When the smash-hit musical “Come From Away” made its debut, it thrust Gander and the surrounding communities into the international spotlight for the kindness and compassion shown towards displaced airline passengers during the dark days of 9/11. With runs in Toronto, New York, London, Dublin, Melbourne and soon, Shanghai, the award-winning musical has captured the hearts of audiences around the world. Now, a local event is looking to build upon that success to help propel musical theatre in the province.
Held from September 12 to 15 at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts & Culture Centre, the Gander Musical Theatre Symposium brought together top industry professionals (including those involved with “Come From Away”) and local arts groups, students and members of the public for four days of workshops, talks, special showcases, performances and more. The Arts and Culture Centres of Newfoundland and Labrador partnered with the Town of Gander, Sheridan College’s Music Theatre Program, MUN’s Grenfell Campus and Beyond the Overpass Theatre Company to host the event.
Aiden Flynn, principal coordinator of the symposium, says it was a smashing success. He says it all started during a conversation with Michael Rubinoff, Producing Artistic Director for the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan and the initial producer and developer of “Come From Away.”
“The town has done a wonderful job in acknowledging its role in 9/11 and also in doing things that cater to the tourism that’s been increased because of the interest in ‘Come From Away.’ We wanted to do something that specifically acknowledged and celebrated the artistic achievement of it,” Flynn says.
“So with David (Hein) and Irene (Sankoff – writers of “Come From Away”) and Michael’s efforts to get this initially produced, and the research that they conducted in Gander, we thought it was fitting that we would go to Gander and do a symposium that was focused on the creation of musical theatre.”
Flynn says he was overwhelmed by the initial expressions of interest in the event, which drew a contingent of students from Sheridan College and Grenfell Campus, as well as youth from the Gander area (who participated in a series focused on core concepts of musical theatre and storytelling). The presenter list, which he says was “nothing short of astonishing,” included Newfoundland playwrights Robert Chafe and Berni Stapleton, as well as set designer Ken MacDonald, sound designer Tony Meola, costume designer Charles Schoonmaker, composer and lyricist Leslie Arden, and “Come From Away” producer Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog Productions, to name a few.
“The best of the best basically showed up in Gander to facilitate these workshops and the response that we got was just unbelievable,” Flynn says.
“These people kind of opened a lot of people’s eyes…and gave them new ideas about not only the work that they’re doing now, but the work that they could be doing with their production companies as well.”
Local theatre companies Best Kind Productions and Peter MacDonald Productions also delivered showcases, while Shanneyganock (whose music inspired that of “Come From Away”) provided musical entertainment.
Flynn says he hopes that the symposium will become an annual event, and he and the symposium team are already putting plans into place for 2020.
“We kind of launched the first year as a pilot to see what kind of interest would be there and the response has been, yes, we want it again, and we want more.”