Night Writes sits down with actors Kellie Rode, playing Bonnie, and Gene Weygandt, playing Claude, to discuss their upcoming production Come From Away with New Theatricals.
What sparked your interest in this project?
Gene Weygandt: I’d auditioned for the North American tour a couple years ago and fell in love with the show. All of American theatre had been shut down for the foreseeable future and so I welcomed the opportunity to audition for the Australian company.
Kellie Rode: I was immediately drawn to the idea of telling a true story and was equally drawn to my character Bonnie. Upon reading her scenes and singing the score, my peaked interest quickly developed into fascination and determination. I had never read anything like this script and my heart was set on getting into this show!
Did you know much about the musical’s true story beforehand?
KR: I knew nothing about the true story behind this remarkable piece. This made my process so much richer because there was so much research I could throw myself into. Not to mention the benefit of meeting Bonnie Harris herself from Newfoundland who sent me a “welcome to the CFA family” package of cards, chocolate, and Newfoundland paraphernalia when I was cast.
How does it feel to bring this show to Sydney?
GW: It’s wonderful. It feels like a gift to Australia for having sacrificed so much to help fight the pandemic. I’m so proud to be a part of this truly unique and brilliant production. I tell everyone I meet about it: bartenders, golf partners, museum documents, the pharmacists (chemists)… anyone who asks what this American is doing in Australia. And then “guarantee” them that they’ll love it. “Everyone does.” And you will too. I guarantee it.
KR: It feels exhilarating on many levels; it’s wonderful to finally share this inspirational story with Sydney because it’s uplifting, heartwarming, a true story about kindness. It’s also somewhat revolutionary in its form, it’s an ever-moving ensemble piece where we all play multiple characters and directly speak to the audience. It is unlike any show I have ever seen.
Why is it important to tell this story now and in Australia?
KR: Come From Away is about the best of humanity overcoming trauma by coming together to care for our fellow neighbours, regardless of our differences. After a tumultuous year battling COVID-19, the parallels between this story and our current challenges are poignantly close. Also, it’s more important than ever that we tell this story in Australia now because the arts play a vital role in creating balance after what has been a year of anxiety and isolation. The very fact that we are opening in Sydney is an achievement worth relishing!
GW: It’s a good reminder to us all of the power and importance of simple human decency and kindness. It’s such a hopeful, funny, and life-affirming experience in the wake of some of the challenges we’ve all faced in recent years. It’s a story that needs to be told.
How does Come From Away fit into the wider Australian theatre scene?
GW: Though I’ve only seen three other theatrical productions since I’ve been here, and I may be a bit biased, but I think we fit right in. Though we have a few American actors, and the creative team are American, most of the actors, musicians and technicians on our production are Aussies. The result is we’re simply part of the Australian theatre community, in the same way “tour families” are welcomed into each city where they take up temporary residence anywhere in the world. We just get the advantage of bringing out Aussie hosts along with us to each city.
KR: Come From Away is yet another example of how important Australia is on the world stage. In addition to London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, musicals come to Australia and thrive! It’s a contemporary musical with a new formula that challenges one’s perception of what a musical is, which is thrilling to experience. It has been described as both a musical and a play with music. It’s excitingly unique and, hence, adds to the vast variety we embrace here on Australian stage.
How have you found working on this project?
GW: I’ve found the work challenging, exciting, and enormously rewarding. The “true story” element didn’t much factor into any of the process or the decision to accept the role. To me, they’re all true stories. Giant man-eating plants, flying monkeys, well-meaning decent politicians… (laugh emoji goes here.)
KR: I have found this project thrilling and so satisfying in that I play several characters, I am constantly on stage contributing to the story, and I’m part of a genuine ensemble. We depend on each other, support each other, and are supported by each other. It’s very satisfying as an actress. The true story element was a huge consideration because we have an obligation to honour the facts of history and the people we’re playing. Having said that, we were never encouraged to mimic the “real” Newfoundlanders, rather to connect with their energy, story and purpose in those moments of their journey and represent that respectfully and thoughtfully.
How different trying to play a real person rather than a fictional character? Do you change your process?
GW: Not at all. I’ve often played “real people.” Though it has rarely been the sort of thing that impressionists do; try to look, sound and employ the mannerisms of a famous person. This is more like finding what likely motivated that person in that moment, and then playing the scenes or singing simply and honestly.
KR: It did change my process. Bonnie works at the SPCA in Gander, Newfoundland and was deeply concerned about the animals stuck on the 38 planes that landed in Gander. She was determined to ensure they were found, fed, and nurtured. There were numerous interviews, articles, and stories about Bonnie’s experience that I could draw upon. I was also fortunate enough to be able to ask her questions directly which absolutely informed my character choices. Once I had a clear timeline, a vivid idea of how she was feeling, and what her challenges were, I could then use those to inform my choices in playing the character.
What were the most challenging and enjoyable aspects of putting Come From Away together?
KR: The chairs!! The most challenging aspect was during rehearsals, learning the intricacies of the blocking, and where to put the chairs. We’ve often likened it to a game of fast-paced Tetris! However, the hard work was definitely worth it; the brilliant choreography and direction enhance the story with the magical subtlety and make this show so unique. In that respect, that aspect has been both challenging and enjoyable!
GW: The biggest challenge of the show is the complexity and detail of music, acting, and choreography. Come From Away appears to be simple, but the opposite is true. There is a precision about every element, every moment that’s unlike any other show I’ve done. The most enjoyable aspect, as my son has often reminded me, is the people. Our creative team, in addition to being “as good as it gets” are also some of the kindest, funniest people I’ve ever met. They made the difficult process of learning this show an absolute joy. The cast members, most of whom were part of the production prior to the COVID-19 lockdown last year, have welcomed me and made me feel at home here on the other side of the world. And it’s always a delight to bump into audience members after the show.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
GW: I hope they are reminded of the inherent goodness of humanity and of our deep interconnectedness. …And that they laugh at my jokes.
KR: I also hope they appreciate the extraordinary choreography and marvel at what is possible with 12 actors and chairs on stage! I hope they’re uplifted by the sensational music which is an integral part of our storytelling and, like many of our audiences, want to come again!
What’s been the highlight of the tour so far or what are you looking forward to during the Sydney season?
GW: Oh, definitely meeting Australians!! You guys vibrate at quite a different frequency than most Americans, and I love it! Over and over I’m the recipient of small daily kindnesses and good cheer. Kangaroos!! I’ve yet to see one, but the fact you have them and one day soon I’m likely to see one blows my mind.
KR: A huge highlight of the show so far was meeting “real” Newfoundlanders at the Melbourne opening in 2019. A genuinely remarkable moment in the tour and my career! Now I am so excited to be back in Sydney! My first show was my debut role as the original Sophie in the Mamma Mia! Sydney premiere in 2002, so Sydney holds a very special place in my heart. I love working here and I can’t wait to share this incredible show with Sydney!
NOTE: Responses have been edited for clarity.
Come From Away is running at the Capitol Theatre from June 3rd.
For more information and to get tickets, visit here.
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