Rural, tucked-away places contain rich stories, but they’re not often found on stage in modern theater, playwright and Tony Award-nominated actor John Cariani told Milton performing arts students this week.
Cariani wrote Almost, Maine, a play told through nine stories about love and loss in a remote, fictional Maine town. Milton students performed the show in February; Cariani joined members of the cast and crew—along with others who had planned to put on Milton’s spring musical, Urinetown—via Zoom to talk about the play and his career in theater and television.
Small-town life hasn’t always been ignored—plays from the middle of the 20th Century depicted nuanced suburban and rural lives—but political divisions seem to have created an “us vs. them” rift in American culture, with rural people often depicted unfairly as simple or ignorant in current media.
“I’ve figured out, kind of in the middle of my life, that I’m passionate about the way urbane, well-educated people treat rural people,” Cariani said. “I’m from a small farm town in northern Maine, and that’s what I write about. We’re taught that where we’re from is bad. I’m just asking people not to forget that multifaceted, intelligent people live in rural America. Contemporary American art and culture do not represent multidimensional rural and working-class people.”
Almost, Maine is one of the most produced plays in the country, and it is a popular student production. It opened in 2004 in Portland, Maine, where it received critical acclaim, and has run internationally, as well as for two months as an off-Broadway production where reception was more mixed.
“I wanted it to go to Broadway, and I was so excited for what was going to happen,” Cariani told students. “None of those dreams come true. But there’s a great quote in Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in your philosophy.’ And that has been the case in my life. The things that I dreamt didn’t happen, but the things that have happened were better than what I could have imagined.”
When the pandemic started, work shut down for theater actors and crews; Cariani had been about to start performances of Caroline, or Change on Broadway when the coronavirus shuttered New York theaters. Cariani wondered if there was a way he could make some meaningful contribution, and a teacher friend suggested he try to reach students who had recently performed Almost, Maine; the friend noted the challenges of teaching the arts remotely. Milton students asked Cariani questions about his script development, his use of humor, and the staging for the show, and he shared stories about the process of getting plays produced.
No one could have imagined the coronavirus pandemic playing out the way it has, Cariani said, especially the high school seniors who are missing in-person milestones. But the social-distancing measures during the pandemic do have a silver lining for creators: boredom. Great ideas occur to creative people in boring moments, he said, encouraging students to mine their quieter times for ideas. “Give yourself time to daydream,” he said.
Cariani has received numerous accolades including an Outer Critics Circle Award win and Tony nomination for his role as Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof, and an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for his performance as Nigel Bottom in Something Rotten! Cariani appeared as a cast member on Law and Order for five years; his other television appearances include The Blacklist, Homeland, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.