Irene Sankoff is a Canadian writer/performer best known for creating the hit Broadway musical Come From Away. As a performer, she has appeared on stage, film, and television in many projects, including Zero Hour: The Last Hour of Flight 11, one of the History channel’s highest rated productions. She co-wrote, produced, and performed in My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, a hit of the Toronto Fringe Festival that was subsequently picked up for a commercial run by Mirvish Productions, the largest Canadian theatre producer. It has since been produced in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it won Best Musical, as well as across North America, with Sankoff and Hein performing in most productions. Come From Away enjoyed a record-breaking world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, won three 2017 Dora Mavor Moore Awards, four Helen Hayes Awards, five Outer Critics Circle Awards, three Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical, and two Olivier Awards for best music and best musical. Irene Sankoff and David Hein were nominated for Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score and won the 2017 Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for Best Book. Irene holds a BA in Psychology and Creative Writing from York University as well as an MFA in Acting and an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Pace University. She has worked extensively with children on the autism spectrum and with developmental differences and she is an outspoken advocate for civil and animal rights.
A Conversation with Irene Sankoff
Jamie Maletz: So obviously you’re best known for the Broadway musical Come From Away. And I’m sure that you’ve been asked to re-live the journey of that musical before, from writing it to getting it to Broadway. But I’m wondering if you’d be willing to talk about that journey specifically through your eyes, from the perspective of being the Maestra on the team. How it felt, and how you were treated specifically.
Irene Sankoff: Sure, yeah. Ok. So… at the very, very beginning, even before the Come From Away journey, David [Hein] and I decided to have an email address that was both of our last names. And we just had a signature that was Irene and David. Because early on we figured out that he’d get different responses than I would, or he’d get responses quicker than I would. Or sometimes that people would just ignore what I had said and answer David.
JM: Just responding to whatever he wrote and not addressing whatever you wrote?
Irene Sankoff: Yeah, or even if it was something from me, they would just call me David. So when we started to have this gender neutral email address, I guess that bothered me less. I was just kind of like, “Oh you think it’s David, but it’s not, it’s me!” The funny thing is that most people in our lives now can tell who’s who when we write back. But they still respect it. They’re still just kind of like, “Ok, it’s the David and Irene unit writing back.”
JM: That’s funny.
Irene Sankoff: So the Come From Away journey… from the very beginning, I was pregnant when we got into the NAMT festival.
Irene Sankoff: Yeah. And at first I was afraid to tell people that I was pregnant going into the NAMT festival, because going into the final stages I didn’t want that to influence any decisions. One way or the other, nobody had ever given me any kind of inclination of how they would feel, that was just sort of a fear that I had having seen–
JM: Whether they would accept you into the next phase of things based on whether or not you were a mom?
Irene Sankoff: Like, you know, “Oh, she’s gonna have a newborn she can’t do it.” Or, “Oh, it’s between two people and one of them’s gonna have a new baby and one of them’s not. So let’s pick the one that’s not.” Right? In fact, even when we first met our agent, who’s now been our agent for six years, we met him at a macaron shop and I sat behind the table and I didn’t get up because I didn’t want him to see that I was pregnant. And we told him later and he was like, “Why?” And I was like, “I don’t know, people are funny. People can be funny.” And by funny I don’t mean “haha.” And it turns out he’s been really supportive of us having a daughter. He always really puts in extra sweat to make sure that we’re comfortable as a family working. Which is really– we’re so lucky. Um, okay. This is like the long version of the story.
JM: No, I love it, it’s great.
Irene Sankoff: So the nice thing is that eventually, clearly they did find out that I was pregnant. And one of the due dates for NAMT fell like a couple days after I gave birth. I remember being worried about it. But then I found out later that Branden Huldeen (NAMT New Works Director) had gone through the list and said, “Don’t bother them [about this deadline], they have a newborn.” And ironically, I have to check with Branden, but I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones who actually hit every deadline that year. I sent in the draft from the hospital. Which I don’t recommend. And like two days after I gave birth, and I had a breast pump and typing with one hand, and the nurses were like, “Wow.”
JM: That’s badass! Because people have all these assumptions about motherhood and how it’s going to get in the way of your ability to do things, but it’s so not true. I have a really good friend who just finished the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program with me who was pregnant while she was writing her thesis, and I remember talking to her about worries that people might write her off because she’s a new mother. But her thesis was incredible and she’s still writing and accomplishing awesome stuff with her new baby. I think when you’re an ambitious person and you’re a writer who’s really passionate about your work, you don’t slow down and you do keep doing stuff. And it’s really unfortunate that women get written off because they might have a family.
Irene Sankoff: Yeah. And a lot of close family members and friends back home were like, “Oh, you’re finally gonna slow down. Oh, I guess you’re not gonna be traveling so much anymore. Oh, I guess that’s it.” Literally, quoting verbatim.
JM: So frustrating. How long was NAMT before La Jolla?
Irene Sankoff: So NAMT– and actually I do it all by how old my daughter was– at NAMT, Molly was eight weeks old. And then the following summer she was a year. So summer of 2014 was the workshop at Seattle Rep, which preceded La Jolla, which was April of 2015. Molly was just under two years old when we went down to La Jolla.
JM: Very cool. So it really didn’t change the road to Broadway at all that you had a newborn.
Irene Sankoff: I was extremely lucky. I was really, really, really extremely lucky in that we had our agent being like, “Where are they going? Do they have a crib? Who’s gonna take care of them? They got toys? They got a carseat? Where’s the daycare?” People really went out of their way. And also Junkyard Dog, our producing team, two of them are moms. Three out of the four of them are parents. And so they were all so very, very supportive. And there are a lot of pictures from those days of, you know, Molly sitting on the choreographer’s lap, or our producer holding her. Sue Frost (Lead Producer) changed her diaper, you know? We were really beyond lucky. I don’t know how much they’d like me to talk about it, to be honest, because I think then it raises the bar for everyone else? Which it should.
JM: Yeah, that’s incredible. I mean, I would love for people to know that that’s what a good producer can be like.
Irene Sankoff: Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. And also the show is so much about community and looking after one another.
JM: Which we need now more than ever. The message of that show… people coming together and caring about people who aren’t necessarily part of your community, and the human spirit triumphing over something terrible… that’s exactly what we need right now.
Irene Sankoff: Right.
JM: So, you’ve already shared some amazing things. But do you have any favorite moments or behind-the-scenes stories from working on Come From Away other than Sue Frost changing your daughter’s diaper?
Irene Sankoff: So Sue Frost changed my daughter’s diaper. [Laughs]. Other stories… we were at Nav Canada interviewing the air traffic controllers–
JM: Nav Canada?
Irene Sankoff: So that’s where all of the– it’s air traffic control for the entire Atlantic Ocean. So they were basically showing us all of the planes coming in across the ocean to go across North America. And that’s where all the planes were landed across Canada 19 years ago. And it was, uh, it’s a quiet place. And it gets a little bit dull. And Molly was, at that time, not even one and she fell asleep on Sue’s lap. Just like that. Oh yeah, while we’re on the Maestra stuff and being supportive of women, Chris Ashley (La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director) and my husband David spent forty-five minutes installing a car seat into the back of the rental car, and that’s not on his resume: could install car seats.
JM: That’s awesome.
Irene Sankoff: If I think of any others I’ll just jump up with them.
JM: Yeah, totally. And just because it’s so very rare that I get to ask a woman this question: How does it feel to have something you wrote running on Broadway?
Irene Sankoff: Um, very overwhelming and at the same time very humbling. Because there are people back from where I come from in Canada who still call it David’s show.
Irene Sankoff: Absolutely.
JM: That’s so frustrating.
Irene Sankoff: Yeah. It doesn’t happen down here as much, but it does definitely happen when I go home. Which is bizarre.
JM: And how did you split the writing of it? Like, did you both do both? Or did one of you do music and the other did the lyrics, or…?
Irene Sankoff: So we’re very Canadian in that we do everything. Like, we just roll up our sleeves and we’re just both all in it. We usually talk things out a lot first. We did all of the research together. When we were out in Newfoundland, there’d be a lot of times where one of the guys would be like, “I’m gonna take David up to the garage and talk to him about things.” And I’d be sipping tea with a woman. And a lot of the female scenes that you see in the show come from me sipping tea. Not researching, but chatting. They all know, it’s ok.
JM: So you do things kind of separately but together.
Irene Sankoff: Yes. So I am really afraid of the blank page. Horrendously afraid. David sits down first. Always. Like, music, book, everything. And then later he’ll send things back to me and we’ll play around. I’ll look at scenes and stuff and I’ll write and send stuff back.
JM: Before the shutdown, how often would you go and see your own show? And did people recognize you at the theatre?
Irene Sankoff: Ahhh, you know it’s funny, it’d feel like we were away forever and suddenly we’d be down there three times in one week. And Molly, our daughter, would sometimes ask to go. She’d ask to go and see her people. And it was very important to her to come through and be walking around backstage and saying hi to everybody.
JM: So she’s close with the cast?
Irene Sankoff: She is. I mean, we had the same cast since La Jolla pretty much, except for a couple of people, who she still asks about. She still asks where they went. We have to show her pictures on Facebook that they’re still out there and they’re doing their own thing. And yeah, she would get to go upstairs after half hour. We’d be like, “Send her down, it’s not appropriate!” But yeah. People did recognize us at the theatre. Usually ushers that we hadn’t met before, like, “Oh, you guys are here today.” Or, you know, in Canada we’d get recognized a lot. We get recognized more if we’re together. If we’re separated people don’t recognize us as much. One time we were walking down the street and someone yelled out, “Irene, David, and Molly!” And I was like, oh God, that’s from Instagram or Facebook or something.
JM: So what surprises you about being a Broadway writer that you didn’t think would be part of this life, and now you’re here, and you’re like, “Well, I guess this is the life?”
Irene Sankoff: Oh my God… everything! I guess you’re so used to hearing no, that hearing yes so much is surprising. And just realizing that, wow, you can’t say yes to everything, there’s just not… it used to be everything was, “yes and,” and, “it’s good experience,” and “it’s good exposure,” and “just try it and see.” And now learning to be like, “Oh, wait a second, there’s a lot of different paths and which one is the one we want?”
JM: That’s really interesting. It’s like one of those good problems to have where you have to decide, “Which things do I say yes to?”
Irene Sankoff: Oh, totally.
JM: So on its way to Broadway, Come From Away was developed at the Canadian Music Theatre Project, which sounds like a lot of fun. Of the first three stages of development, that’s the one that I wasn’t familiar with. Obviously I’ve heard of Goodspeed— actually, my musical theatre writing program did a residency there, so we all got to go there for a week.
Irene Sankoff: Great!
JM: Were you there for a week also?
Irene Sankoff: Two weeks.
JM: And then you did NAMT, which we talked about. And when did the Canadian Music Theatre Project happen?
Irene Sankoff: So it went Canadian Music Theatre Project, Goodspeed, Canadian Music Theatre Project, NAMT.
JM: Oh, that’s awesome. I didn’t know you did it twice.
Irene Sankoff: Yeah, we did 45 minutes, which ended up pretty much being our NAMT cut, the first year at Canadian Music Theatre Project. And then we went to Goodspeed and it was two acts, and it was like two-and-something hours long. And then we went back to Canadian Music Theatre Project and shortened it. Still two acts, but we made a bunch of cuts. And then from there we went back to what was pretty much a 45-minute cut.
JM: It must have been really hard to make those decisions on how to narrow it down, with all the amazing interview material you had.
Irene Sankoff: It was really hard, and honestly, time and space. For instance, we went out to Newfoundland and then we had a little bit of time before we were working on the show the following January to kind of play around with stuff. And then, after that first period we went away for the summer and we worked on another show, and we had it put away for a while. So it just kind of gestated and we didn’t worry about it and we felt less attached to the people we were talking about. So we were able to be like, “Ok, we really want these two people.” For instance, this CAO of the town and Mayor Claude were two independent characters… they’ve both gotta be Claude. It took us a while to make peace with stuff like that.
JM: And then you had a record-setting world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse— I actually don’t know this– what record was set? Was it how many tickets were sold?
Irene Sankoff: Or how many extensions we had?
JM: Yeah, that might be it.
Irene Sankoff: Or a bit of both? I don’t know, I’d have to ask. It was extended at least twice and it was always at 100% capacity. I remember that we had to stop because another show was coming in. It was kind of off the hook.
JM: And from La Jolla you went to Seattle Rep, and then Ford’s Theatre and then Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto, and then the Gander Community Center Hockey Rink. I would love to talk about that one. What was it like to actually do the show in Gander?
Irene Sankoff: Ok, it was the most scary thing ever. I remember the day we were getting on the plane, David and Molly and our babysitter at the time were all like, “Come on, it’s time to go!” And I was upstairs being like, “This is insane. We can’t take this show back to Gander. What if they don’t like it? What if it doesn’t go well? How do we bring 200 people on a bus six hours from St. John’s?” So basically I was having a humongous panic attack and they had a hard time getting me on the plane. It was kinda like your Bar Mitzvah and the prom and your wedding on your birthday, and you just had your baby. It’s like–
JM: All the nerves.
Irene Sankoff: It’s all the nerves. But there’s no one you can go to and be like, “Tell me how you survived when you did this.” There’s just no real–
JM: There’s no precedent. But of course they loved it.
Irene Sankoff: It was amazing, and Petrina [Bromley] loves to say this because she was basically going home– she’s our Newfoundlander in the cast. One of them at this point, because our bodhran player [Romano Di Nillo] is also from Newfoundland. And she said there just aren’t words in the English language to explain what it was like to be there. It was a unique, really special experience. And everybody was there: the marketing team, the press people, our designers, the cast, the swings, all of us, a bunch of the people who had been stranded before who we interviewed had come back. It was unbelievable.
JM: It was like another reunion.
Irene Sankoff: It was another reunion. And it was just huge. And they responded to the show so incredibly appreciatively. Because, you know, as Newfoundlanders, there’s also always the fear that you’re going to be made fun of. And we could tell at first, it was like, “Ok, what are we about to see?” And then by like three minutes in, they were just all in. Sometimes it was really quiet because everyone was listening. And other times it was hard to finish the show because people were just so excited.
JM: Well, it’s the heart of it. You can tell the show is full of love and humanity. And they can tell that they’re not being made fun of. They can tell that they’re being loved and portrayed in a way that is really healing for people who are seeing the show.
Irene Sankoff: Yeah.
JM: So the show is produced by Sue Frost, Junkyard Dog Productions. It seems like you get to interact with Sue personally a lot, and we’ve touched on this a bit, but I’d love to talk about what it’s like to work with a female producer. Because, you know, we’re Maestra and we’re all about female badasses.
Irene Sankoff: Other situations in my life, sometimes you get talked over a lot. Not with this group, because it’s a great group, and there’s a great balance of male to female and equality and all that. But there have been times where you talk and no one’s listening. And you bring up a point and it’s like, “Oh, no one heard that.” And then twenty minutes later somebody else in the room says it, and you’re like, “I said that twenty minutes ago. I know I did.” And yet there’s someone else being credited for it. So that didn’t happen when Sue was around. Or when all of the team was around. I think I very quickly took it for granted how open everyone was and how respectful everybody was. And then I started to hear stories about other productions or other workplaces, and I was like, “Oh, I’m actually really, really lucky.”
JM: Yeah. Your website also says that you and David are writing the screenplay for Come From Away. It’s being made into a movie?
Irene Sankoff: Yeah, that’s the talk.
JM: In its musical form, I hope?
Irene Sankoff: Yes. Absolutely.
JM: That’s so exciting. I cannot wait.
Irene Sankoff: Thank you, thank you.
JM: The first show that you and David wrote, My Mother’s Lesbian, Jewish, Wiccan Wedding, was also very well received. Do you want to share what the experience of that show was like?
Irene Sankoff: Sure! David and I had full-time day jobs. He was a singer/songwriter and I was an actress. And we never saw each other. So one summer we decided to write something together and put it on at the Fringe. Because, you know, all our friends were doing it. Everyone has a Fringe show, so let’s have a Fringe show. And we were like, “We’ll get to spend some time together, then we’ll get some nice reviews for ourselves, and it’ll be great.” And what ended up happening was the show just had a life of its own. I mean, it exploded beyond what David was doing as a singer/songwriter and what I was doing as an actor, and we were like, “Oh. Ok. This is it.” You know, after all the no’s, the doors are flooding open and becoming yeses. So we quit our day jobs and spent time expanding our 60-minute Fringe piece into this 90-minute one-act for the Mirvishes in Toronto. And that was a record-breaking run. That was like 700 seats, five months, I think longer than any other Canadian musical had done.
JM: So that was the impetus for you to turn your focus to musicals.
Irene Sankoff: Yeah. To writing together as our primary focus.
JM: That’s really neat. And it was based on David’s mother’s true story?
Irene Sankoff: Yeah, yeah.
JM: David’s mother sounds amazing.
Irene Sankoff: She is.
JM: Did you go to this wedding?
Irene Sankoff: I was not there, no. I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of it, but it was high school. So it was before I met David. He was probably 17 or 18 at the time?
JM: Oh, okay. But you got to relive it in musical form!
Irene Sankoff: Yeah.
JM: Your website says productions of the show have played across North America with you and David performing in most of them. Do you still do performances of the show?
Irene Sankoff: There was a 10-year anniversary benefit concert in January, back in Toronto, and we performed in it. Before that we haven’t performed in– no, that’s not true! We performed in it a couple of summers ago. But we don’t get to as much as we’d like to.
JM: Speaking of the fact that you write and perform with your husband, and you’re this uber talented duo, what is that like? And also, how did you meet?
Irene Sankoff: We met on the first day of university at what we call frosh week. And we became friends. And we were friends for about a year and a half before we started dating. We just always had a really good time together.
JM: So what is it like to write and work with him? And what do you do when you need space, or when you disagree, or when something happening with your work complicates your personal life or vice versa?
Irene Sankoff: It’s a constant complication of work and personal life. And there’s constant compromise and constant balance. I remember saying to one of my mentors once, she ran a restaurant with her husband and they had a daughter, and I remember saying to her very early on when I was really young and baby-sized, “We’re still trying to figure out the work-life balance.” And she said, “There is no balance. There’s only imperfection.” And I was like, “Okay. I can deal with that.”
JM: Do you have, like, systems in place?
Irene Sankoff: All the rules. We have all the rules. I used to be a Psych major, so we use a lot of the AA rules–
JM: AA, like Alcoholics Anonymous?
Irene Sankoff: Yeah. So like, we don’t write or talk about writing when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Which is the HALT thing from AA. We also use this method that I learned in grad school that I still use: We used to do submissions to each other. So like, “I’m sending you a scene between two people. These two people are arguing in the scene. Here’s what I like about it, here’s what I don’t like about it, here’s what’s really working, here’s why I’m stuck, here’s what feedback I’m looking for.” So when someone’s reviewing it, the way they respond, it takes into account what they’re working on, instead of freaking out and being like, “Why are we working on a scene between those two people? Those two people don’t make any sense together, blah blah blah.” It’s actually looking at what the person is trying to do and then giving feedback from there.
JM: That sounds really helpful.
Irene Sankoff: It really is.
JM: So your bio on your Maestra profile says that you’ve worked extensively with children with autism and developmental differences, and that you’re an outspoken advocate for civil and animal rights. Are you looking for ways to use your writing as a platform for how you want to make a difference? And I ask because I feel like Come From Away has. But you know, I was wondering, do you find that that finds its way into your work?
Irene Sankoff: Absolutely. So last May, we had the first– and Sue helped a ton with this– we had the first relaxed performance of Come From Away in Toronto. We did it around my nephew’s birthday and my nephew has autism, and it was kind of like my birthday present to him.
JM: A relaxed performance– it’s acoustic? How does it work?
Irene Sankoff: No, the way they did it up there was that it still had all the regular sounds, but there was a guy on the side who would cover his ears if it was gonna get extra loud, and he would cover his eyes if the lights were gonna change too much. It was really sweet to see people in the audience following his cues. We didn’t turn the house lights all the way down. And there were quiet areas you could go to if you had enough. It was really neat.
JM: All right, now for the big question: Why did you join Maestra?
Irene Sankoff: I joined Maestra because I had become aware of what an amazingly sweet person Georgia Stitt was when she offered me her pack-and-play when I was coming to New York to do NAMT from Canada. I reached out to her as soon as I moved to the city, and I got looped into Maestra. It took me about three years to be able to attend a meeting, but I was so glad when I did and got to see how many women there were for me to come to for help if I needed it within the field. And also just how supportive of a community it is.
JM: And why do you think Maestra is important?
Irene Sankoff: I think Maestra’s important because we don’t get out of our comfort zones very easily when we’re writing, or when we’re trying to write at the same time as we’re having a family, or as we’re trying to manage a reading of something that’s going on while we’re working with collaborators on yet another thing. And actually having a place to come together and hear how other people are working and how other women are making it work, is a completely invaluable thing.
JM: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far?
Irene Sankoff: I think one of my favorite moments at the Maestra meeting that I was at most recently was when someone brought up that there was going to be a picnic for moms, working moms, in the park so that they could all get to know one another and introduce their kids to one another. I think that’s gonna be invaluable to have that community of families that are looking out for one another. I remember how one woman was talking about how back in the day she missed an opportunity because she just needed to be home making dinner. And there was just no one else to do it. And talking about that and talking about how we can support one another and lobby for one another, so we can actually go out and be able to work. And, you know, in my case, be able to work alongside my husband and not be told, “Why didn’t you stay home? Shouldn’t you have just let him go by himself?” I think being around other women who are doing the same thing you are is invaluable.
JM: And why should people care about the services we offer, like the directory and the visibility and the classes, and the goals that we’re working towards?
Irene Sankoff: It’s important to know who’s out there to work with and to help further your own projects. People and names that are not necessarily going to come up because they may not have had as many opportunities as the MDs that keep getting sent your way, or the copyists who keep getting sent your way. Just because somebody perhaps hasn’t had as much experience because they haven’t had the same opportunities doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be able to do as good a job. So to look into the directory, to look into the classes, so that you can better your own skills, it’s important to do.
Special thanks to Irene for sharing her story.
Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Anessa Marie, Elise Frawley, Erin McKeown, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, Jennifer Isaacson, Emily Grishman, Rona Siddiqui, Sheilah Rae, Kathy Sommer, Kristy Norter, Elena Bonomo, Ann Klein, and Lynne Shankel.