When John Cariani wrote Almost, Maine in 1996, he was in his early 20s. An actor in New York, he was wan to find audition monologues he connected to. So, he wrote his own. Those early works became Almost, Maine, his first of now four plays. Today, he stars in Broadway’s Something Rotten! as playwright Nigel Bottom, who aspires to the writing prowess of William Shakespeare. In real life, the actor and playwright seems to have attained that goal. Dramatics Magazine reports Cariani’s own play has edged out Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the most produced play in North American high schools. Eleven scenes of love and loss comprise the show set in the fictional town: Almost, Maine. Here, Cariani talks about Almost, Maine’s success, what it feels like to outdo Shakespeare and why more actors should write plays.
In Something Rotten! you play a writer competing with Shakespeare. In real life, your play is more widely produced in North American high schools than any of his. Do you feel some satisfaction about beating your Something Rotten! rival?
JC: YES! It’s crazy! And kind of unimaginable. It’s a surreal and excellent life-imitating-art or art-imitating-life kind of thing. It’s funny, Horatio tells Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That’s how I describe the trajectory of Almost, Maine. I never imagined this to be its path. I was a kid when I wrote it, and it’s taken such a long time for it to catch on!
Why do you think that is?
JC: Many people have told me it’s because when it opened Off-Broadway in 2006, the kind of humor that was in vogue was a bit snarky, ironic, self-aware. Maybe the world is a little more ready for open-hearted and earnest comedy now.
Why do you think Almost, Maine appeals to high school students?
JC: A friend of mine, Dick Mullen, is a wonderful theatre teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School in Cape Elizabeth, ME, and he directed the first high school production of Almost, Maine in 2007. I thought he was crazy to tackle the play with high school kids. In my mind, it’s a play for adults! But Dick reminded me that high school kids are in that strange place between adulthood and childhood. They’re experiencing first love, first loss, first big pain. But, they’re still hopeful because they haven’t been beaten up by life yet. There’s something about where young adults are in their lives that syncs up well with the un-cynical, sometimes guileless characters in Almost, Maine.
Does it also have to do with the “producibility” of the play?
JC: Sure, but I don’t think a play gets done as much as Almost, Maine gets done because it’s “producible.” It has to be good. I think people do Almost, Maine because they love the story (or stories) it tells. And kids are a little nuts for it. After almost every performance of Something Rotten! kids ask me to sign their Almost, Maine scripts. Some kids from Vancouver were at the show last week and told me they had just done the play and, “Jeezum Crow, they loved it,” and they loved how it’s helped them think about life and love. One young woman told me that I’m like the Taylor Swift of playwrights. I’ll take that!
In terms of producibility, every scene in Almost, Maine is a two-hander. So each scene can be rehearsed independent of the others. I’m sure that’s a plus for directors. And the cast size is expandable. The play was written for four actors, but can be performed by as many as 19 because there are 19 awesome roles, which is great if you need a large cast.
Have high school students told you about specific characters or scenes that resonated with them?
JC: Kids often say, “You helped me through a really rough time.” And then they tell me a sad or uplifting personal story. One girl told me she had gone through a break up and understood what breaking up is because of the scene “Getting It Back.” Most kids say that the stories about the outsiders speak to them because I think every high school kid feels like an outsider. Heck, we all feel like outsiders!
When you were in high school, was there something missing for you in the shows you performed?
JC: I grew up in a small remote town in northern Maine where curse words still pack a huge punch. I know that we could never do any of the plays that were running on Broadway or Off-Broadway because of language issues, first, and content issues, second. And there aren’t “junior” versions of Mamet or Shepard. So, it was hard to find great contemporary material we could sink our teeth into. Also, I couldn’t understand why the books to musicals so rarely made sense. I love plots that all make sense. I do think that that’s the art of play-writing: plot. Great plots make magic. A plot that constantly moves forward and constantly surprises: magic. And action that keeps audiences wanting more: magic.
Last year, a production of Almost, Maine at a North Carolina school was canceled allegedly because the scene “They Fell” features two men falling in love. What can you tell us about this incident?
JC: I feel that the media was a bit quick to attack the principal of Maiden High School. Two small, fringe churches went to the principal at Maiden and pushed him to cancel the production supposedly on the grounds that there is alcohol, sexual innuendo and sexual situations in the play that might not be appropriate for high school students. If that’s why the principal canceled the production, I can’t blame him. However, if the production was canceled because of a completely chaste scene that depicted first love between two young men, well, that’s another matter entirely. I wrote a statement that sums up how I feel.
But the students took the show off campus.
JC: They mounted the production off-site with the support of people like Keith Martin (who was the artistic director of The Charlotte Repertory Theatre back in the ’90s and had go to court in order to proceed with their production of Angels in America). The kids did a beautiful job. After the show, several people came up to me and said, “We’re Christians, we go to church and we believe that Jesus is love and this play is about love.” It opened my mind. Yes, there were a couple of churches that called for the cancellation of the play, but there are a lot of churches that have no problem with the play.
A school in Baltimore originally cut “They Fell” from the play and then reinstated it after the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland got involved. Would you have allowed a production of your show to go one with a scene cut?
JC: No. Because it’s not Almost, Maine without “They Fell.” Because it’s a beautiful, gentle, sweet, chaste play about two young men discovering their love for each other. I wrote it to help people understand that we don’t chose who we fall in love with. It just happens.
Has Shakespeare’s work influenced your writing?
JC: Yes. Absolutely. The Winter’s Tale is my favorite Shakespeare play and it’s full of magic—and magical realism—and romance. And I think it had a huge influence on me as I made Almost, Maine. I was in a spectacular production of The Winter’s Tale at The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, and I realized that people love fairytales. Adult fairytales. Done well! I consider Almost, Maine to be a collection of adult fairytales. And adult fairy tales are romantic. I learned from The Winter’s Tale what a romance is. Shakespeare’s romances are called “problem plays” because they have happy-ish endings. You’re left wondering if the lovers are going to be okay. That happy-ish-ness—that’s romance! Romance is all about imminent disaster.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The sentimental person thinks things will last. The romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.” I am romantic. My plays are romantic. Any actor in any of my plays should be a romantic because the characters in Almost, Maine are romantics. They are people who are on the verge of happiness—but they’re terrified everything is going to go to hell at any second!
Why did you start writing?
JC: Most of the stories being told in plays [I saw] were city-stories—mostly about wealthy, worldly, powerful, well-educated people who live and worked in the closed quarters of the concrete and steel canyons. This was thrilling because the city and its stories and its people were new to me! But, I started to get sick of those stories. What about rural stories? What about stories about the people I grew up with? I always wanted to write stories that featured characters that could be played by peopel who aren‘t hot. I wanted to see regular people get the girl. Or guy. I also think more actors need to write plays. We live inside plays, and we know them better than anybody.