitants of Gander stepped up, providing simple and heartwarming hospitality — everything from home-cooked meals to blankets and lodging.

Gander’s story became the basis of the musical Come From Away, which is opening at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 28. It runs through Jan. 6.

The musical, written by husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is set in the week following the Sept. 11 attacks. It is based on interviews that the couple conducted with the townsfolk of Gander, as well as the pilots, passengers and crew of the downed planes during the 10th anniversary of the events.

Despite the copious media exposure of Gander at the time of and in the years after the attacks, most notably in Tom Brokaw’s 2010 documentary Operation Yellow Ribbon, the story remained largely unknown to many. That included Christopher Ashley, who didn’t learn the tale until he read the first draft of Sankoff and Hein’s script in 2012. Ashley would go on to direct the Broadway production that opened in 2017 and won a Tony Award for Best Director. He is now directing the touring version.

“Working on this show has been a pretty extraordinary kind of exploration into the kindness that people are capable of,” Ashley said during a phone interview with Los Angeles Downtown News. “During that terrible moment, people in Newfoundland were so generous to these people who showed up on their doorsteps.”

The musical takes the stories of close to 16,000 people — almost 7,000 travelers and 9,000 residents — and condenses them into a tight 100-minute runtime. Each of the 12 actors plays multiple roles, with some representing an amalgamation of two or three interview subjects.

Ashley called the show “as hard an acting challenge” as he’s ever been a part of in all his years in theater.

“With very little technical assistance — with, say, a sweater, these actors are transforming themselves into these different roles,” Ashley said.

To squeeze in as many experiences as possible, the musical utilizes cinematic tools, jump cutting to different planes and settings across the 40-square-mile town.

Actor Megan McGinnis likens the performance to a ballet. Actors are required to juggle multiple stories and subplots, while seamlessly working together to reorganize the stage’s 14 chairs depending on the scene.

One story McGinnis takes on involves Bonnie, a Gander Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals worker who assumed the responsibility of caring for the 19 animals that were being transported in some of the downed planes. That included expected creatures — eight dogs and nine cats — as well as some more exotic species — two rare Bonobos.

“The animals were forgotten about until Bonnie tracked them down,” McGinnis said. “It was Bonnie and three other people who went into the planes and fed and cared for them and was able to get them off the planes.”

McGinnis also takes on the roles of various residents and travelers, including one of the “Ganderites” who housed stranded travelers.

The show includes 23 songs. The music is modeled off the tunes heard in various Newfoundland bars, with themes borrowed from Irish and Cornish traditions.

“It’s got this propulsive and playful electric rock sound that really helps propel the show,” Ashley said.

Ashley noted that the team considers Come From Away a story about Sept. 12, not Sept. 11. The focus is not on the 2,200 lives lost in the attacks, but instead on how humans can come together for the greater good during a crisis.

“I think the experience of watching our show keeps changing as the events of the world keep changing,” Ashley said. “We’re living in such a conflicted moment. I hope the audience thinks about how important it is to be kind to one another and take care of one another.”

McGinnis agrees, adding, “It’s not hard to be kind, and once you are kinder, you feel better about yourself. It’s just so easy to smile at someone, or offer to buy them a cup of coffee or open the door for someone.”

The show concludes with the “come from aways” returning to Gander, this time on their own accord, where they celebrate their lasting friendships and connections.