Newfoundland Dialects on Stage: An Interview with the Creators of Come from Away

by Molly Stewart
January 13, 2021

The hit musical Come From Away tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001, when dozens of international flights were diverted to the Gander airstrip and the local community warmly embraced the stranded passengers. The show is also a celebration of the unique culture and language of Newfoundland. In this interview with show creators Irene Sankof and David Hein, I asked about the role of Newfound dialects in the show.

How did you find writing Newfoundland characters? How did you go about making their dialogue feel as authentic as possible? What models, if any, did you use to write them?

We didn’t set out to write “Newfoundland” characters so much as to just evoke the people and place that had been so kind and welcoming to us. When we arrived in Newfoundland for the ten year anniversary to do our research for the show, we didn’t have a preconceived notion of what “story” we were looking for - we just knew we wanted to hear everything. We talked to everyone we could - and everyone had a million stories and each one was better than the last. At some point we stopped interviewing and just started hanging out, becoming friends - and trying to capture each person’s unique phrases and rhythms of speech - whether they came from Newfoundland or from Away.

We also had some freedom to combine interviews, since every character on stage is an amalgamation of people we met - because there were 7,000 people on the planes and almost 9,000 people in the town. We had to combine some of the things together, but they are all based on real people who we interviewed.

In terms of models that we knew of already out there, there was The Laramie Project - we sometimes called our show “Laramie - The Musical” . We thought we’d make something like The Laramie Project meets a Newfoundland kitchen party - we were definitely not at all thinking about Broadway! But we did look at the music in the musical Once and the storytelling in Peter and the Starcatcher - both of which informed Come From Away.

A few of the songs in Come from Away - particularly "Welcome to the Rock," "In the Bar/Heave Away," and "Screech In" - emphasize the Newfie accent/dialect. Do you have any comments on how these songs came together?

“Welcome to the Rock” was inspired by Newfoundland pride songs, most especially Bruce Moss’s “The Islander” which we first heard played by Shanneyganock and the Navigators in Gander. We wanted to write a song that encapsulated the unique mix that Newfoundlanders have of pride and honesty about their home. Likewise, all of the other music in the show, was inspired by our favourite Newfoundland artists, from Shanneyganock to Figgy Duff to the Dardanelles. It’s a unique style of celtic folk that includes specific instruments - like fiddle, button accordion, ugly stick. You can’t tell a story about Newfoundland without including music. It’s in their DNA. Newfoundlanders survive their long winters by bringing instruments - everyone there plays multiple instruments - over to each other’s kitchens and staying warm by telling stories and singing songs. That’s how they survive - by coming together as a community and making art. So we wanted to invite the audience into a Newfoundland kitchen party, where they would be telling their story alongside ours.

Do you have any favourite Newfoundland words or phrases?

There are so many we love! We love “What’y’at?” and the response is “this is it.” or “Stay where you to till I comes where you’re at.” And there’s also this tongue click/head tilt/wink thing they do, which we love.

It could be the first time many non-Canadian (and even some Canadian) audiences would be experiencing it, so how important was it for you to get the accent and dialect right?

So important! When you have the real people the story is based on watching your show you want to make sure you get it right. It was more complicated than you might think. There are a million different accents in Newfoundland (Claude’s accent for example is from Twilingate and involves h’s being added or taken away somewhat randomly: “A is for ‘happles’ and H is for ‘appiness”). But since in the show, the actors take on lots of different dialects to represent passengers from all over the world, we had to pick the one representative Newfoundland accent that audiences could identify and understand. And then the cast had to learn them! Luckily we had a dialect coach and our own Petrina Bromley who plays Bonnie in the Broadway cast is a native Newfoundlander. She was very patient with giving her castmates pointers as they built the accent but she does say that they initially sounded like “drunken irish pirates from Minnesota.”

Are you interested in telling other Canadian stories like Come from Away? Do you think you would place as much emphasis on the dialect if it took place in another province, like Ontario or Quebec?

We love Canada and love Canadian stories - and because capturing who our characters are is so important to us - especially when representing our friends - whatever project we tackle the specific way people speak is always front of mind.