Montreal

They Came From Away came 1st. Then came the Broadway hit

When Trevor McKinven first performed They Came from Away at The Piggery in North Hatley in Quebec's Eastern Townships in August 2010, he couldn’t possibly have known a play based on the same theme was in the works elsewhere in the country. Then that other play became a runaway hit.

Eastern Townships playwright 'has to get used to the fact' audience thinks he's riffing off Come From Away

Trevor McKinven at The Piggery, the Eastern Townships where he first performed They Came from Away in 2010. (Claude Rivest/CBC)

When Trevor McKinven first performed They Came from Away at The Piggery in North Hatley, Que., in August 2010, he couldn't possibly have known a play based on the same theme was in the works elsewhere in the country.

Yet just four months earlier, the husband-and-wife theatrical team, David Hein and Irene Sankoff, met producer Michael Rubinoff in Toronto. 

Rubinoff wanted them to write a play about planes being diverted to Gander, NL, following the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Those are the same events which, in 2005, inspired McKinven to write the monologues that would become his one-man play.

Hein and Sankoff would eventually write Come from Away, the incredibly popular musical that's taking Broadway by storm, which is nominated for seven Tony Awards.
Canadian theatre creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein speak in New York on Tuesday, May 2, 2017, after the married duo's hit musical Come From Away earned 7 Tony Award nominations. (CBC)

Striking similarities

The resemblance in the titles for both shows is striking.

But then again, "come from away" is a common colloquial expression throughout Atlantic Canada, designating anyone who wasn't born in the region.

The premise for both plays is roughly the same.

They both recount the few days after 9/11, when thousands of people from all over the world were stranded in Gander, after their planes were rerouted to the Newfoundland town following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
The Canadian musical Come From Away is set in Gander, NL, after 38 planes were diverted to the town on September 11, 2001.

Differences in approach

Hein and Sankoff's version, Come from Away, is a musical depicting the real stories of some of the people of Gander and their impromptu guests. The pair travelled to Gander in 2011 for the 10-year commemoration ceremony of to research their stories.

With a grant from the Canada Arts Council, they were able to spend a month in the small town, meeting the people who would become characters in their play.

"They literally gave us the keys to their houses," said Hein. "They'd say, 'Just lock the door, because someone might drop in for tea.'"

"We didn't do that, and then someone dropped in for tea the next morning. There was a stranger sitting there, and he said, 'Oh, I heard you were in town and, I thought I'd give you a tour around.'"

Appleton Mayor Derm Flynn greets Come From Away co-writer Irene Sankoff after the show's final performance in Gander, NL, where the play is set. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

McKinven's They Came from Away is a one-man show, and he took a different approach. His fictional monologues are inspired by locals and people who would've been stuck in Gander, as seen through the playwright's eyes.

"I didn't read a whole lot about it, I just heard it in the ethers, and I thought, 'Boy, to be a fly on the wall in Gander, Newfoundland during that week following 9/11,'" said McKinven.

News clippings from articles and reviews written on the play They Came from Away, performed since 2010 by Eastern Townships playwright Trevor McKinven. (Claude Rivest/CBC)

Local controversy

By the time Come from Away was complete, McKinven's They Came from Away had been performed several times in small venues throughout Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Looking for new venues for his play, McKinven also called many theatres in Toronto in 2010, including Theatre Sheridan, where Rubinoff is producer and associate dean of visual and performing arts.

Back in the Eastern Townships, some who had seen They Came from Away had misconceptions about the relationships between the two plays.
(Facebook)

 Some people thought McKinven sold Hein and Sankoff the rights to his play; others though his work had been plagiarized.

And things got worse after Hein and Sankoff's Come from Away hit the big time.

When Come From Away was nominated for seven Tonys, some of Trevor McKniven's fans reacted with sarcasm, wrongly believing he'd been plagiarized. (Facebook)

"I just think credit should be given where credit is due," one woman posted on Facebook.

(Facebook)
(Facebook)

A true coincidence

CBC News asked both producer Rubinoff and playwright Hein if it is possible Come from Away could've been inspired by McKinven's play.

Hein said he and his wife met Rubinoff to discuss the idea for the musical in April 2010, four months before McKinven's one-man show premiered in North Hatley.
Michael Rubinoff met with David Hein and Irene Sankoff in April 2010 to discuss the idea for their musical. (Dean Gariepy/CBC)

That meeting was reported in news articles to have taken place variously as early as 2009 or as late as 2011.

However, the articles all said the meeting took place after Rubinoff saw Hein and Sankoff's previous hit musical, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.

"It was near the end of the run which I think was April [2010] when it closed," said Hein. "Michael came right near the end."

David Hein also provided CBC News with dated screenshots of Facebook messages between himself and Rubinoff corroborating that timeline.

Audience still wonders 

For McKinven, the success of the musical Come from Away has changed how his own play is received by audiences and theatres.

McKinven had always done Q & A sessions after his show.

They used to be about the events in Gander. More often than not, they are now about the origins of the play and whether it was inspired by the vastly more popular production now playing on Broadway.
Eastern Townships playwright Trevor McKinven rehearses his play They Came from Away at The Piggery, the North Hatley theatre where he first performed his play in 2010. (Claude Rivest/CBC)

"I'm just going to have to get used to the fact that people are going to assume that mine is riffing off of this big, very successful show that just hit Broadway," said McKinven.

"I don't mind doing that. I've just found it very exhausting and draining, and it zaps you of that energy that you need to pull off a show like this, a one-man show."

"You're constantly wondering if the people in the seats or the organizers are constantly wondering which came first."

As for Hein and Sankoff, they are thrilled to see the interest generated by the Gander story, and they hope McKinven will keep staging his play.

"We wish him all the best with it and hope to see it someday," said Hein.

"It would be fascinating to see the story told in such a different style, and we'd love it if there were a thousand shows celebrating the kindness of our friends out in Newfoundland."


Trevor McKinven stages a new production of his one-man show They Came From Away for one night only, Wed., May 31, at 8 p.m. at the Piggery Theatre in North Hatley, Que.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Claude Rivest

Journalist

Claude Rivest is a videojournalist covering the Eastern Townships. Email him at claude.rivest@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter:

With files from Alison Brunette

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