Astrid Van Wieren, BA’88, inherited a love of language and stories from her literary mother and theatre-loving father. However, it was her time at Western years later that “first opened my eyes to diversity. My store of stories was expanded by the international students on campus.”
Today, she is bringing to life on Broadway one of the most authentically Canadian stories ever told. In doing so, she hopes to introduce the world to the power of empathy and humanity toward each other.
At Western, Van Wieren landed a role in the The King and I, directed by Kip Longstaff. It was through James Reaney’s epic trilogy The Donnellys, directed by professor Mary O’Neil, she discovered the richness of Canadian literature and theatre.
“Your art comes from the reason you do the things you do. You need to develop the tools necessary to express your imagination in an authentic way that encourages the audience believe that you’re just ‘being yourself’ and not acting a character at all,” said Van Wieren, who studied theatre performance at Ryerson University after Western. “You can’t do musical theatre if you can’t hit the notes and sing emotionally; you can’t bring into play a literate script if you don’t understand and appreciate the beauty of language.”
Over the past two decades, Van Wieren has played a wide variety of roles across North America. She won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for This Wide Night, starred in the original North American premiere of Mamma Mia! and subsequent first U.S. national tour, as well as co-wrote, co-produced and stars in the indie feature The River You Step In.
Although she’s enjoyed her television and film roles, Van Wieren is quick to state that “there is something untouchable and wonderful about theatre.”
But it is her origination of the role of Beulah in Come From Away that has given Van Wieren her biggest stage.
Conceived by Michael Rubinoff, BA’98, LLB’01, Come from Away is based on true events of Sept. 11, 2001 in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, when 38 planes were diverted from their original paths and forced to land in the small community. Passengers on those planes nearly doubled the population of the region for five days. During that time, the locals opened their doors, pantries, hearts, and minds until the airspace was reopened.
In 2011, the show was workshopped through the Canadian Musical Theatre Project, an incubator established by Rubinoff to develop new Canadian musicals. Since, it played record-breaking engagements in La Jolla, Calif.; Seattle, Wash.; Washington, D.C. and at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Ont.
It opened on Broadway on March 12, 2017, and became a critical and box office success, routinely playing to standing-room-only audiences even during previews.
A dozen actors play multiple Newfoundlanders and ‘plane people’ in the show, which received a Tony nomination last year for Best Musical. It is a mix of method and heart that Van Wieren takes great pride in.
“As a joyful collaborator, my gift is to interpret and give life to the roles. Between the writing, music, direction and interplay between the cast members, we succeed in taking the audience on a journey into themselves and each other,” she said.
“The show is a cathartic moment, both for the audience and for us, in the realization we aren’t alone in feeling what we feel. We all know the pain caused by unkindness and how it shapes the world. People are hungry for examples of kindness that comfort. Come From Away is a real-life example that people gladly embrace.”
Canadians have a reputation for kindness, but when the residents of Gander, N.L., opened their doors to nearly 7,000 strangers, it became the stuff of legend. The fact this legend has real faces attached makes it all the more special.
“I traveled to Gander and met the real-life inspirations for my character Beulah Davis – an amalgam of Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis,” Van Wieren explained. “I couldn’t keep the tears back when I met both of them. It’s hard to find the words – immediately feeling like I know and love them both.
And what extraordinary women these were.
A third-grade teacher, Davis worked for three straight days without sleep, setting up computers in schools for travelers to use to connect with loved ones. A retired government worker, Cooper was Treasurer of the Ladies Auxiliary for the Royal Canadian Legion that day. During the time of the play, she forged a closed relationship with Long Islanders Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke, as the couple awaited work from their son Kevin, a New York City firefighter at Rescue Co. 2 in Crown Heights. Kevin’s body was found in the stairwell rubble of Tower One two weeks after the O’Rourkes returned home.
The real people behind the characters are a constant reminder for Van Wieren.
“What’s funny about our cast is, if you line us up with our Gander doppelgangers, there’s an essence there that they have and we, the actors, also share. It’s the sense there’s always time for kindness and for telling stories about kindness and compassion for others.”
Perhaps these are lessons in humanity should be taken to heart today when thousands upon thousands are denied entry to increasingly closed off nations. In that kind of world, Come From Away gives audiences hope for humanity, Van Wieren said.
“Fear keeps us from ever knowing or understanding others. Stories are the soul of the human experience and we must continue to make room for many more voices to tell theirs.”