PLAYS AND PLAYMAKERS | Playwright John Cariani talks “Almost, Maine” and “Love/Sick”


One of the mandates embraced by the Old Log Theater‘s new ownership is a refresh of its stage offerings. Its last several years of programming were, according to one long-time audience member, “Very British” to a fault. By the time the Frankenfields purchased the theater, this vein of plays was both well-tapped and mined out. It was time for a return to the more diverse types of programming that had made the Old Log famous to begin with.

This article is Part II of a multi-part feature on the Old Log Theater (read Part I here). It is the first instalment in the Daily Planet’s new “Plays and Playmakers” series exploring the people and institutions that invigorate theater in Minnesota and beyond.

The 2013-2014 season planned by Artistic Director Kent Knudson hits milestones both familiar and more afield. One of these latter works is Almost, Maine, a 2004 play that has for several years been one of the most-produced dramatic works in the country but remains a relative stranger to professional theaters in the Upper Midwest. A recent Off-Broadway revival of Almost, Maine (closed March 2) was so successful that the run was extended, and the Old Log’s own production is about to enter its final week (closing Friday, March 28). The Daily Planet’s Basil Considine sat down with playwright John Cariani to discuss this sleeper hit and his new piece Love/Sick – a sort of spiritual companion to Almost, Maine.

You just had a tenth-anniversary revival of sorts for Almost, Maine in New York, right?
Yes! It was the tenth anniversary of the world premiere at Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine and the eight anniversary of the Off-Broadway [premiere].

Were you able to be involved in the recent Off-Broadway production?
Oh, yeah – I was in it! We just closed, actually…the artistic director [Jack Cummings III] of that company, Transport Group, wanted to do a new play of mine – and then he changed his mind and wanted to do a season of revivals [instead]. He wanted to do Almost, Maine because it had become so popular all over the country and New York had kind of ignored it the first time around…

It was kind of neat to reintroduce it to New York audiences; it was [also] received much differently this time around, which was kind of cool.

In a good way, I hope?
Actually, yes – the Lincoln Center Theatre on Film and Tape Archive recorded the production, which was a huge honor.

Had you had an opportunity to act in a production of Almost, Maine before?
I had done one [performance] as a benefit for a small theatre in Maine that was trying to move from being a community theatre to a professional theatre, so I helped that process along – but not really. I didn’t ever really want to be in it, but the artistic director of The Transport Group, Jack Cummings, stipulated that I had to be in it if he was going to do the revival. He kind of wanted to return to the days when we were performing all the scenes that eventually became Almost, Maine in little theatres all over New York – when we’d save money, rent a theatre, and do our show. He’d directed some of the scenes way back when, and it was neat to return to the way this play got its starts…a bunch of evenings of comedy scenes and sketches and monologues written by me and a bunch of my friends.

I don’t know if you know the story, but the network NBC was courting young writers and comics back when Friends and Seinfeld were aging. They knew the end was near, so they wanted to just find new, developing comedies. They’d offer you space and technical support to produce your show for free, which was huge.

In New York? Absolutely!
It was ridiculous! I remember basically getting four Mondays per year for a few years… NBC would own your material in exchange for all that they did for you, but what you got was pretty big exposure. People would know that it [your material] had been vetted by the network, and they were just trying to get people in to see if anyone wanted to take the material anywhere.

Nothing ever happened with my stuff with NBC, but a director who was up and coming at the time saw some of these scenes and started working with me. His name is Gabriel Barry; he has a show coming to Broadway next year, I think, but he said, “I think you have something here, because a lot of your plays are set in a northern town in Maine at night, and they all have this element of magical realism to them. Let’s see if there’s a play here…” – and so we started to put Almost, Maine together.

That’s very interesting. I’d thought that the story had started more on the New England end of things, since it premiered at Portland Stage Company and had a connection to Cape Cod…
The Cape Cod Theatre Project really got it started. That was a pretty good deal – that’s what they do: develop new plays. The artistic director, Andy Polk, really liked Almost, Maine and developed it there; some important people saw it and helped me find a home for it. One of those people was an actor named Larry Nathanson, who brought Almost, Maine to Anita Stewart, the artistic director of Portland Stage Company. Anita was smart and took a chance on it, and it paid off.

That was a good time [to be working], when artistic directors at regional theatres were [just] starting to program for their audiences, and not for New York audiences… Smart theatregoers in Portland, Maine, are interested in seeing stories about Maine. Smart theatregoers in Indianapolis, Indiana, are interested in seeing stories about where they’re from. So much theatre in New York is about New Yorkers – and it should be, because it’s appealing to the hometown crowd!

And you turn on the TV and it’s much the same thing.
Yeah. I think that’s awesome and that’s great, but there’s a whole lot in this country [as well]. Being from a place that’s empty, rural, and cold, I thought, “Why is there never a story about people who live in rural places, in the middle? [About] working people?” I guess, when I was coming up as an actor in New York, I wondered why there aren’t a lot of stories about people who aren’t urbanites. There just aren’t a lot of stories about “ruralites”.

I actually think TV is way better at reflecting the world we live in than theatre. Much more diversity. Still not a whole lot of diversity in point of view…but there are a good number of shows telling stories about people who exist in the middle the middle.

Almost, Maine has a couple scenes when they talk about the difference between Downeasters and the people in northern Maine – in the middle, as you put it – was that something that sat well with that audience [in Portland]? Did you tweak things in Portland with that audience in mind?
I think I added that section when I moved to New York and realized that New Yorkers, when they think of Maine, they think of coastal wealth. Maine is [actually] one of the poorest states in the country. It usually comes in around 50th, 49th, or 48th [poorest], right around Mississippi and West Virginia…and no one knows that. The well-to-do-view of Maine is that it’s this lovely, lovely place. Once you go out there, you see that it is a lovely, lovely place, but that there’re a lot of issues. There aren’t a lot of jobs, the economy’s a little weak…

…I’m learning that I don’t like plays about the fabulous and wealthy, and I don’t love plays about the destitute. I love plays about the people who keep the world going – the people in the middle. That’s what I write about.

Since you’ve written more plays than just Almost, Maine, tell me about your upcoming work?
Geva Theatre Center [in Rochester, NY] just did Last Gas. Almost, Maine is almost a love letter to northern Maine and Last Gas is a more realistic look at that part of the world. It’s my first true full-length play: one story, one set, three long scenes… I wanted to write a play with one set and long scenes like Tennessee Williams, like [Arthur] Miller did. I just think that’s what plays do better [and] that’s the only place where you find that. You don’t find things like that on TV or in movies, and I think that’s what plays do best.

It [Last Gas]’s set in northern Maine, with people working at a convenience store. It’s a pretty achy play, about love and loss. It premiered at Portland Stage Company in 2010 and just had its second production at Opera House Arts in Stonington, Maine. In coastal Maine, it just had a production at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine, and it’s second big production was at Geva Theatre Center…

So about four separate productions so far?
Yes…the runs were really successful. It’s funny – the Guthrie just read Last Gas; they’ve already planned their upcoming season on the main stage, and they asked me about my next play, Love/Sick

The Guthrie inquired about Love/Sick because it might work in their small space. Love/Sick is a small play: four actors, minimal set. It’s a new play, premiered at Portland Stage Company in the spring of 2013, and it’s had four small professional productions since then. The next big one is at Hartford TheatreWorks [in Connecticut]… It opens in May and we just had auditions yesterday.

Love is more or less the common element in your plays. That’s nothing like real life – I hope you know that. [Laughs] It certainly sounds like you’ve made your connections and background in Maine work for you, both in terms of material and getting these plays off the ground.
I don’t think in the arts that we make much room for people who work for a living. I just don’t think [that] we do, and I find that really sad. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t go to the theatre, because they don’t see themselves. They’re seeing a strange brand of fanciness reflected that isn’t really real, and that makes it very sad.

For your next play, you can write Catfishing: The Musical or something like that. It’ll be about online dating; everyone will jump on that. [Laughs] What’s it like balancing your playwriting side with your acting career?
I think most people who are actors do everything. They design, they direct, they seem to do lots of things… I think if you’re a member of the theatre, you’re a theatre artist and you just like it. I love it, and supplement it with doing TV and movies and commercials… It’s such a commercial mass medium that it’s easier to make money [working in those], and theatre isn’t [like that].

I don’t think of them [playwriting and acting] as different; I think of them as the same. Storytelling and how you’re telling a story.

Can you tell me a little about your writing method?
I’m very slow. I don’t want to make any garbage, I don’t want to make anything that I don’t believe in, I don’t want anything that I don’t love to be published. I’m very careful that way.

I want my plays to be done and that’s all I care about, and so far that’s working. I don’t write anything until I know the ending because too many plays have beautiful ideas – fantastic ideas – incredible beginnings and middles, and then the endings are just not satisfying. I think we let people off the hook with that, and I don’t think that’s good. We need to push people to send audiences out into the world either devastated or elated. So I don’t write anything until I know the ending.

Is there a large dustbin of ideas where it seemed to have a good start and you haven’t figured out how to finish the idea, yet?

No – I never start [writing] until I know how to finish the ending. I don’t even start until I know how I want it to end. I don’t want to waste my time on something that goes nowhere.

I don’t like writing, so I don’t waste my time if it’s not going to lead to something good.

That has a nice economy to it. If we could turn the page back to Almost, Maine, that is a play that begins and ends with two sides to a vignette, the lady walking around the world… is that what you thought about as the beginning and ending? The vignettes that make up the play exist as a persistent world where there are all these cross-references – characters in one who appear in one are mentioned in another – but aside from that one scene, there’s not a clear chronology like “this is all happening in the same week…” Is that the ending that you had in mind when you said that you don’t write anything until you know the ending?
That was easy because every [individual] scene [in that play] has a good, strong ending. The Prologue/Epilogue came a little bit later. I was looking for a way to tie the pieces together – kind of to lasso it and pull things together – and discovered that the idea of someone being really far away from you while sitting right next to you was something that we could expand on. We found that that led us to something that could hold the piece together.

One question about the published version of Almost, Maine…you have these very intricate stage directions and notes about how it should be performed. I seem to recall that you say, “The inhabitants of Almost, Maine are not cute, they’re not precious” – which is very helpful because they could very easily be played that way.
They usually are, too, which has been one of the most interesting things about being a playwright. It’s usually played funny, cute, silly – and that’s totally fine, but I just don’t think that it is [like that]. I think that it’s really sad, and that’s how we played it in the recent revival. It’s still funny, but kind of sad. There’s a lot of sadness in that play.

Was there a significant difference in tone or the approach to the material from the first Off-Broadway production to the recent revival?
I think the biggest difference was that we were all a bit older – probably five-to-ten years older than the people who did it in 2006. That added a different dimension; plus, the play’s been so popular with high schools and kids that it was kind of nice for some adult actors in NYC to take it back! (Incidentally–one of those actors was Kelly McAndrew. She was in the Guthrie’s Other Desert Cities recently.) It had done a lot professionally, which is totally true, but it was nice to be reminded that it’s for adults!

It [Almost, Maine] has had a lot of beautiful high school and college productions, and I’m always really impressed [to see what they do], but it was kind of nice in rehearsal to be reminded that it is an adult play about surprisingly deep things.

I love to welcome people into a world and then surprise them that they’re seeing stuff that’s a bit heavier than they anticipated. I like that experience as a theatregoer – to think I know right where I am, then find that I’m somewhere else and not even know how it happened. I’m interested in that.

That’s a recipe for powerful theatre – butter them up and then hit them when they’re not expecting it.
Yeah! And Almost, Maine doesn’t hit them that hard – it’s very gentle – but I think it makes people surprisingly sad.

Certainly, taking an epic plane, bus, and taxi journey to profess that you’re in love with someone and want to marry them, then finding that they’re already married…that’s not usually how you expect it to end up on stage. At least not at the end of a scene.
Yeah. I’m glad you referenced that one, too, because it’s such a sad scene.

I have seen it played for laughs, though, which is—
—and that’s fine, but it puzzles me.

Are any of the vignettes in that play modelled on people that you know or experiences that you recall? With the acknowledgement that “there’s nothing new under the sun, we’re connected in some way,” etc., are there any conscious analogues? Do you see these characters as creations in the spirit of others, or as new things?
They’re mostly composites of people I knew growing up in my hometown. Some of the characters are definitely based on people I knew; some are extrapolations on some mysterious people that I knew – like, where I made up what I thought was going on with them, even though I didn’t actually know. They’re never outwardly [analogues].

It’s not on purpose, but it’s funny – sometimes when I think about it, I think, “Oh, wow! I wonder if that [scene]’s about this person?” It’s funny to realize that I maybe did base something on someone without realizing it.

Some people from my hometown have seen it and said, “Oh, my gosh! Did you base that on so-and-so?” and I’m like, “No – but gosh, maybe I did!”

I can tell you from my own experience being in a play based on the author’s experience living in the dorms, that when people came in and saw themselves as analogues to the characters on stage… They could get in shouting matches with the playwright about whether things were based on what they did or didn’t do.
Really! It’s funny to me, also, how people don’t recognize themselves when you’re actually representing them too closely.

I think we probably all have an idealized image of ourselves in our heads, and if we recognize our ideal and are happy about it…
Totally evidenced by social media, too, and how people present themselves online. I was just reading at how much better people see themselves online than they actually are…

I’m sure that if we introduce the word “whining” in here, that lots of people will not see themselves doing that.
Uh-huh. [Laughs]

Do you think that there’s something about Almost, Maine that led it to be picked up so much by high schools and amateur groups?
First of all, you can use 21 kids to do this play. One of the things that I did in the recent Off-Broadway revival was to rewrite the scene of the two men falling in love; now it’s a scene for both men and women. We’re going to make [the revision] available soon, so that people can do both versions.

In the production we just did [Off-Broadway], we alternated it so that every other night it was the men falling in love, and then the next night the women. It was really cool.

I think it’s [successful] because it uses 21 kids and it pushes kids to do the kind of [acting] work that they don’t get to do in the big plays, like musicals or Shakespeare. It’s just a different kind of work – finer. It pushes them to be comedians and it pushes them to be good dramatic actors.

Most kids seem to like it because the stories are good – at least, that’s what most kids tell me, that they love the stories. [High school] kids are in this weird place where they’re still innocent but hurting, the way only teenagers can hurt. They know innocence and loss, and so they can really work with the play.

I was really surprised when it started taking off at all those high schools and colleges – I couldn’t believe that they’d do this play, I was so surprised.

But happily so.
Yes. And they were doing really fine productions, to – I was really surprised. I thought, “This is an adult thing, kids can’t do this thing.”

I’m sure that in this case you were happy to be proven wrong.
Oh my gosh, absolutely… I had no idea what it would become. It didn’t do so well when it first opened Off-Broadway, then it quietly went away and began to snowball.

About Love/Sick – you’re doing revisions for this new performance?

Yes, it’s changed dramatically. It’s another collection of short plays, kind of a complement to Almost, Maine. Almost, Maine is a set of love stories set in an alternate, rural reality; these are a set of love stories set in an alternate suburban reality.

We’ve changed the order of some of the scenes, cut scenes and added scenes. That’s what we’re working on now – making it feel more like a cohesive whole.

I find that short plays and compilation plays are in some ways more difficult to present, because even though they seem like trifles you [still] want people to have a whole experience, not just an evening of a bunch of little pieces. That’s the goal: to make it feel like a whole evening.

I personally love short plays [and] short stories. I just think they’re so much more economical than their rather bloated counterparts. You know how bloated novels and movies can be… I think TV is the most respectful storytelling medium—it respects the time of the viewer! I want plays to do the same.

Since you’re doing all these tweaks, what’s the point where you say, “Okay, it’s time to get this published?”
We’re actually discussing this right now. We might go ahead and publish after the Hartford TheaterWorks production, or we might hold off and see if there’s a possibility of a New York production [first]. The Dramatist’s Play Service wants to publish because a lot of people are wanting to do it after finding out about it that it’s a sort of a complementary piece to Almost, Maine.

What’s up next for you?
I’m working on Love/Sick still; we just finished casting and we go into rehearsals in a month. I’ll be with the cast for three or four days at the beginning of rehearsal to make any changes that need to be made…that’s the big thing that’s coming up, at Hartford TheatreWorks.

I’m doing a play up in the Berkshires at Barrington Stage Company, a new Mark St. Germain play. (He wrote Freud’s Last Session.)

Read our review of Almost, Maine (Basil Considine, January 2014).