On a Saturday night last January, the audience at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto erupted in joy: my mom and I, along with everyone else, leapt from our seats, clapping and cheering “Woohoo!” as the cast from Come From Away took their bows.
It’s a reaction that actor Lee MacDougall (BSc 1979 Victoria) is used to – but never tires of.
“It is very humbling to be a part of a show that has such a strong effect on people,” he says. “We meet people who are crying after the show many nights, and often people cannot speak. It is very powerful to witness people being so emotional.”
The hit musical tells the true story of small-town Newfoundlanders who welcomed hundreds of airline passengers after their flights were grounded on the island due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now on Broadway, the play has thrilled audiences, earned praise from critics and won two major theatre awards – a Dora and a Tony. It’s a heady time for MacDougall, who, in addition to performing eight times weekly in New York, is being kept busy with promotional events, media interviews and hob-nobbing with celebrity fans such as Bryan Adams, Tina Fey and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“New York is a very competitive market, so we were warned that there would be a lot of promotional events to attend to gain exposure for our show in the months before the Tony Awards,” he says. “This level of busy was like nothing I have ever experienced. We went several months with no day off at all. Now that all that is over, things have relaxed into a more normal schedule.”
Acting and singing have been a passion for MacDougall since he was a child in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. At 9, he performed in his school’s production of The Littlest Angel, and at 12, he joined the town’s glee club. Originally planning on a career in medical research, he studied microbiology at U of T and figured acting would be a hobby. But as he enjoyed collaborating with other performers, and filled his evenings and weekends with productions or rehearsals, the hobby evolved into a potential livelihood.
“One of the most important experiences I had at U of T was when a director of one of the shows took me aside and said to me, ‘You know, you are very good at this. I have complete confidence that you could become a professional actor.’ That surprised me at the time,” says MacDougall. “But it altered my opinion of my chances of choosing to enter theatre full time.”
MacDougall, a veteran of the Stratford Festival, joined the cast of Come From Away in 2015 and has performed in productions in San Diego, Seattle, Washington, Toronto and now New York. He plays airplane passenger Nick Marson, a reserved Brit who falls for a boisterous Texan woman on his flight. He also performs as Doug Tweedie, who works at the airport. As with any character he plays, MacDougall researched Nick and Doug – to understand their personalities, and their experiences in Gander. He says it helped that the dialogue in the script was based on in-depth interviews directors David Hein and Irene Sankoff had conducted with townspeople and passengers a decade after 9/11.
MacDougall says at a time when the world once again seems plagued by fear and uncertainty, audiences find reassurance in the play’s central message that humanity can trump hate. “We are going through this dark time again with divisiveness around the world, with Brexit and American politics and the Syrian refugees,” MacDougall says. “This story reminds us of who we are, that it’s still possible to be inclusive, compassionate and kind.”
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre