Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Self-Isolated Artist

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Joe Szekeres

When it is safe to return to the theatre, and we will (sorry to disagree, Dame Judi Dench), if you have not gone to see the extraordinary ‘Come from Away’, make it one of the shows you definitely must attend. I know I would like to see it again.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s apres 9/11 story of hope, of kindness, and of generosity is one that resonates with me in an emerging post COVID world now more than ever. Amid the statistics and the confusion of this coronavirus time, I know there are stories out there of front-line workers who have instilled hope, shown kindness, and born generosity of spirit.

I had the good fortune to see the show three times: twice in Toronto (and once with the Canadian cast) and the New York/ Broadway company.

Many thanks to Irene and David who were extremely kind and generous to participate in this interview when they have so much going on in their lives right now.

How have you and your family been keeping at this over three-month isolation, and now with a slow re-emergence?

IRENE: We’ve remained healthy. Not sure how with so many people we know having been hit by this wretched virus, but so far, we’re okay. We’re grateful for what we have and try to stay aware of our privilege. And wear our masks when we’re out near others but mostly stay home. I really miss my life from The Before Time. It was all gone so quickly, y’know?

DAVID: We had been living in New York but have driven back with our daughter and two cats and renting a place – and we’re only now sorting out where we’ll be going forward. We’ve been trying to keep an eye on our five CFA companies who are all out of work – not just the onstage team, but the box office, front of house, crew, etc. And we’ve been trying to do some good, donating, buying a 3D printer for makers to make face shields and delivering them.

What has been the most challenging and difficult for you and your family during this time? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy?

IRENE: In the early days it was fear over the outbreak at my Mom’s Long-Term Care Home. We spent a lot of time sourcing and delivering PPE as well as coming up with ways to keep the staff and residents’ spirits up, whether it was having food delivered or doing impromptu performance art outside the building. Now that the outbreak has resolved (knock on wood)

I’m missing the community I had in NYC, as they drift away from that city and all over the map. I spend a lot of time texting or video chatting with them. So - keeping busy has not been a problem. Work has not slowed down (I know, I’m surprised too – and grateful).

And then there’s the education and entertaining of our six-year-old. She is used to a lot of programming and stimulation, having lived the last three years in Manhattan. But she is LOVING being here – and running in and out of the house and hopping on and off her bike and making friends with kids across the street or over a fence while yelling “6 feet back!”

DAVID: We’re surprisingly really busy. Between homeschooling our daughter and figuring out where we’ll live next, we’re doing interviews and as many benefits as we can, trying to raise some money or cheer on front line workers – many of whom are our friends. But we’re also doing work in film and television – and everyone in those fields seems to see us as writers at home with nothing to do – so there’s suddenly a lot to do!

We’ve been working on the ‘Come From Away’ movie, a TV project, and a couple of other irons in the fire.
In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian and North American performing arts scene?

DAVID: I don’t think there’s a way that it won’t – it’s been so challenging for every theatre company, performers, all our crew members – not being able to work. And at the same time, I hope that some writers out there – the ones without six-years-old to homeschool – are writing the next great Canadian musical. Or just recharging and being good to themselves, so that when it makes sense, they can write the next great Canadian musical! Zero pressure to be productive during this.

But long term, I know that theatre will come back – our producers are determined that “Come From Away” will return – and its message of resiliency and coming together in response to a tragedy feels even more relevant now.

IRENE: Yes. I definitely think COVID will have a lasting impact. You can’t come out of a moment like this unchanged, both metaphorically and practically speaking.

I’m mercifully (for all involved) not on the business side of things - but when I speak to those who are, they are cautiously optimistic about the long term. They are constantly running through options and worst-case scenarios and running task forces, and I try not to bother them too much because I don’t know how they do it.

Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any sage and wise words of parental advice to the new graduates from the theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?

IRENE: I’ve always been a big fan of having a Plan B. I always had more than one and lived them for a long time. It gave me income, insight into humanity, and knowledge that I then used in my artistic pursuits, as well as confidence that there were many things I could do to earn a living. So, I was never desperate and always had the ability to walk away if I wasn’t happy in a situation.

It also gave me friends who weren’t in the arts who could advise on life matters and who could frankly afford to come and support our shows. So, this seems like a great time to go to your Plan B. What else can you do?

I’m not saying to give up, not one bit, but you’re going to have to be creative about HOW you are going to keep going while there’s nothing to go to. What else can you do right now to keep yourself fed, and to keep yourself learning so you’re not burnt out by the time this is all over? (Also, I don’t think it will ever really be ‘over’. But I’d love to be wrong about that).

Before COVID, it was predicted that people would have 7 different careers in their lifetimes. Not jobs, careers. As people in the arts, we shouldn’t think we’re exempt from that. David and I are each on our third, maybe fourth careers? And that’s before COVID.

DAVID: I obviously, often think about Newfoundland and what a hard place it can be to live – the winters are awful – it’s literally a rock in the ocean, the fisheries failing – all of that. But the people there have responded by becoming some of the best people in the world – kind, generous to both neighbors and strangers, and brilliant musicians and storytellers. Each winter, they get stuck inside, and they’ve learned to overcome them by coming over to each other’s kitchen parties and telling stories and singing songs – and making sure their community survives together.

So, I think there’s hope that we can learn from this moment and become better. And to the graduates – many of whom were born during 9/11 and are now graduating during this – you have an incredible, unique story to tell – and that story and this time will bond you together as a group.

Find the people you love who you’ve studied with and make art that you love. That’s what we did. Worst case scenario: you’ll have enjoyed the process.

Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian and North American performing arts scene?

DAVID: I think the pressure it’s putting on the system is exposing so many inequalities, which is painful, but acknowledging those issues and working together to find solutions is positive. We’re already seeing new theatre companies being founded to share unheard voices and we’re excited about the art that this moment in the Black Lives Matter movement will create – which as allies, we are trying to educate ourselves on and work to support.

IRENE: COVID has shown so many cracks in the way things were all along it’s dizzying. But the positive side of that is we can look to ways to change during this pause. Inequalities in healthcare and education and access to technology are painfully more pronounced. That’s why performing arts schools all have students who look the way they do – not a ton of racial and/or socioeconomic diversity.

And women are being squeezed out of professions again not just in theatre, but elsewhere as well, as men usually make more money so their jobs take priority, and child-rearing and domestic management still tend to fall to women somehow. I’ve had so many friends, in arts, science, business and even healthcare say something along the lines of “how did I become a 1950s housewife?!”

Wait…I was supposed to stay positive. Oops.

I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming and YouTube presentations destroy the theatrical impact of those who have gathered with anticipation to watch a performance. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?

IRENE: I have no idea. If it is all going to be about streaming, I better learn how to use the TV. Although, I do have a kid. Isn’t that why people have kids? So, they can change the TV channel? They don’t even have to get off the couch anymore. Back in my day, you had to walk all the way over to the TV.

DAVID: I don’t think anything will replace live theatre – that feeling of your heartbeat synchronizing with the audience members around you. But if theatergoers want to watch theatre right now on their computers, how can you blame them? And why would you discourage it?

If you don’t want to watch it, don’t –there’s already theatres working out how to do live theatre with socially distanced seating, or in front of your house, or by phone or zoom – but I don’t have an issue with streamed theatre – the more theatre the merrier!

What is it about the performing arts you still adore that will never be destroyed by COVID?

DAVID: We stand at the back of the house at Come From Away and we watch the show, but we also watch the audience. I love hearing a thousand people laughing at once or hearing them all sigh together – or cry together and then pass Kleenexes down the row.

There was that article about how everyone’s hearts start to sync in rhythm within a theatre. It’s such a gift to get to witness people coming together in a shared experience – which is really what our show is about – and I can’t wait till we can return.

IRENE: I’m not sure I adore this, but somehow, from the very beginning and no matter where in the world we’ve been, David and I have always ended up writing cramped in the middle of the night on a closed toilet seat in a bathroom, one of us seated on the edge of the tub if there was one. There was no tub at the Broadway theatre, but everyone knew the bathroom in the stage manager’s office was where we worked.
And lo and behold, we’re working in a cramped bathroom again right this minute. Apparently COVID can’t destroy that.

But seriously, a line from ‘Carousel’ comes to mind that gives me hope. This isn’t quite it, but the sentiment is right: “As long as there is one person on Earth who remembers, it isn’t over yet.”

With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:

What is your favourite word?

DAVID: When I was a kid it was “Hawaii” – I’d say it over and over again even though I’d grown up in Saskatchewan and had never been there. With ‘Come From Away’, when we had to travel to meet our Australian company, we stopped there and it became our daughter’s favorite place – primarily because of the stray cats, so it’s as good a word as any.

I also love the word “kindness” both for its practice and that it implies a “kinship” or “similar kind” with another person – recognizing our similarities rather than our differences.

IRENE: Roller Coaster.

What is your least favourite word?

DAVID: This is such an only child word to pick – and I hate saying it to our only child too, but “No.”

IRENE: Sprain.

What turns you on?

DAVID: A good Canadian self-deprecating sense of humour.

IRENE: Surprising people.

What turns you off?

DAVID: People not listening, or not learning. I’m guilty of it too, plenty of times, but it drives me crazy. Also, when computers don’t work. It makes me crazy.

IRENE: Ableism. ‘Isms’ in general.

What sound or noise do you love?

DAVID: Irene and my daughter’s laughter when they literally can’t keep it inside and it just burbles out. It’s my favourite sound ever. I spend a lot of time being goofy mostly so I can hear them laugh.

IRENE: Rain.

What sound or noise bothers you?

DAVID: Chalkboard fingernails and my daughter crying. Or our cat, Gambo, “wowing” for breakfast at 5am.

IRENE: Ignorant people talking.

What is your favourite curse word?

DAVID: Fuck. I also love the Newfoundlander’s “lard tunderin’ jaysus” though I never feel like it’s mine to use.

IRENE: Fuck.

Other than your current profession now, what other professions would you have liked to do?

DAVID: I always wanted to be an animator or draw comics. Through Come From Away, I got to draw a backup Spider-Man story and I can’t wait to do another one.

IRENE: Teacher. Being surrounded by small children. Is. The. Best.

What profession could you not see yourself doing?

DAVID: Oh man, there’s so many. Prime Minister since I’m terrible at decision making. Deep sea diver because I’m claustrophobic. Is scorpion zookeeper a thing? I might rather die. I have a lot of respect for all of those, but I couldn’t do them.

IRENE: Teacher. There is no profession more underrated, underpaid and under-respected. Post-COVID I’d add ‘essential worker’.

If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?

DAVID: “Excellent, you and Irene came together. Glad you took your time.”

IRENE: “You can dance the way you used to, and it won’t hurt a bit.”

To learn more about any of the worldwide extraordinary companies of ‘Come from Away’, please visit www.comefromaway.com.

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