BWW Interview: Megan McGinnis of COME FROM AWAY on Tour
Everyone has a 9/11 story. Where were you?
I was in 8th grade in computer literacy class when our principal made the announcement over the intercom that we needed to pray for those affected in the terrorist attacks in New York City. When our teacher looked at the news, she explained to us in horror what was happening. I remember her telling us, "The twin towers are gone." While my classmates looked at each other in confusion I cried because I knew exactly what that meant. You see, I had been to the top of those towers with my family on July 4, 2001.
I knew what it meant to take the PATH into the World Trade Center station from Jersey City because I had done it every day for a week. I knew what rush hour in that station looked like and how many thousands of people traveled through there in a matter of minutes. I knew that there was a shopping center on top of the station with hundreds of workers and then the buildings were on top of that. I knew that not only were there hundreds of visitors to those buildings every day, but that also thousands more went there to the offices to work. I have pictures of me on Liberty Island with those towers in the background, I have pictures of me in the atrium of the buildings with the world flags surrounding my family, and I have pictures of my siblings and I at the very top looking down on the city below. It still haunts me, and makes me ache for what and who were lost.
In the days, weeks, months, even years after 9/11, new information and new stories were brought to light. But I can honestly say that until COME FROM AWAY hit Broadway, I had NO idea about the events that took place in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, and the sense of hope and healing that the people of Gander and the "come from aways" would bring to me with their story. Megan McGinnis and the touring cast of COME FROM AWAY are bringing their story to New Orleans this week and you can bet I will be there! Keep reading to hear from Megan about her journey in show business and what makes COME FROM AWAY so special.
What made you want to become an actress?
I grew up in Los Angeles so there were actors everywhere. I was a rather shy child, apparently, according to my mother, and when I was 5 I used to sing a lot around the house and she thought oh she's shy, she likes to sing, let's put her on the stage! She took me to an audition for a community theatre production for a musical and we sat in the back of the auditorium and watched the auditions and she said, "Do you want to do that?" and I said, "Yeah!" I went on stage and sang Happy Birthday and got really nervous and so she sang it with me and I got hired, and the rest is history. For my 7th birthday I begged for an agent... a very L.A. thing to do, and I started doing commercials and television, and I really loved theatre the most. I loved community theatre. There's just so many wonderful theatres in the Los Angeles area, and so when I was applying for colleges I thought well I'm gonna go to New York because that's where theatre is. My parents, who had been incredibly supportive, took me to acting classes, dancing classes, singing classes my whole childhood said, "We would really prefer if you went to college for something else." So, I decided to go to Columbia University, which is in New York City, and I majored in English, but I started auditioning as soon as I got to New York. I did my first two Broadway shows while I was in school so I kind of tricked them.
You were actively in school while you were working? How did you balance that?!
To be completely honest, I don't remember because it was so exhausting and so much work. I lucked out. My first Broadway show was THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK in 1998, and I was just a vacation replacement so I was only there for a month, and it happened to be the month of my final exams, which was actually perfect. I know it sounds worse, but it's actually better because you don't have classes, you just study and take your exams. My teachers were incredibly understanding and gave me different times to take the exams, and somehow I managed to do well, and that was that. And then my second Broadway show was PARADE, which was that fall of the same year when I started my junior year. That was more difficult because I had the whole rehearsal process and the whole run, so I just signed up for Monday/Wednesday classes. Most of them were Monday seminars so I could go to classes on my day off. And then I had one Monday/ Wednesday class where the teacher did the same lecture both Monday and Wednesday so I was able to complete the class. I did a lot of research in finding the perfect professor. So, yeah, somehow that happened and I just kept going from there.
I love this phenomenon of actors being shy when they're not on stage! How do you muster up the courage to get in front of that many people every night?
Well, it's pretend! I'm not playing myself. It's a lot easier to come out of my shell. I don't even have to think of a persona, it's written for me. I think it makes a lot of sense that the only way shy people can be extroverted is to pretend... to be on stage and pretend to be somebody else. Shyness doesn't seem to be contradictory because I'm just telling a story, and I love stories. I'm a storyteller, so I don't really think about my personality as much.
Let's chat about this show that you're a part of right now, COME FROM AWAY. Can you walk us through what the show is about? I've heard some folks unsure about a musical involving 9/11, and it's about that but not really.
It is, but it's more of a 9/12 musical... it's really about what happened after. And, I didn't know this story. I was in New York City on 9/11, and I didn't know that these events had occurred until I heard about the show coming to Broadway, which really surprises me because it was such an extraordinary thing. Every plane had to land after the terrorist attacks, and 38 of those planes landed in the town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada. Those people on those 38 planes, seven thousand people, were stuck in this tiny little town of nine thousand people for 5 days. These people are from everywhere, from all over the world, and the people of Gander and the surrounding areas took care of them for those 5 days. Our show is about that, and the friendships and everything that people had to go through in those 5 days after hearing about what had just changed the world. They're also away from their home and away from their families. It's a really lovely, uplifting story and I feel really lucky to be telling it.
I love the tagline for the show which is "On 9/11 the world stopped. On 9/12 their stories moved us." We all think of that day and how if affected New York City, but we hardly stop to think about the days following and how that affected other people around the world.
Of course, and some of the people who's stories we're telling are from New York. One of them, Hannah, her son was missing that day and she spent those 5 days in Gander not knowing. These people are just the kindest, most wonderful people. We met all of them. They all came to our opening in Seattle. Several came back for our opening in Los Angeles. A lot of them have come to meet us in other cities. They're all still in touch! These 5 days in Gander really changed all of their lives.
What is the music like in this show?
It's in the style of music from Newfoundland, which, many of the people from Newfoundland are originally from Ireland, which I was not aware of. In fact, their accent is hard to imitate. At first you're like, "Is it Irish?" But, it's not. It's just Irish enough that when you have to learn it it's very difficult to not slip into Irish. The music has a bit of that flavor. There's a wonderful scene where we're in a bar and the come from aways, that's what we call the people on the planes, are screeched in, which is an event that people in Gander do for visitors. You become an honorary Newfoundlander. It's this great scene because it's just so wonderful with this wonderful Irish flavor. It's also contemporary musical theatre, so it's a lot of music that you can identify with and that tells the story beautifully. It's awfully catchy!
What can we expect to see from this show? What's the set like?
What I love most about the show is, while it's simple in nature, it doesn't feel simple when you watch it. The set is gorgeous. It has these trees, humongous, gorgeous trees for the set. We have 14 chairs on stage that represent many, many things throughout the show, including the airplanes. You think, "Oh, that sounds awfully bare," but, the staging is so well done and it flows so quickly that it doesn't feel pared down. It actually feels very epic in a way. It's all very fast moving. It's only 90 minutes with no intermission, and we just tell so much story in that amount of time, and there are so many locations... we're on one plane one minute, another airplane the next, a town hall meeting, then we're in a bar, so it flows very swiftly.
Tell me about the characters that you play throughout the show.
We all play multiple characters throughout the show. My primary character is Bonnie Harris, who is a real person. Every person we play in the show is a real person, or is a combination of a couple people. Bonnie works at the Gander SPCA, and she's the one who worries about the animals who are stuck on these planes. These 38 planes that were at the Gander airport, people were not allowed off of the planes, in some cases, for 28 hours. They're getting food and supplies from the ground crew, but people didn't think about the animals. She went to the airport and just got on those airplanes and found those animals and took care of them. It was a very scary time because people didn't know if every plane was in danger, and she didn't care and she put those animals first and you follow that journey which is just so wonderful. When I saw the show, too, I was like oh, right! The animals! They're not the first thing you think about on an airplane because they are in cargo! They don't have food, and some of these animals were ill. One of them was pregnant. There were two rare bonobo chimpanzees on one of the airplanes, and the female was pregnant! It's a great part of the story. And then I get to play a couple of come from aways and townspeople, but Bonnie is my main character.
Is there anything that you learned about these events that you didn't know before that came out of this show?
What happened in Gander over those 5 days... all of that information was completely new to me. You'll see, when you see the show, how much you get from that. And, meeting all of these incredible people, I just feel so lucky to tell their story. All of their stories. There are thousands of them! Our authors did hours upon hours of interviews with all of these people, and to learn their stories and the background of the stories... when we were in rehearsal they had the minutes from the town hall meeting and just everyone trying to figure out what to do, how to take care of them... it's a lot of information that I've gathered over these last seven months.
That's really incredible! To wrap us up here, why should people come see COME FROM AWAY?
I think it would be really sad if you missed seeing this show. I saw this show on Broadway right when it opened, and it made me feel so incredibly hopeful about the world and about how people are really kind at heart. I think that the world feels a little scary these days, and this show reminds you that we're going to get through it, and uplifts you in a way that we all need right now. It's rare that I can promise somebody that they will love a play. You will love it. You will not want to miss this experience, and I'm so glad that I have this chance to tour the country with it. You don't have to go to New York to see it. This is a first class production coming straight to you. It was a very difficult decision for me to... I'm here with my whole family. My husband is a standby in the show, and I'm on stage every night, and we're here with our 2 year old, and we're touring the country telling this story, and we wouldn't want to be anywhere else except here telling this story.
I'm so excited for this to come to New Orleans because even though we're pretty far in distance from New York City and Gander, we had a similar experience of people gathering to care for each other after Hurricane Katrina, and I think we'll be able to identify well with what our friends in Gander experienced. I can't wait to learn about their story, and I hope that you will join me in seeing COME FROM AWAY this week at the Saenger Theatre.
Visit http://www.saengernola.com for tickets and more information.