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Dublin: 2 °C Tuesday 22 January, 2019
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A musical about 9/11: 'It has allowed me to define what happened in a way I never thought possible'

The show opened last night at the Abbey Theatre.

Source: Abbey Theatre/YouTube

THE TOWN OF Gander in Newfoundland is very small – with a population of just over 12,000 today, it has only been around since 1936.

But on 9/11 the unassuming town became the centre of a major news story when two planes struck the World Trade Centre. Flights were swiftly diverted to Gander International Airport (their occupants not knowing the exact reason why), so that they would be out of American airspace.

Within the space of just a few hours, over 7,000 people and 38 planes had landed in Gander. The town had to immediately respond to this unprecedented and quite terrifying situation. Planes were in some cases treated as bomb threats; there were fears about more attacks; people’s daily routines were massively disrupted. And the big question: where would they put all these strangers?

It turns out that, luckily for those who landed in Gander, the town has a very welcoming and caring ethos. And now the unusual story is being told in the musical Come From Away, which made its Irish debut at the Abbey stage this week. 

One of the stories that’s told in Come From Away is that of Hannah O’Rourke, an Irish passenger on an Aer Lingus flight who struck up a strong friendship with Ganderite Beulah Cooper. Her son Kevin was a first responder at the World Trade Centre who sadly lost his life in the attack.

CFA Gander International Airport Sign -RT

Plane people

Written by husband-and-wife couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the musical tells the story of the Gander people and the ‘plane people’. The actors all play both Gander natives and plane people, over 90 minutes of joyous and emotional music and acting. 

For the opening of the play at the Abbey Theatre this week, some of those real-life Ganderites and plane people visited the capital: pilot Beverley Bass, businessman Kevin Tuerff (who was there with his then-partner Evan);  Gander locals Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis, who helped look after the visitors; and Jeanette Gutierrez, a 9/11 survivor (she was working at an office across the street from the World Trade Centre), who has been welcomed into the fold.

All of them spoke about how they didn’t realise, initially, that their stories would have such big roles in Come From Away. Some of the characters’ stories are combined into one named character on stage.

A number of those who visited for the Irish opening night had first met on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in Gander. Among the visitors that year were Hein and Sankoff, who interviewed many of the Ganderites and plane people. But the interviewees didn’t quite realise how important their stories would be.

After the terror attacks occured, “it was a crazy time, no one knew what was going on”, says Diane Davis of how things were in Gander.

When Beulah was asked to bring trays of sandwiches to the new visitors arriving in Gander, she thought to herself: “Thank God they are coming here, because I knew they would be looked after.

Not saying they wouldn’t be looked after elsewhere, but I knew that they would be looked after in Gander.

Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein at Gander Airport Image 1 Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein at Gander Airport

Surreal

One of the characters in Come From Away is pilot Beverley Bass. In the summer of 2015 she was invited to the world premiere of the show in La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.

“I didn’t even know that my part was a prominent part and I didn’t know that the song Me In The Sky [about her career as a pioneering female pilot] was in it,” she reveals. “It was rather daunting the first time we saw it, but now that we’ve seen it so many times we are getting used to it – but we still love it every time.”

Bass and her husband Tom have seen the play a whopping 118 times.

When Kevin Tuerff first heard of the plan for Come From Away, he says he thought: “How cute is that – only the Canadians would do a musical about 9/11.”

His footage from a brand new digital video camera was given to Hein and Sankoff to help with their writing of the musical. “In the show you would hear some of my stories told through the characters,” he explains.

He says it is “completely surreal” to be a named character: “But it is an honour to be part of this terrific story.”

Beulah Cooper was also surprised to hear she was in the show. And like the others, she was curious to find out how a 9/11 musical would work in practice. 

“When they talked about doing the story, I never ever thought it would be anything like it is. I’ve seen it 10 times so far and every time I watch it it’s better than before. I always said and always would say – everybody should see this story.”

Diane Davis, meanwhile, was interviewed along with other teachers, but remained clueless about her role until she met the actress depicting her story. When she first met David Hein, she says: “Very vividly – and I’ve apologised to him dozens of times – across my head went ‘oh my god isn’t that cute, he thinks it’s a musical’.”

Diane’s husband Leo hooked up the cable TV on 9/11 in the Gander school where many of the plane people were staying, which provided their first glimpse of the terror attack.

‘A 9/11 play? Shut up’

As we all speak, there are many times when people get emotional – Diane Davis cries openly, but says that her therapy for what happened is being part of the Come From Away family.

Being a 9/11 survivor, it is understandable that Jeanette Gutierrez was sceptical about the idea of a musical about what happened.

Her initial thoughts were: “A play about 9/11? shut up. And a musical? Absolutely not, that cannot happen. ‘But it’s about the lovely people’ – yeah I met those lovely people, absolutely not. And me and my other friends, 9/11 volunteers, first responders, people who lost their loved ones, we were all like -’ they gotta be kidding’.”

A group went to the Broadway previews in February, and “were pretty sick to our stomach, we were just so scared it was going to be bad”, she says.

And we all sat together in a row, and we watched it and we laughed and cried and laughed and cried and left different people. It was so absolutely shockingly amazing. We left and we looked at each other: We just saw a musical about 9/11. A musical, people were dancing and singing and not disrespecting what happened to us. And what happened in Washington and Pennsylvania and [New York] city. And on top of that, we know all those people [from Gander].

She now has a strong bond with the Ganderites, saying that “you only have to go once and then they’re family”.

“People ask how does it feel to be survivor, and honestly in this atmosphere it’s a little weird – because this is so happy and so fabulous, and I almost feel like I shouldn’t it shouldn’t be this way,” she says. “But it’s always so respectful.”

‘Our world has been afraid of the stranger’

It’s this emphasis on positivity that all of those involved embrace. But it is balanced with an acknowledgement of the difficult times too, says Beverley Bass.

“What I think is so perfectly done with this is how is there have to be sad moments or it couldn’t be real,” she says of Come From Away. “But the great thing is it never allows you to stay in that moment very long, it immediately moves to something funny or happy.” 

Adds Kevin Tuerff: “It is an honour to be part of this story because it honours the people of Gander, who are the stars.” He says that there’s a pertinent message in the musical from Gander for us all.

“They set an example to the world because ever since 9/11 our world has been afraid of the stranger, afraid of the immigrant, afraid of the refugee because of what happened,” he says. “And this is a story that shows that people are willing to be compassionate. They will engage with the suffering of others, and that’s what they did back in this time and they still do it today.

They’re helping Syrian refugees right now. I look at Gander as a beacon for the rest of the world of how we are all supposed to be living.

“We are such a small knit town and almost everybody knows everybody,” says Beulah. 

The key to living in Gander is, she says: “Always speak to people how you’d like to be spoken to, and treat people how you’d like to be treated. And if you can help them they have nothing and you have some, you share. You never be rude to people, never.”

Kevin Tuerff, meanwhile, was inspired by what happened to set up a programme at his company where he gives all his employees the day off and $100 on the anniversary of 9/11 each year, so that they can carry out random acts of kindness. On his right wrist he wears a bracelet given to him by a man which reminds him to do a daily random act of kindness himself.

“It is our hope that [audience members] walk out of that show a different person and they do good things, whether it lasts a day, a week, a month, or a lifetime. I’d like to think it’s changed me,” says Beverley Bass of landing in Gander.

“I always thought I was a very good person, but I have changed immensely. Kevin and I worked at a hurricane shelter together in Texas. Normally I would have watched it on TV and thought ‘isn’t that nice that people go down there and do that’. But we went down there on our own dime. I wouldn’t have done that before.”

Kevin nods: “Why do we have to wait for a terrorist attack or a natural disaster to live by the golden rule [of do unto others as you would have done unto you]? [Come From Away] is a show about compassion.”

For Diane and Beulah, being kind is just how they want to live their lives – but they do say that they get as much out of it as the recipients do. During a time of crisis, they were happy to give their time and their homes to those who needed help. It’s just the Gander way. 

Come From Away runs until 19 January at the Abbey. For more information, and tickets, see the website.

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