This article orginally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.
By Kevin Young
Photos by Matthew Murphy
The Broadway smash Come from Away tells the little-known story of the 7,000 stranded passengers who landed in Gander, NL, after flights across North America were grounded in response to the tragic events of 9/11.
The Tony-nominated book was written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who spent a considerable amount of time interviewing both Gander locals and those who had “come from away” in 2001. The idea for Come from Away was suggested to Sankoff and Hein by Canadian lawyer Michael Rubinoff, who is also a theatre producer and associate dean of visual and performing arts at Oakville, ON’s Sheridan College.
In fact, Come from Away was first mounted at Sheridan in 2013 in a student production as part of the Canadian Music Theatre Project. From there, it had further development in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and at Goodspeed Musicals’ Festival of New Artists in East Haddam, CT.
The project then caught the eye of Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, CA, where the show had its first professional production in the summer of 2015, co-produced with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it played later that year. From those very first presentations, the show was enthusiastically embraced by audiences and critics, encouraging Junkyard Dog Productions, a Tony-winning New York production company, to mount a Broadway production, which had its out-of-town tryout in a much-hyped and sold-sold engagement at Toronto’s historic Royal Alexandra Theatre late in 2016.
Opening on Broadway in March 2017 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, the show became a runaway hit, garnering multiple Tony nominations and winning the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical for Christopher Ashley.
By popular demand, a second production of Come from Away was mounted in Toronto with an all-Canadian cast, trying out in Winnipeg for a short period before moving to the Royal Alexandra Theatre, where its run has been repeatedly extended as the musical’s popularity continues to grow and grow.
The idea of a musical based around the events of 9/11 and its aftermath – even those taking place thousands of miles away – may seem odd, to say the least. That was certainly the case for scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, at least initially. “When I first heard of it, I thought, ‘Who wants to see a musical about 9/11?’” he admits candidly. “But once I read it and heard the music, I thought it dealt with the subject really well.”
Lighting designer Howell Binkley had a similar reaction, but likewise, after going through the script, he says: “I saw it’s really focused on reflecting how these people had to react during that day, and after, even though they weren’t in New York City.”
Indeed, one of the drivers of its success is how well it does just that: conveying the shock and horror of the September 11thattacks while also highlighting that hope can be found when people who would never have crossed paths otherwise come together – the message that, even in times of crippling uncertainty and fear, there’s power in the kindness of strangers, and consolation and even joy to be found in the face of tragedy.
Undoubtedly, however, another driver of that success is the musical’s sheer entertainment value.
Both the nature of the show and the subject matter itself had a huge impact on the scenic and lighting designs.
Come from Away takes place in numerous settings in Gander – homes, a Tim Hortons, various facilities used to house the “plane people,” inside, outside, on the airfield, and in the planes themselves – and between them, the 12 main actors play roughly 70 individual roles. Of course, those include characters from all over the world – America, the Middle East, Europe, and more in addition to Newfoundland – with accents to match. Occasionally, they’re helped along when one or more members of the seven-piece band emerge from the trees between which they’re scattered during most of the show.
Given the number of locations, roles, and the breakneck pace at which they change – sometimes in the middle of a line of dialogue – Boritt says that, stylistically, that called for a markedly theatrical presentation. “We weren’t doing realism, exactly,” he explains. “We were going to do something that allowed a person to be character A, B, and C, all in 30 seconds, so what surrounded them had to be theatrical enough to allow that, but at the same time, the subject matter is deadly serious.” That meant a fine balance had to be established. “[Director] Chris Ashley had the idea that we could create almost all the locations we need out of 12 mismatched chairs. That was kind of our starting point.”
The chairs, simply by being arranged in various formations, help represent many locations – a bar, a home, and even the interior of one of the planes, among many others. But then the question, Boritt shares, was: “What do we surround that with?”
While most of the show takes place in Gander, the creative team also wanted to reflect the events taking place in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, because that was the main context within which the events in Gander play out. “I wanted to touch on that in some way,” says Boritt, and in fact, it’s touched on in numerous ways – typically very subtly.
In setting the scene for the planes coming into Gander and telegraphing the uncertainty of the passengers, whose knowledge of what’s happened is limited, 26 trees were placed around the stage, signifying what the passengers, who had little or no idea of where they were, saw as they were coming in to land. “That led me to what the set is, this forest on stage,” Boritt notes.
There are two specific elements he points out that literally touch on the events elsewhere and their setting.
“One is the back wall – an old wooden plank wall, like an old barn or something that feels kind of rustic, rural, and anything but New York City, but is painted sort of the cerulean blue the sky was that day,” he reveals. “I was in New York on 9/11. It was a stunningly beautiful, crisp fall day. The colour of the sky was so beautiful and that this death and horror came out of that beautiful sky is just burned into my memory. That seemed very potent to me and so the wall of the set is that colour, with clouds painted into it so it can turn into a literal sky.”
Then there are the two broken trees in the upper stage left corner whose tops appear to have been snapped off. “We never literally refer to them, but these two, broken, standing objects are symbolic of the towers and the death and destruction of that day. When we get to the moment in the show where the characters are seeing news footage of the towers falling down, it’s kind of a silent moment, and Howell puts a spotlight on those trees.”
Like the blue of the sky, it’s subtle. “Some audience members get it and are quite moved by it. I’m sure many don’t notice, but that was how we dealt with a literal acknowledgement of what happened – something that’s an artistic abstraction of it, but, when you realize what it is, it’s quite vivid.”
Additionally, a central turntable is set into the floor and used in tandem with the chairs to create movement between and within various environments.
There is no video projection in the show. The symbolism, emotional weight, and settings are entirely represented by the set, costumes, lighting and sound, and of course, the actors and musicians.
“The trees are just a symbol,” Binkley reinforces. “They’re not reflected by any of the text
or anything in the show; it’s just a visual thing. They are present throughout the show and
it’s really up to the audience to interpret what they want out of that.”
The scenic elements and lighting equipment were all sourced through PRG Scenic Technologies.
Realism was an ongoing concern for Boritt to the point that, in the initial Toronto run and subsequent Broadway production, real trees were used. “PRG actually sourced a place in the Adirondacks and an arborist, so we got to go out and say, ‘We want this tree and this tree,’ then he cut them down and we got them into the shop where they flame treated and sealed them so they wouldn’t leak and those kinds of things.”
Boritt had wanted real trees from the outset. There were, of course, issues in using the real thing, but, he says: “Once we actually got them in there for the Toronto run, everyone was like, ‘You’re right.’ The individuality of a tree is like the individuality of a person. You can’t create it as beautifully as it grows in nature.”
Boritt was working from a list of trees native to Newfoundland, but his primary concerns were size, shape, and a certain intangible “feel.” “I love the live trees and fought hard to get them for the New York production.”
For the current Toronto run, artificial recreations are used. They are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, and although Boritt still wishes they were real, the challenges that would present are prohibitive. “The heaviest one weighs 6,000 pounds. They’re cumbersome and you’ve got to haul them up on a two-ton, or larger, chain motor. It takes a while to get them into place and locked down safely.” While that may be an option for extended engagements, for a tour, it’s certainly not. “The ones we’re building for the U.S. tour are artificial trees that are made very well, so I don’t know that people will know the difference.”
That degree of attention, Boritt explains, was a reaction to the subject matter. “We’re dealing with such a raw, real event – I felt I didn’t want theatrical artifice anyplace I could avoid it. There is some, but as much as we can, I just wanted to use real things.”
While theatre is an “artful representation” of things, he adds: “In this particular case, it was important to me because of the delicacy of the subject matter.”
Overall, his approach was to treat the set very much like an art installation. The planking across the entire back wall was also real wood. “We wanted to give it this weathered effect, so we had it sandblasted with broken glass, which wears it down like the rain would over years,” he explains. “Again, you can use plywood, paint grain onto it and get basically the same thing, but it is different; the way real wood reacts to light, the porous nature of real wood fibre… There’s something special about the real stuff.”
For touring purposes, again, the wall will be of different construction, in order to be durable enough to stand up to the rigors of the road.
Impressive pieces notwithstanding, overall, the set is a minimalist affair, meaning dialogue, sound, and lighting must define location changes very swiftly to be effective. “Let’s say we walked into a bar and a bar light turns on. It’s like a Shakespeare play in that sense. The text tells you where you are, so the design is able to support that in a more subtle way,” shares Boritt. “The lighting changes are quite dramatic, and I don’t know that if you just did the [lighting] change without anything else you’d know that you were on an airplane, but when that’s coupled with someone saying, ‘We were on an airplane,’ and the actor puts on a pilot’s hat, it’s very clear where you are.”
Binkley’s job was, essentially, to carve through the set to aid in the storytelling and shepherd the audience’s attention along with location and character changes. “It’s not like a drop flies in and you do a scene downstage, then it flies out to reveal something else. It’s all one area,” the LD says. “We had to break it down. There were many, many scenes in the show. On one page of script, there could be six different locations. The show is very cinematic because for two lines, one actor might be in a kitchen and then you jump to another location, which might be in a school. Then you jump to another location, which might be the interior of a bus.”
The locations, like the costumes, couldn’t be represented in great detail. “So the lighting would take you to one place where the actor, with what he or she was saying and wearing, would let the audience know where they were. This show was all about establishing that location quickly – and getting out of it quickly.”
The rear wall served various purposes in that effort. “It was kind of like a cyclorama. Also, the slats were maybe not quite a half-inch apart, so upstage of this wall was a black scrim mounted so I could silhouette the slats. We could give this wall many different dimensions: front lit, you couldn’t see the slats in it; backlit – at times we’re in a church and I don’t light the front, I light the back – you see the slats and it looks like an old church. We had to attack that wall and give it many textures and dimensions.”
A variety of other effects were hidden there: lighting elements used to create a starry night, doors that open to other locations such as the baggage holds of the plane, two horizontal neon strips running the length of the wall to create an abstract but highly effective and immediately recognizable representation of an aircraft interior...
“So we’re trying to get a lot of variety out of a simple wall, but one with a lot of tricks hidden in it and the ability to be transformed thoroughly by light,” Boritt adds.
As for the lighting rig, there are minor changes theatre to theatre – primarily to adapt to the footprint of the venue – but the elements are essentially the same, Binkley says.
Many fixtures are affixed to four overhead trusses. “There aren’t really wings,” says Binkley. “It’s an overhead grid that we’ve made for the show that serves the purpose for the lighting. It’s also great for the trees’ stabilization.”
Some elements, Binkley says, were particularly useful – the LED strips used behind the wall, for example, “Which are really fantastic because of all the colour variation that we put on the wall,” he says. “We also used the Martin MAC Vipers. They were a big, driving force throughout the show. They were overhead on the truss and used for a lot of specials because, like I said, there are many different locations, so a lot of down pools would come up for the actors to walk into.”
In addition to overhead and front lighting, there are a number of fixtures hung on the trees themselves, among them Par Can 56s and 64s and various practical lighting elements, including a Tim Horton’s sign, which further help to establish location.
“The practical lights hidden in and around the set help signify location, but they’re really just a signpost saying, ‘This is where we are’,” Boritt explains, adding that the trees also provide a number of places to hang costume elements – hats, jackets, and so on – out of the way, but close to hand for the actors’ swift transformations from one character to the next.
Much of the lighting design depends heavily on fixed ETC Source Fours, LED pars, and conventional incandescent pars. Driving the entire rig is an ETC EOS Ti-8k console at the FOH position.
Since its initial iteration, Come from Away has evolved through its various productions. “We did the show five times before it made it to Broadway, so we kept playing with and adding things,” shares Binkley. “The neon stripes that I was talking about that sort of become the airplanes, we didn’t add that until, I think, we were in Washington, D.C., which was the third time we did it.”
“It was a very, very collaborative room,” Binkley continues. “That’s what’s so fabulous about working on new material – on a new musical. A lot of times, you’re putting in new pages, so the writers were there every day. We were making changes throughout the course of the preview and tech time, and as challenging as the show was for us all, it was a pleasure to see the results of what we all did together.”
“I often say when theatre tries to mimic film and be very realistic, you generally fail because theatre can’t just change location every two minutes in a realistic, literal way,” Boritt adds. “We’re moving physical objects. It’s not a camera cut. But when we rely on light and words, things can happen instantaneously in real time. Then the audience’s imagination takes you from place to place.”
And that is what’s magical about Come from Away, and theatre in general: “It forces audience participation in way that a film doesn’t and that’s really the power of live theatre,” says Boritt, “and the more I can embrace that with design, the happier I am.”
Kevin Young is a musician and freelance writer based in Toronto.