An Interview with Almost, Maine Playwright John Cariani
 by Sheryl Flatow
When Almost, Maine had its world premiere at Maine’s Portland Stage Company in 2004, it seemed certain that playwright John Cariani had written a work with staying power. Critics raved; The Wall Street Journal called it “one of ten must-see shows for the 2004-2005 regional theater season.” Almost, Maine became the biggest hit in Portland Stage’s history.

Two years later, the show was produced Off-Broadway. This time, however, the reviews were decidedly mixed. called Almost, Maine “utterly endearing,” and The New York Daily News made note of “the sweetness and poignancy of the material.” But among those who dissented was Charles Isherwood, the critic for The New York Times – the only publication that had the power to make or break a show.

“The show was pretty roundly dismissed,” says Cariani, who grew up in sparsely populated northern Maine. “The critic from the Boston Globe said that I ‘clearly didn’t know anything about rural Americans.’”

Almost, Maine closed after a month Off-Broadway, and Cariani, who is also a Tony-nominated actor, figured the play had no future. “I thought, ‘I guess I’m not very good at this. I’ll just get back to auditioning,’” he says.
But to his surprise, the play was published. By late 2006, a small professional theatre staged it. “And it slowly started to get done by other small, professional companies and a lot of summer stock companies,” says Cariani. “A few years later, major regional theatres like Syracuse Stage, Milwaukee Rep, and Geva Theatre Center staged really beautiful productions. And the reviews were awesome.” Since its premiere, Almost, Maine has received 80 professional productions in 27 states, and has been mounted more than 20 times around the world, everywhere from Canada and England to Australia, South Korea, Israel, Mexico, Romania, and Russia, among other places. Additionally, in 2020, Almost, Maine was the second-most produced play in North American high schools; for nine of the previous eleven years, it topped the list.

PBD’s production runs through Sunday, January 30.

The play takes place on a Friday night in winter, in the fictional, remote town of Almost, where love – old and new, heart-stopping and weak-kneed, unexpected and unrequited, lost and found – is in the air. It is made up of nine mostly joyful yet poignant stories connected by time and place, the beauty of the aurora borealis, a touch of magic, and a spirit of hope. “It’s really an elegant, funny, and sad play when done properly,” says Cariani.

Almost, Maine is inspired by Presque Isle, Maine – presque is French for almost – where the Cariani family moved from Massachusetts when John was eight. Presque Isle currently has a population of just under 9,000. “It’s the largest city in Aroostook County, which is 6,700 square miles and has a population of 67,000 people – ten people per square mile,” says Cariani. “To give you an idea of how sparsely populated it is, Vermont has 60 people per square mile. Presque Isle is 45 miles from the northern terminus of Interstate 95, 14 miles south of the next town, and 20 miles north of the next town. So, there’s a town and then there’s nothing, a town and then nothing. The eastern swath of Aroostook County is a valley. There were potato fields when I was growing up, and now there are broccoli fields. We used to go sit in a potato field and watch the northern lights. The northwestern half of the county is all woods and wilderness. Maine is the most forested state in the country, and most of Aroostook County is unorganized territory. There are wide open spaces and rolling hills. It’s beautiful. But the winters are long and dangerous because it gets really cold.”
Life in Presque Isle centered around “community, church, and school,” and finding creative ways to keep kids busy and out of trouble during the long winters. Presque Isle High School had “really good arts programs,” and Cariani was active in music and theatre. He went on to Amherst College, where he was a member of the Zumbyes, the school’s oldest a cappella group. He majored in history and intended to become a teacher, but was being pulled in another direction. “I had a friend who was a theatre major, and I went to all her plays. I realized I secretly wanted to do what she was doing. But I had no idea how to go about it.”

He found his way to an internship at StageWest, a now defunct theatre in Springfield, MA, and his experience there would, in part, inform Almost, Maine. “Dr. Seuss was from Springfield, and his widow gave an enormous amount of money to StageWest’s children’s theatre wing,” says Cariani. “We developed and produced traveling shows that went to all the high schools in the area and we did fairy tales. We had big budgets for these shows, and the sets and costumes were extraordinary. The artistic director directed the shows and included them in the theatre’s mainstage season for three weeks in January. I found that watching really smart people get taken by fairy tales is one of my favorite things. That includes Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale. They all have these magical elements in them. In college I took courses in African American literature and Latin American literature, which include lots of magical realism. I thought it was cool, and I became really interested in that kind of storytelling.”

Cariani was 27 when he went to New York in 1996 to pursue acting. “I was lucky because I got into commercials and then TV, so I was making money,” he says. “I did some regional theatre, but mostly I did TV movies. I would go somewhere for six weeks to make a movie, and work for four days. I didn't like that. I like doing plays because you go to work every night, you have a routine, you have a schedule, you have a job to do. Every night the job is done. And if you didn't do a good job, you show up and do better the next night.”

He began writing in the ‘90s, and finished the first draft of Almost, Maine by the end of the decade. But when he started working on the stories, he was not envisioning a full-length play. He was essentially writing little scenes that appealed to his sensibility. “I realized that everything I was auditioning for was about city people, usually highly cultured, smart people,” Cariani says. “American art and culture really haven’t paid attention to people who live in rural places in about 75 years. And when there is something done about a rural place, it’s about how terrible the place is to live or how everyone is an idiot. It’s interesting that Almost, Maine has gotten popular over time. Someone told me it filled a void. I’m also interested in hope and joy as valid components of drama. I think people underestimate how hard it is to recreate hope and joy onstage. It’s actually harder to play joy than it is to play sadness. Joy is hard because it often appears phony, especially now, when everybody looks happy in their curated lives. So, it's hard to figure out what actual joy is.”

The first story he worked on was inspired by a tale by the Brothers Grimm called “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.” It is now Scene Three of Almost, Maine, the story of a man who can’t feel pain. “My friends and I were all character actors, funny looking people who liked to tell love stories,” Cariani says. “So I wrote these little love stories, and we started performing them at small theatres all over the city, wherever we could get space and whenever we had enough money. We’d do a weekend here and there. It was kind of like a variety show: other people wrote songs and monologues. And there was always a new story set in Maine. One evening a director came, and asked me about the play that I’d written because he really liked it. He asked if I had more. I gave him all the scenes I’d written, and he picked out five of them. He said, ‘They’re all set on a Friday night in the middle of winter, they have a magical element to them, and they’re romantic stories. I think you’ve got a play here.’ I’d never thought about them as a play. That’s how it started.” That director, Gabriel Barre, directed the very first production.

Several months before Almost, Maine premiered, Cariani made his Broadway debut as Motel the Tailor in a revival of Fiddler on the Roof and was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. “I know this sounds kind of crazy, but after I got to New York I realized that I had to learn how to be Jewish,” he says. “I never met Jewish people until I went to college, but I would go out for jobs and everybody thought I was Jewish. So, I watched Neil Simon movies and learned how to be more urban. And I’m almost always cast as a Jew.” He has since appeared on Broadway in the (non-Jewish) role of Nick Bottom in Something Rotten; Itzik, an Israeli Jewish café worker in The Band’s Visit; and Stuart Gellman, the Jewish, clarinet-playing father in the recent revival of Caroline, or Change, which ended its limited run earlier this month. But he is perhaps most familiar to audiences for his recurring role on Law & Order as forensic expert Julian Beck, which he played from 2002 through 2007.

His work in television and his income from Almost, Maine have enabled Cariani to pick and choose the roles he goes after. “I don’t audition for things I don’t understand or things I don’t really respond to,” he says. “I can live off Almost, Maine. It doesn’t make me rich, but it allows me not to take jobs for money. That’s the gift it’s given me. It was my lottery.”

In 2010, four years after Isherwood dismissed the play in The New York Times, the newspaper unexpectedly published a front-page story, “New York Flop Becomes a Hit Everywhere Else,” chronicling the piece’s “unlikely ascent.” In 2013, Almost, Maine was staged at TheaterWorks Hartford, and Times critic Anita Gates called it “a beautifully structured play, with nifty surprise endings.”

Asked why he thinks the play has become an international phenomenon, Cariani says, “You can watch it once and get it. I think storytelling in the theatre has to be simple. The stories in Almost, Maine are all Aristotelian: they have a beginning, a climax, and an ending where the people have changed. I hate it when people say the play is made up of sketches, because in sketches, people don’t change. In a play, people change. And in every scene in this play, people change. They’re like mini-Arthur Miller plays or Lorraine Hansberry, or William Inge; I love the arcs of traditional plays from the mid-twentieth century. I think most contemporary theatre ignores the way people take in a story. Few people write linearly anymore, but that’s how we follow things. I think writers forget that you can’t rewind in the theatre.”

A few years ago, Cariani was asked to write a novel based on the play. It was published in 2020. About a year ago, he was approached about writing the book for a musical version of Almost, Maine. That’s his next project. “These things keep landing in my lap,” he says. “It’s so weird. I tell young people, ‘Just do your work, because you never know what’s going to happen.’ I didn’t reap the benefits from this play until I was in my forties. And if you had told me what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
A Note from The Dramaworkshop Manager Bruce Linser

As we prepare for the fourth annual New Year/New Plays Festival, I want to thank all of you for continuing to support new works – especially during the pandemic. Your generous donations help us keep these readings going, and your feedback during talkbacks is invaluable to the playwrights as they continue to develop their scripts. Although the necessary Covid protocols make it once again impossible for us to stage the festival live in the theatre this year, I have come to appreciate the intimacy of the Zoom reading format for new plays: it allows us to simply focus on the words, the stories, and the relationships between the characters. The online platform also enables us to work with a diverse and expanding group of artists, playwrights and actors alike, who are new to the PBD family. So I hope that you will keep tuning in and sharing your thoughts with us for both the festival and Drama(in the)works, which kicks off its new season on Zoom on Monday, February 28 at 7:30pm. 
New Year/New Plays Festival Schedule

The Science of Leaving Omaha by Carter W. Lewis
Directed by Margaret M. Ledford
Iris feels trapped in her job at a crematory and wants to get out of Omaha. When Baker breaks into the funeral home to say goodbye to his recently deceased wife, he and Iris find themselves trying to understand the dismantling of their working-class lives before their pasts, and the police, catch up with them.  

Thursday, February 3, 7:30pm
Dark Skinned Pavement by TJ Young
Directed by Gabe Moses
When Harpo’s daycare business is threatened, she and her husband are introduced to Dwaylan – a man who can save her from being shut down. But what Dwaylan wants in return might be more than Harpo is willing to give, as the memory of the one child she couldn't protect comes flooding back.

Friday, February 4, 7:30pm
Past Midnight: A Visit with Larry and Viv by Donna Hoke  
Directed by Mark Perlberg
Summoned by Vivien Leigh's final companion, Jack Merivale, Sir Laurence Olivier rushes to the apartment where his former wife has been recovering from tuberculosis. Viv and Larry's love story was as legendary as their careers – until devastating mental illness tore them apart. Is it too late for them to make amends?  

Saturday, February 5, noon – 1:30pm
Playwrights Forum
Live on Zoom

Saturday, February 5, 7:30pm
The Chisera by Paula Cizmar
Directed by Emilie Beck
Set in the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra in both 1903 and the present, an early environmental writer and a contemporary scientist confront the questions: What actually constitutes “being green?” And how do we advance the rights of one group without harming another?

Sunday, February 6, 2pm
how it feels to fall from the sky by Dominic Finocchiaro
Directed by Bruce Linser
After witnessing a woman plummet from the sky, five strangers in New York form a support group to process what they have seen. A melancholic dramedy about loneliness, loss, and the unending possibility of salvation through human connection.
Tickets for the 2022 festival are on sale now. You can purchase your tickets online at, or by calling the box office at 561.514.4042 x2. Use ticket promo code NYNP50 for the five-play package discount, or ticket promo code NYNP30 for the two-play package discount. Tickets for the Playwrights Forum are free, but require a reservation.

The executive producers of the festival are Diane and Mark Perlberg, and Penny Bank. The associate producers are Sandra and Bernie Meyer.
New Education Initiative: Young Playwrights
One-Minute Play Contest
by Sheryl Flatow

Although most of PBD’s much-admired education initiatives were forced to pause during the pandemic, one popular program was able to forge ahead: the Young Playwrights 10-Minute Play Contest. Open to high school students throughout Palm Beach County (PBC), the contest, now in its fifth year, was established to give teens the opportunity to write about subjects that are meaningful to them, and to inspire teachers to incorporate playwriting into their classrooms. The winning plays are presented as staged readings on PBD’s mainstage; this year, the performance will be on March 9, with the audience watching live on Zoom.

The success of the 10-Minute contest has spawned a new initiative, the Young Playwrights One-Minute Play Contest, for middle school students in PBC. The program will launch in the fall of 2022. “Both contests are designed to motivate young people to learn about themselves, their individuality and self-worth, by giving them tools to write an original play,” says PBD Director of Education and Community Engagement Gary Cadwallader. “This project inspires creativity by giving each student a voice in creating their own unique story.”

Earlier this season, Cadwallader led two, two-week playwriting workshops, one at Eagles Landing in Boca Raton and the other at L.C. Swain Middle School in Greenacres, part of a pilot program for the One-Minute contest. His work at both schools was pivotal in the program’s development.

Cadwallader had them writing from Day One. “We did free writing on the first day,” he says. “With free writing, you write for five minutes without stopping. If you get stuck for what to write, you write, ‘I’m stuck for what to write.’ It's like journaling without stopping. It helps break through writer’s block. On the second day, I gave them a writing exercise: 10 things I want to change about my world – either their own world, or their school world, or their family world, or society overall. The purpose was to see if any of those things sparked an idea for a play. We always encourage students to write about something they’re passionate about. This prompts them to generate ideas for conflict, character, and plot. It gives them ideas for making their play a personal journey through conflict and change; they can contribute to changing their world through their words.

“When the program began, the 25 students at L.C. Swain – none of whom had ever seen a live play – knew very little about the basics and intricacies of playwriting,” Cadwallader continues. “They didn’t know what a protagonist was or what an antagonist was, they didn’t know about conflict or climax. So I worked together with drama teacher Shirley Henn and pretty much started from the beginning. Every improv exercise or writing exercise we did was all about story structure. Everything was geared toward writing a play. And by the end of the two weeks, the students had written their first plays.” When the plays were submitted to Henn, she guided the students through revisions – edits, grammar and punctuation, and proper play form. After they made their revisions, Cadwallader and Henn chose the top five plays and the winning playwrights were awarded a cash prize, just as students are in the 10-Minute contest.

“We were particularly proud of one student, whose protagonist was a young lady and antagonist was a character trying to body shame her,” Cadwallader says. “The conflict came from the idea of something the student wanted to change in the world. And at the end of the play’s minute, the protagonist said, ‘I believe and trust in myself, and I see myself as strong, and you can't tell me how to feel.’ The student took the assignment very seriously, and did a really good job with the initial writing and the revisions. She understood conflict. It was a great effort for a first play.”

The One-Minute contest will be handled much the same way as the 10-Minute contest; that is, professionals will evaluate the scripts and select the winning plays, which will be given a live reading by professional actors. The young playwrights will be invited to participate in the rehearsal process, where they learn how professional playwrights, directors, and actors work together to revise and strengthen their scripts.

“I wanted the two contests to be very similar, and here’s why,” says Cadwallader. “I told the eighth graders at Swain who are moving on to high school to talk to their high school teachers about participating in the 10-Minute contest, especially if they want to expand their one-minute play. The students who attend Title 1 schools are often at a disadvantage in these contests, because they generally don’t receive enough instruction and training about playwriting. But when these Swain students get to high school, playwriting won’t be so foreign to them because they’ve already done it, and it will help them with the 10-Minute contest.”

Playwriting, Cadwallader says, is a discipline that can have a major impact on students, in school and in life. “It’s an important tool for student learning via two key strands: self-expression and skills-building in English Language Arts (ELA). Students learning playwriting focus on constructing a plot, writing dialogue, and telling a story through action. In the classroom they learn to collaborate with peers and focus on revisions, which is essential in ELA state standards. Playwrights also participate in giving and receiving constructive feedback, which builds critical thinking skills, encouraging students to communicate their ideas thoughtfully and respectfully, and to think more analytically about their own work. When plays are read aloud or performed, students become invested in others speaking their words, rather than seeing inert words on the page. It helps promote the idea that revisions are based on collaboration, and is key to unlocking new ideas or deeper truths.”