They Came From Away came 1st. Then came the Broadway hit
Eastern Townships playwright 'has to get used to the fact' audience thinks he's riffing off Come From Away
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.
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.
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The premise for both plays is roughly the same.
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.'"
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.
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.
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.
"I just think credit should be given where credit is due," one woman posted on 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.
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  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.
"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.
With files from Alison Brunette