It's ALMOST, MAINE for John Cariani!!!
Variety is the spice of life. And when you're an actor who can also write, life can truly be a wonderful journey. John Cariani, actor and now playwright, is the winner of the 2004 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical as Motel in the acclaimed revival "Fiddler on the Roof" and also received a Tony nomination in 2004 for the same role. Rumour has it,he got the news of his Tony nomination "while lying in bed with a blanket covering his head." His current project as a playwright, "Almost, Maine", was inspired by his memories of growing up in Presque Isle. and had it's 2004 premiere at the Portland Stage Company.
Almost, Maine follows the "residents of a small, northern town [who] are falling in and out of love at an alarming rate. Love is discovered; hearts are broken and mended —almost — in this midwinter night's dream!," state press notes. The show features Todd Cerveris (Twentieth Century), Justin Hagan (Tartuffe), Miriam Shor (Hedwig and The Angry Inch) and Finnerty Steeves and is being directed by Gabriel Barre (Summer of '42, The Wild Party).
I got to ask John some questions recently about the show and life in Maine and his foray into playwrighting.
Q: You have been described as " the sweetest, most genuine guy that you could ever meet." by Michael Cerveris. How does that make you feel and how would you describe yourself?
A: I'll take sweet and genuine. Michael's not such a bad guy himself. I don't really think a lot about describing myself….hmm…I'm pretty persistent.
Q: Okay, now I have talked to a lot of actors who tell me that they sort of "fell into this acting thing." How about yourself...was it an accident or was this the direction you had in mind?
A: I did some plays in high school—always easy to get parts when you're a guy! Had some great, great people in charge of the drama club in high school. But I was mostly a music guy—clarinet player! But I do remember realizing one day that I loved plays more than I loved playing concertos…but I kind of ignored that realization. When I went to college (Amherst), I kind of fell into being a history major…and the big turning point came when I played in the pit orchestra for a production of SWEENEY TODD—and I spent most of the time watching the play instead of playing the score! And that's when I knew I had it bad for acting. A very dear friend of mine—great actress named Wendy Rich Stetson—was very active in the theater department at Amherst and I went to all the plays she was in, and it became very clear to me that what she was doing was something I wanted to be doing. After college, I did an acting internship at a regional theater (StageWest in Springfield, MA) for three years…and that was it. Came to New York, and…here we are.
Q: Now, you were nominated for a Tony Award for your work as Motel the Tailor in the revival of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in 2004 and you won the Drama Desk Award for your performance. It must have been one exciting year for you, especially since it was also the premiere of Almost, Maine in Portland?
A: Actually—Michael Cerveris and I won the Outer Critics Circle Award. Then he won the Tony. Weird thing about those awards—neither of us got nominated for The Drama Desk!
Yeah…2004 was absolutely an excellent year. I think the highlight may have been the fact that Jesse Martin announced my Tony nomination! And taking the subway home from a luncheon with Marion Seldes. I find that I don't remember so much of what happened that year, though. The Broadway schedule is so tough, so relentless—there was almost no time to enjoy all the…stuff. Plus, it all happens so fast!
Regarding ALMOST, MAINE—I was so psyched about it—but also bummed, because I couldn't be in Portland (Maine) for rehearsals because of FIDDLER. So Gabe Barre, ALMOST, MAINE'S director, had me do all the rewrites via e-mail and phone messages. I was so lucky, though—I got to take a vacation from FIDDLER so I could be there for ALMOST, MAINE's tech week. Then the folks at FIDDLER were kind enough to let me go back for the opening a week later. So—my focus was pretty split for a while and I'm not very good at multi-tasking, so I was pretty tired, there, for a few weeks. And that's my biggest memory of 2004—being totally beat. Good kind of beat, though!
Q: Most people would associate with your stage work and LAW AND ORDER appearances as an actor. But now we have John Cariani, the playwright. Was this in the game plan for you all along?
A: I started writing just to have a creative outlet during the down time. There's always down time when you're an actor—especially a character actor. I wrote a lot during FIDDLER—had a bout 45 minutes off at a certain point. I was on stage for about 15 minutes total in TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA! So I wrote a little during the other hour and a half… I also complained once to my mother that I wasn't too keen about a lot of the new plays I was seeing in New York—too New York-centric, I thought, and there's a lot more world out there than just New York City. And she said, well don't complain about that unless you're willing to do something about it! So I tried my hand at doing something about it, and now ALMOST, MAINE is opening!
Q: John, whereabouts in Maine is Presque Isle located? How would you describe you hometown?
A: Presque Isle, Maine is located about 500 miles north of Boston, MA. It's an 11-12 hour car ride from NYC. If you drove south from NYC for 11 or 12 hours, you'd be in Raleigh, North Carolina! It's nowhere near the ocean—the name means "almost an island" in French because of a river and a stream that almost surround a land mass. I would describe Presque Isle as one of the greatest places on earth. It's remote—I-95 ends about 40 miles south of Presque Isle. The sky is big. Lots of farms. Great people. Great, great, killer winters. Lots of space. And lots to do. Great schools. Great churches. There's a branch of the University of Maine—UM-Presque Isle. Their slogan is "North of Ordinary." And that's pretty much sums up the town!
Q: What has the reaction in your hometown been to Almost, Maine?
A: ALMOST, MAINE was written for northern Maine and for the people who are from there. And—I think most of the people up there are surprised by that. And relieved that I didn't make fun of them (or the town) in my play!
Q: How much of this play would you say is autobiographical? For many of us who write, we mostly try to draw on things we know about firsthand. What about yourself?
A: One episode in ALMOST, MAINE is totally autobiographical. But—most of the episodes are just imagined. I mean—where I grew up has had a huge influence on me. It's a place where there aren't many people and there's lots of sky. The world feels much bigger there somehow. New York is all about people and the things people make. Presque Isle is the opposite. It's about the things people don't make—like the sky and the woods and wide open space. So the play is mostly a tribute to that place—a place where there seems to be so much possibility because there's time and space to daydream.
Q: The show had its premiere at the Portland Stage Company, which coincided with a New England Theatre Conference convention that I attended in South Portland. Many of my co-horts attended a Friday night performance and the reviews were unanimously glowing. How did the show make the transition from Maine to New York? Were you concerned that it might have a regional appeal for audiences, having just played in Maine?
A: Well…first of all, I'm glad your colleagues dug the show! Let's see—a New York production was in the works all along, from the time Jack Thomas/Bulldog Theatrical optioned the play. When Portland Stage Company asked to make the play a part of their 2004 season, we jumped at the chance to try out what we had. It was so great to do rewrites based on what we saw, not just based on what was in my head. We made some significant changes once we started working on the New York production—changes that we couldn't have made without the Portland Stage Company production. And—I think a good play is a good play is a good play. I mean, yeah, the play is set in Maine—but it's about living and loving and losing. And I think anybody who's lived, loved, or lost will be into it.
Q: Now, your show began performances recently at at the Daryl Roth Theatre with, I believe the official opening being January 12th . Are you pleased with the progress of the show, thus far?
A: Very pleased. It's fascinating to watch the progress that is made during previews. The coolest thing is watching the actors take over the show, and make it there own.
Q: So, actor, playwright, what's next down the road for the multi-faceted John Cariani? Directing, producing....?
A: I need to make some money. Because I've kind of taken a break for a few months to do ALMOST. And my second play is going to be done by The Transport Group. It's called CUL DE SAC. SO that's really what's next!
Well, I am almost done, but not quite. Here's a special treat for the readers….getting to know a little more about John Cariani with a little survey, something I like to call MY FAVORITE THINGS. And here's what we found out about John….
1. FAVORITE DESSERT : chocolate pudding pie
2. FAVORITE VACATION SPOT : Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
3: FAVORITE MOVIE : Broadcast News. Holly Hunter, man…
4: FAVORITE COLOR: Red.
5. YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITE THING IN THE WHOLE WORLD: Daydreaming.
And that's all folks…. for now. Don't miss ALMOST, MAINE which will open on January 12th at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 E. 15th St.). The performance schedule is: Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM, Sundays at 7 PM with matinees on Saturdays at 4 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets, which range from $26-$66, are available by calling (212) 239-6200. But for now, remember, theatre is my life. Cheers!