Broadway’s Come From Away is a unique new musical that beautifully intertwines the stories of a group of strangers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland where international flights were forced to reroute on September 11, 2001. All actors in the show’s ensemble play multiple characters. The cast features two URTA alumni—Jenn Colella and Joel Hatch—who each play a central character in addition to numerous other roles. Colella plays Captain Beverley Bass, the pilot of one of the stranded planes, and Hatch plays Gander Mayor Claude Elliot. Colella and Hatch recently took a moment to chat about the production and their journeys to Broadway.
URTA: At what point in Come From Away‘s development journey did you join the cast?
Jenn Colella: I joined the cast for the world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Joel Hatch: At La Jolla Playhouse. Our producers had done extensive casting in New York, Canada, and the west coast. We have almost the entire original cast on Broadway.
What does it feels like to perform this show in New York City?
JH: It has always been a very emotional piece to perform. We work hard to keep our personal emotions at bay and allow the audience to decide how they want to respond to the material. New York has been a challenge for us. Our first invited dress was for first responders and friends and family of victims. Our producers provided other opportunities for us to tell this story to people directly involved, particularly at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, for survivors of the Pentagon attack and in Gander, Newfoundland for many of our real life characters.
JC: It feels important to finally bring this show to New York because I believe NYC to be the nucleus of the entire world and our world needs some healing right now.
The characters you’re portraying are real people. Did you get to talk with your real world counterparts during the rehearsal process?
JC: Captain Beverley Bass and I have become dear friends throughout this process. She’s seen Come From Away over 60 times now!
JH: Not during the original rehearsals in La Jolla, but later on during the many productions we did in the U.S. and Canada. It is important to understand that we all play compilations of real people. With hundreds of stories to tell, David [Hein] and Irene [Sankoff]—our writers, settled on specific people whose character would tell several people’s stories. Because of this, our director, Chris Ashley, didn’t want us to impersonate that major character. Meeting with these people was truly beneficial. We all learned a great deal about our characters’ back stories which only enriched the telling.
What was the rehearsal process like for a true ensemble piece like this?
JH: Like most musicals, we started with some concentrated vocal rehearsals interspersed with table work as well as a lot of research. Eventually we started staging, along with a lot of dialect work for all of our characters. The staging was very intricate as we use a turn table as part of our storytelling, as well as all the quick shifts of character-to-character that we do. Each of us portrays multiple people, all with different dialects, with slight costume adjustments at a rapid fire pace.
Let’s go back to the start of your career, walk us through the steps from choosing a graduate school, to Come From Away.
JH: I chose the University Of Minnesota for very practical reasons. The worst thing you can start a career in theatre with, is a lot of debt. As a citizen of the state I found the price of graduate school doable at Minnesota. I also had no undergrad theatre training. I had been planning on going to the seminary after college and was working at a church in Hibbing Minnesota. I found that the University would accept me into their MFA program based solely on my audition. I took an extra year as a part-time student to get some theatre background and was part of the MFA class the following year.
I got my equity card at the Chanhassen Dinner Theaters outside Minneapolis and worked and taught for a while in that community but found the options for a young character man limiting. The best decision I made was moving to the Chicago theatre scene. There I worked constantly, first at musical houses like Marriott and Drury Lane Oakbrook and eventually downtown to the Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, and finally to Writers Theatre in Glencoe, which became my artistic home for several years. I was also cast in national tours of Showboat1>, Ragtime, and Beauty and The Beast out of Chicago.
What brought me to New York was a new musical called The Adding Machine, based on the Elmer Rice play. Jason Loweth, artistic director at Next Theatre, conceived the idea and wrote a great book. My friend Josh Schmidt composed the score and David Cromer directed. We lived the story of some friends putting a show together that changed all of our lives. The creators of Billy Elliot were in New York casting the Broadway run and they happened to come to see our production down in the village at Minetta Lane. I was asked to audition and in short time we were winding up a six month run and I was in rehearsals for my first Broadway show. Since then I have been going back and forth between Broadway and developing new work. I couldn’t ask for a better life in the theatre.
How has your education influenced your career?
JC: I found UC Irvine through my URTA audition for which I will be forever grateful. For me, attending grad school was the best possible decision I could’ve made for my professional career. I was able to augment the raw skills I had as a performer and collect more tools to prepare me for the reality of making my living as an actor.
JH: My education has been vital to everything I do in the theatre. I spent my undergrad years reading a lot of philosophy, psychology, English lit, and history. That resource I have used constantly as I try to understand my characters. The skill sets I started working on in grad school provided a firm foundation for a craft that I find constantly challenging to this day.
What advice do you have for actors just starting their career?
JC: Trust that you are enough. Wherever you are is exactly right. There is no note you should be able to hit, or credit you must have on your resume. Trust that where you are is where you’re supposed to be. You. Are. Enough.
JH: Read, read, and keep reading. Our sole endeavor is trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. Without a wealth of literature, history, psychology, and philosophy/religion, how are we expected to understand their time, place, frame of mind, where they are coming from, where they intend to go? Craft might get you through an audition, but understanding is essential to giving a character life.
top: Jenn Colella and Joel Hatch (background) in “Come From Away” photo: Sara Krulwich, NY TimesPosted by URTA Posted on 30 Mar