Zoe Gertz has notched up more than 700 performances of Come From Away. The WAAPA graduate tells Julie Hosking what makes the musical so special.
Zoe Gertz thought she was heading into Qantas headquarters in Sydney to sing for a group of pilots who had just been made captains.
“I was looking dreadful, hadn’t done hair and makeup or anything and was carrying my suit in my bag and then around the corner sneaks out this beautiful short-haired spunk of a woman and I instantly knew who she was,” she recalls.
For Gertz was in rehearsals for the Australian premiere of Come From Away, the unlikely hit musical about a small town opening its arms to strangers in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The short-haired woman was Beverley Bass, who was at the helm of one of 38 planes diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after America shut down its airspace on September 11, 2001. This was the pioneering female pilot Gertz was preparing to channel on stage, sharing Bass’s story in a song she was about to perform for the newly minted captains, Me and the Sky.
“We just had a big old hug and I started crying, ugly crying. And then she told me that the reason I was there was actually the International Women in Aviation Conference, so I was about to sing a song not just for her but for a room full of female pilots from around the world,” Gertz recalls.
“Once I got in the room and looked around at the faces of all these women I thought ‘oh my goodness, this isn’t just Beverley’s story’. This is what you’ve had to overcome to be here because they are still very much in the minority – a very small percentage of pilots around the world are women. It was a very, very special moment.”
The WAAPA graduate did not know much about the events that inspired Come From Away until she started preparing to audition for the Australian production, which opened in Melbourne in July 2019.
“It didn’t even occur to me that of course the air space would be shut down and all these planes would be diverted to other parts,” she says. “A lot of people still ask ‘is this a true story?’ Every person we are portraying is a real person, this really happened. And in fact, a lot of the lines and lyrics that we sing are almost verbatim what these people say in interviews.”
More than 6500 passengers and crew aboard 38 planes were diverted to Gander, off the north-eastern coast of Canada, which happened to have a huge airport – built to send allied aircraft to Europe in the 1930s – despite only being home to 9000 people. The Newfoundlanders, who call anyone not born on the island “come from aways”, spun into action in the wake of the horror unfolding 1800km south, providing food and shelter and so much more. The stranded travellers were only meant to be in their community for a few hours but ended up staying for five days, changing lives forever.
Canadian couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff went to Gander on the 10th anniversary to capture this remarkable moment in time, ultimately turning hundreds of interviews into Come From Away. The musical they only envisaged being played by high school students has won awards from Broadway to the West End since it opened in 2013, stealing hearts wherever it goes.
Gertz, who has been nominated for several awards for her performance, has no doubt Perth audiences will feel the same when it opens at Crown Theatre on Sunday, 7 May. Despite notching up more than 700 performances (and counting) as Bass, the singer has no trouble firing up on every occasion.
“It’s that thing of respect and remembering that every performance we do there’s all these people that are experiencing this beautiful story for the first time and wanting to do justice to the piece so that they have a great time,” she says.
Like all 12 members of the cast, Gertz plays more than one person, moving from stranger to local and back again. “It’s a true ensemble piece.”
Gertz has someone extra special on stage with her every night, too. Husband Phillip Lowe plays Nick Marson, who falls in love with fellow passenger Diane Kirschke (Natalie O’Donnell) when they meet at one of Gander’s makeshift shelters.
“He joined the company after the first lockdown in 2020, which was funny because he had to audition in lockdown. He was doing a dance and I was hiding in the kitchen,” she says with a laugh.
The couple met on another musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and were last in Perth performing in Georgy Girl shortly after they were engaged. Both, however, have lived in Perth at separate times, as they are WAAPA alumni (as is O’Donnell). While Lowe successfully auditioned after a few years working in a bank, Gertz went straight from high school to the academy to study musical theatre. The 2004 graduate had always loved musicals – “I think Gene Kelly was probably my first big crush” – and has nothing but fond memories of her time at WAAPA.
“I was 17 when I started and I absolutely loved it, I just had the most wonderful time with a really great group of people for three years and a lot of us are still friends,” she says.
“It was this really safe creative space where our teachers encouraged us to try to do things we wouldn’t necessarily do otherwise. It was very much about being out of your comfort zone, which I think as I’ve gone on to have a career in musical theatre has been great. What excites me the most is the stuff that I’m not comfortable with, that is a little bit scary and hard. I really had to push myself (at WAAPA) and that’s what I got from being able to see the benefits in taking those risks.”
With risk comes responsibility and Gertz certainly feels a tremendous responsibility when she stands on stage as Bass, not the least because the trailblazing pilot represents what happened to the aviation industry in general in the wake of 9/11.
The Sydneysider’s own father was working for Qantas at the time. “It means a lot to remind people of the impact it had on that industry, and it mirrors what happened recently with COVID,” she says. “Since coming back (after lockdowns) we’ve had a lot of people from the aviation industry come to see the show and the impact is not dissimilar.”
Gertz’s industry was also hugely affected by COVID; Come From Away was shut down four times, twice in Melbourne, once in Brisbane and then again in Sydney.
“A lot of the time we would be away from home and we were all just really looking after each other, it was very much a sense of people reaching out to help. It’s that idea like Come From Away, that people are innately good and they want to do the right thing and in extreme, crazy times, as well as the worst you also see the best,” she says.
Gertz is also mindful that so many in the arts were forced to abandon their livelihood. Come From Away is the only major production in Australia before the pandemic to still be touring.
“There is a feeling of enormous gratitude from all of us, especially those who’ve been with the show either side of the lockdowns, because we’ve seen a lot of our friends and people in our industry have to pivot to other jobs and it’s had a huge impact,” she says.
The performer also sees parallels in the aftermath of 9/11 and COVID lockdowns. “Me and the Sky is also a story about a woman whose identity is so intertwined with what she does and the passion she has for what she does, and lots of people in the arts can relate to that feeling,” she says.
“I always get goosebumps at the end of the show when I have this little speech where Beverley talks about returning to fly a couple of days after she gets home and the airport being pretty much empty and any passengers that are there were saying ‘thank you for still flying’.
“And I remember when we were reopening after COVID, looking out into the audience when I say those lines and thinking, ‘yes, thank you, you can’t even know what this means to all of us, that you’re here and that you’re supporting our industry again during this time’.”
After the Perth season wraps at the end of May, the cast and crew will head to Canberra before the curtain falls on the Australian production.
Although Gertz is feeling sad that such a precious time is drawing to a close, she’s excited for what’s to come. “To have been part of one show for such a long time is wonderful but I guess it’s kind of like that feeling when you’re graduating from high school with a group of people and although it’s scary, and you know change is coming, you’re also excited about what’s next.”
She’s not quite done with Beverley Bass, or Gander, just yet. What would she say to those pondering whether or not to book tickets? “I would say it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen on a stage; it is so beautiful and life affirming and you’ll leave the theatre just feeling really good about humanity and how kind people can be.”
Pictured top: Zoe Gertz has been with the Australian production of ‘Come From Away’ since it started in 2019. Photo: Jeff Busby
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