DES MOINES — I’m wearing a vintage flannel of orange, blue and green, looking out at 2,700 empty seats. It’s time for soundcheck at the Des Moines Civic Center. It occurs to me that my shirt matches the wave of 1970s theatre chairs. I chuckle at this realization while my castmates snap photos of me for their posting pleasure. My thoughts are flooded by hopes of impressing my home state with a story of compassion.
For the past 13 years, I’ve been building a career in theater. Beyond all doubt, the greatest professional opportunity I’ve received is touring with “Come From Away.” “Come from a what?” is what people often say upon hearing this title. Folks have mistaken the name for Come From Afar, Come Fly Away, Come Far Away, and so on and so forth.
“Come From Away” is the musical telling of true events that occurred on September 11, 2001, but it is not directly about the attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., or Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Eight times a week, we tell the story of the sudden diversion of 7,000 air travelers to Gander, Newfoundland, a small town in northeast Canada that opened their doors and hearts to strangers from across the globe. Matt Milner, the Courier’s own managing editor, did an excellent job speaking to the essence of this story. It was a pleasure being interviewed by him and an even greater pleasure reading his thoughts on our show. Do yourself a favor and read his review from January 29, 2020, headlined, “‘Come From Away’ Shows Humanity at its Best.” Those who’ve been touched by this story are reminded that human connection goes a long way in the face of despair.
My parents connected in community theatre, so it is no surprise that my exposure to music and drama was plentiful. They supported the arts by taking our family to theater in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Fairfield, Oskaloosa, and of course, Ottumwa. “Oliver! The Musical” was the first time I remember being exposed to a full-scale Broadway show. We frequented the Civic Center many times over the years, sometimes as a family, other times by myself or with a friend. We saw groundbreaking theatre from those seats; theatre that (especially to a kid) opened a window to a vast world outside my own. More amazing than the performances themselves was witnessing the effects those performances had on other patrons. The discovery was that a speech, or a song, can induce tears or incite laughter; it can encourage discussion, inspire people to kiss, to hug, to hold hands. There is a wonderful power in live performance. I felt instantly compelled to bring that energy home.
Tight bonds are formed from working together on a play. Some of my most enduring friendships began by doing theater at Evans Middle School, Ottumwa High School, Ottumwa Community Players and The Greater Ottumwa Vocal Arts Project. These projects all required heaps of support — support for each other in the work we were taking chances on, support from parents who carpooled their kids, and often their kids’ friends, support from local businesses who purchased ads in programs, generating the necessary funding to mount these productions. I’ve found that support is often channeled right back into the village that helped raise a show.
In 2008, our core group of young Ottumwa artists returned home for a special cause. Our idea was to perform a one-night-only concert of songs from “Godspell,” all for a dear friend who had undergone treatment for leukemia. This person had been there for all of us so we knew we had to return the favor. Organizing, rehearsing and executing this show over just a few days, we had accumulated over $2,000 for his hospital bills.
From about 2003 to 2011, many of that same group of artists would gather for an annual holiday caroling party. We would wassail all over town, bundled up with hymn books and hot cocoa. We’d tragically lost a few of those friends and peers over the years. They were remarkable young people who helped shape our experiences onstage and off. To honor their memories, we would add their parent’s homes to our caroling itinerary. These were parents who most assuredly had driven us to and from rehearsals in years gone by. Sharing a Christmas tune with them would leave everyone with tears in their eyes and hearts full of joy.
This is all to say that if you support and encourage creativity in young people, you make space for them to give back in creative ways. If you make time to go to the theater once in a while, you may witness firsthand the power of connection. If you feel so bold as to become involved in a play, whether that be by acting, playing an instrument, building sets or handing out programs, you may find wonderful new ways to invite cooperation into your daily life.
By the end of Come From Away’s week at the Des Moines Civic Center, well over 250 people have driven up to see us. The majority of these people come on Saturday night, and we all gather afterwards at a party hosted by my proud folks. My mom is handing out drink tokens by the handful. My dad is laughing at a table with my fiancé and her parents. As I observe all these faces from various stages in my life, an overwhelming sense of gratitude for where I was brought up comes over me. Thank you to my community for the support you’ve shown me, and thank you for the support you’ll continue to show your local arts organizations. We will navigate through, and beyond, these uncertain times together.