Interview: Douglas Hansell in a story of kindness and community

With real-life gay characters and based on a true event that occurred after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Come from Away is a hugely entertaining tale about passengers stuck in the town of Gander in Newfoundland and is an ode to kindness and the power of community.
David Blanco  |  Art & Culture
Doug Hansell — Photo by Joseph Naim

Come from Away is a fascinating true event immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks is the inspiration for ‘Come From Away’, the acclaimed musical that has won the hearts of audiences around the world. The show tells the uplifting story of a group of stranded airline passengers who receive camaraderie and friendship from a community of strangers.

David Blanco from the FUSE team spoke with 'Come from Away' key cast member Douglas Hansell about the upcoming season of ‘Come From Away’ and the real-life 🏳️‍🌈 gay character he portrays.

FUSE (David Blanco) : Can you please tell us a little about ‘Come From Away' and its inception?  

Douglas Hansell: Come From Away tells the story of a small town on the northeast tip of Newfoundland, Canada, called Gander on September 11, 2001. Although it’s a town of only around 8000 people, its claim to fame is that it has this enormous airport, given it used to be a refuelling point prior to single-flight transatlantic crossings. On 9/11, when the government shut down the US airspace, 38 passenger jets were diverted to Gander and stranded there for five days.

The show is based on interviews with the locals and the 7000 ‘Come-From-Aways’ and how they coped over those five days from processing the atrocity that’s happened back home to making new connections, distracting themselves with the local customs and essentially building a brand-new family of 15000 people. 

FUSE: What are the show's main themes, and why do they remain important over 20 years after 9/11? 

Douglas: It's famously been called 'the show about kindness' which probably sounds about as interesting as watching grass grow but in fact, the central premise of these Ganderites accommodating, feeding, and providing comfort to these stranded passengers is the hook upon which all the other themes in the show hang, fear, displacement, love, loss, renewal, xenophobia, acceptance. 

One of the reasons the show works so well is that 9/11 is a common reference point for everybody in that theatre. We all remember watching it live or waking up to it the next morning. But in fact, the show has also been called the '9/12 story', It deals with a situation that's merely adjacent to the main event…and therefore there's much more scope to delve into the pathos and the humor and the humanity. And therefore, perhaps surprisingly, it is also extremely funny!

The Melbourne company of Come From Away Jeff Busby.

FUSE: Can you tell us about the characters you play? 

Douglas: There are twelve actors on stage, and we portray about 53 distinct characters (all real-life people), representing the 15000 people who were in that town that week. My primary character is called 'Kevin T', a businessman who was on a flight back from a holiday in France with his partner - also called Kevin. My Kevin is a bit of a ringleader and sees the events in New York as a wakeup call to really live in the moment…but still, this is 20 years ago and a country town in the middle of nowhere doesn't necessarily feel like the safest place for a gay couple to really 'let it all hang out'. I also play a rather uncompromising union leader, a Gander bus driver called Garth who I love playing, tough on the outside, marshmallow on the inside. And for a hot second I also play President Bush. 

FUSE: How did you get cast as Kevin Tuerff?  

Douglas: I'd been living in London for about 5 years when I was invited back to do a show at the Sydney Theatre Company in late 2018. As far as I was aware, Come From Away had already been cast so it wasn't on my radar until I heard from a friend that they were having trouble casting one particular role which he thought I'd be suited to. Not knowing much about it, I got in touch with the casting director who I knew, and she was very enthusiastic and invited me in to audition the following week.

I did one audition at 10am and they asked me to come back three hours later to put the audition on tape for the Americans and that was it. Most of the rest of the cast went through a grueling seven or eight rounds of auditions so I guess they must've just been desperate by the time they got to me! Ha!

This hugely entertaining tale about passengers diverted to Newfoundland after the 2001 attacks is an ode to kindness and the power of community – The Guardian

FUSE: You have met the real-life Kevin Tuerff. Can you tell our readers about him and the effect his experiences in Gander had on him?

Douglas: Yeah. Kevin first reached out to me on Instagram when my casting was announced. He was thrilled that I was gay, which I thought was kind of funny but also bemusing. And then all the people depicted in the show flew out to Melbourne when we opened in 2019 so I got to spend a bit of time with him then and we've kept in touch on and off ever since.

I think the experience in Gander had a deep impact on him. He established the 'Pay It Forward 911' initiative as a direct result of his time there but more than anything, I think having your story told in a smash-hit musical around the world must be an odd experience and that has really given him the profile to further that work. 

Doug Hansell — Photo by Joseph Naim

FUSE: You have previously described 'Come From Away' as a musical for people who don't love musicals. What did you mean by this? 

Douglas: Ha-ha! That was a kind of truth couched in a joke. 'Come From Away' is certainly a far cry from the average musical and in many ways it's more like a play set to music. The songs are an intrinsic part of driving the story forward and so there aren't any 'stop to sing' moments. It's also 100 minutes straight through with no interval so it doesn't follow a traditional musical theatre structure. I think I came up with that grab after a director friend of mine who admits to despising musicals, came to see one of the first previews. He said afterwards that it was one of the best pieces of theatre he'd ever seen! 

FUSE: Speaking of music, can you tell our readers about the music in 'Come From Away'

Douglas: Yeah, that's the other thing that makes it unlike other musicals. The music is grounded in the Celtic folk traditions of Newfoundland with lots of earthy drums and whistles and fiddles. There's a terrific scene set in a bar when the whole band come on stage and have a jam and it feels like you're in an enormous Irish pub. 

FUSE: You have an impressive list of stage and screen credits. Do you prefer theatrical or filmed work?

Douglas: For me it's about variety. Although I've been attached to 'Come From Away' for four years, I've been able to do a lot of other stuff along the way during breaks from the show. Some of that has been other theatre stuff, some television as well as a bunch of live-streamed stuff during lockdown. I don't ever want to get stuck in one genre or one medium. 

Theatre is obviously thrilling because it's immediate and you have to be able to troubleshoot in the moment if something goes wrong. And it also demands an incredible amount of discipline and fitness. But there are downsides to always working weekends and not having your evenings to socialise with friends. I find with film and TV there's a real freedom to play with other actors and that can be really exciting. But it's all so quick with much less time to rehearse and oftentimes the actors are the least important people on set. I guess one thing I'd add is that neither theatre nor film are anywhere near as glamorous as they may seem!

FUSE: Currently, the issue of LGBTQIA+ representation in film and theatre is gaining substantial attention. As a gay actor, do you believe you bring increased authenticity to gay roles? 

Douglas: That's an interesting, complex topic. On the one hand, I don't believe that only gay actors should play gay roles. For a start, if I followed that logic, I'd never be able to play straight roles and that's absurd. Still, do I think a white man should play Othello? Obviously not. And similarly, today one of the thornier questions surrounds the legitimacy of cis actors playing trans roles and I do agree that that is problematic. 

What I will say is that my experience as a gay guy compels me to portray any gay character I play with as much of my lived experience as I can. Our Kevin's hold hands, they touch…they connect as a couple. But I'd do the same if I was playing opposite a woman. The primary thing is to depict any relationship respectfully, authentically, and believably. 

The key word here is 'representation'. If one section of the community is being continually marginalised or unrepresented, then you have a big problem. But I don't think you can ever arrive at a set of 'rules' about who can play what and who can't. I think it's always going to be an evolving conversation where mistakes and progress are made concurrently. That's actually a really great thing. However, if you start coming for Drag Story Time, then FU*K YOU ASSHOLE!

FUSE: Our readers may be interested to hear about your role in Australia's same-sex marriage campaign. Can you tell us about that? 

Douglas: Wow! You've done your research! It's a bit of a stretch to say that I had a 'role' in the campaign, but my involvement arose out of circumstance. I was living in London, had just had a pretty shitty break-up right as the Same-Sex Marriage campaign was heating up in Australia and I was feeling a little isolated from all the action. 

So basically, I wrote an ad aimed at getting expat Australians to make sure they were registered to vote and co-opted a bunch of Aussie actors living in London to appear in the ad with me. Our big coup was getting Miriam Margolyes to make an appearance. She became an Aussie citizen in 2010 so technically it was legit. But it was just a fun way to get involved and then it got attached to the campaign proper. 

FUSE: Canberra is the last stop for this production of 'Come From Away'. What are your feelings about approaching the end of the show's run? 

Douglas: I only ever intended to stay with the show for 12 months, but Covid had other ideas. We're the only commercial show in Australia that had a life before Covid, during Covid and post Covid. And I'm enormously proud of that. That said, four years is an incredibly long time to be attached to any one project and I do think it's probably time to pack her away for a bit. But of course, you develop incredible relationships along the way, and these are people you've shared births, deaths, and everything in between with so it's going to be highly emotional. I don't know what the protocol is for when we all start bawling our eyes out and can't make it to the end of the show on the final night!

FUSE: Do you have any projects in the pipeline you can tell us about? 

Douglas: I shot a TV series in the UK last year called 'Malpractice'. It's from the same team who made 'Line of Duty' and 'Bodyguard'. It went to air in the UK in the past two months so that will be coming out in Australia sometime soon. Other than that, I'm looking forward to having a break for a couple of weeks at the end of 'Come From Away' and then seeing where the wind takes me. 

Come from Away
Canberra Theatre
8 June – 9 July 2023

Final week of performances now on sale. Get in quick – tickets selling fast!



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Come from Away – Review : Feel good musical theatre

★★★★ An uplifting testament to the power of human kindness, ‘Come From Away’ is must-see musical theatre at its finest.

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