The opening number of The Band’s Visit is a song called “Waiting.” The song has the townspeople of Bet Hatikva singing about living their lives in liminal space. Nothing happens in Bet Hatikva. Bet Hatikva is the middle of nowhere. At first it seems like we are in an inconsequential time and place. But it is in this “waiting,” the audience is awakened to the significance of the small stuff. There are wonders we can discover in the times we are waiting, depths we can uncover, and stories we can shape. This message is so elegantly crafted into The Band’s Visit, it’s no wonder the show was just nominated for 11 Tonys. The concept of waiting feels particularly relevant to John Cariani’s—who plays Itzik in The Band’s Visit—path to success. Cariani has a spectacular, thriving, almost singular career in theater. He’s an award winning Broadway actor and acclaimed playwright, known for penning shows like Love/Sick and Almost, Maine. He truly built a career for himself brick by brick. He started as an intern at a small Western Massachusetts regional theater a few years out of college: cleaning toilets and performing children’s shows. He immersed himself in the theater world and took part of every aspect of it, no matter how menial the task. Just like in The Band’s Visit, even if it feels like nothing is happening, even if it feels like you’re not fast tracking it to your desired destination, each moment holds a richness that crafts a larger personal narrative. In this interview, read about how Cariani paid his dues, paved his way, and exercised patience to get where he is today.
When did you catch the acting bug?
The spark happened in high school. I was in a musical: Calamity Jane. They always needed guys when I was coming up. I was really active in the jazz band—I was a band geek. I did Calamity Jane and had a little scene. I played a ticket taker and the lead girl yelled at me or something. I remember saying my line and getting a laugh. I think that interested me a lot—getting a laugh. Then I did some plays in high school. I went to college and I sang in an a cappella group. My friend Wendy Rich Stetson, who’s an actress here in New York and was recently in Act One on Broadway, was the really cool actor at our school, at Amherst College. I was like a groupie of hers at school. We were really good friends and I went to all of her plays. I think that’s when I decided that, “I think that I’d like to do that.” But, at the time, I didn’t know how to so I didn’t.
I majored in History in college. After I graduated, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go to San Francisco with him, so we hopped in the car and drove cross-country. The idea was that we were going to play music. We sort of played music but we never played music out. We only played in our living room! After I did some temp jobs answering phones, I decided I wanted to try to be an actor. I auditioned for intern programs at the New England Theater Conference in 1992. I got an internship at Stage West in Springfield, Mass, which is a LORT C regional theater. I stayed there for three seasons. Us interns studied acting, cleaned toilets, tended the bar, worked in the office, did children’s shows. We did Shakespeare, we did Chekov on the small stage, and we understudied on the larger main stage. Director Eric Hill who works with the Berkshire Theater Group now, said, “If you want to be an actor you need to go to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago and give it a shot.” So I picked New York and moved here when I was about 27 and that’s when I started doing it.
What a cool experience to have at Stage West. I have spent a lot of time in Western Mass and it’s definitely not a theater hub by any means. But to be able to immerse yourself in that environment and to be able to participate in all those different aspects of the art form, I think there is no better way to get into this,.
And the coolest part is that all of my teachers are now part of the City Company. It’s the Saratoga International Theater Institute run by Anne Bogart and our teachers were Kelly Maurer, Will Bond, and Ellen Lauren the foremost practitioners of The Suzuki Method and Avant guard theater in the country. So that’s where I did all my training with those incredible artists.
Once you got to NYC what was that transition like? You were coming from a place where you were constantly in demand for what you could offer with you skill sets and as an actor. Then going to NYC, it’s this pressure cooker, competitive environment. How was that shift of environment?
Well, I didn’t know it was competitive which I think is a blessing. I worked at a gym. I did a lot of temp jobs. I ended up working at a gym in the billing department so I could kind of set my own hours and go to auditions as I needed. Most of my work could be done outside of regular business hours. My first break really came when I auditioned for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. I got to play Silvius in As You Like It and met a lot of great people who I am still really close to. That’s how I got my agent doing that play. I got that at an EPA and people who say that EPAs are ridiculous or a waste of time, they’re not: Equity Principle Auditions. Back in the day we had to line up at 5:00AM and it was first come first serve. You had to come really early if you wanted to get an appointment. You had to line up outside, wait, then go up and audition. I got pretty lucky because early on I did a ton of commercials, movies, TV shows. I had money and didn’t have to do more horrible jobs anymore, which was the best thing in the world.
You made your Broadway debut in Fiddler on the Roof and you got a Tony nomination for your performance as Motel. From what I’ve heard, being in a Broadway show for the first time is a rigorous experience that’s unlike anything in the world. What did that teach you about the discipline or what it takes eight shows a week? Did you have a learning curve during that time?
The biggest awakening was the eight show a week schedule. I think the biggest thing I learned is to do the play as it was created and not improve upon it too much. The trick is to keep it alive and fresh, to remember what you rehearsed and what you created is enough. You have a story to tell. Too much creativity or embellishing during the run can hurt the story you are telling and the production as a whole. That was the biggest thing I learned.
I honestly thought I was making great improvements during the run of Fiddler. I thought I was finding all these new colors, but some of those colors were the wrong. That’s what I learned from the director and from the cast. My favorite thing Alfred Molina said was, “John you are a really funny guy and our scene is really awesome I just want to talk to you about the fact that we’re getting a dozen little laughs now and I think there are only three big ones.” And I was like, “Ohhh, they’re all story laughs and they’re not character laughs.” That really stayed with me. Keep it simple. Stay true to the story you’re telling and guess remember that the story and the situation is more interesting than the individual.
That’s really interesting advice. As a playwright as well, when you’re acting, do you feel like you have a greater dramaturgical understanding of your place in the play and how it’s working—how you’re working to support the story?
Yeah. It’s hard when the story isn’t solid or clear. Or when you’re doing a piece of theater that is dependent upon story and the forward momentum of the plot. But I’ve learned that story and situation always trumps jokes, idiosyncrasies, individual actors’ creativity, it’s always really important to pay attention to the story that you’re telling.
The time that Fiddler came out was around the time that Almost, Maine was premiering. Is that right? Was there any overlap?
Yeah, I was working on the premiere production of Almost, Maine in my dressing room. I was in Fiddler on the Roof 2004-2005 for a year and Almost, Maine premiered in the fall of 2004. It was a little too much and an embarrassment of riches, but also really awesome.
It must have been very exciting for those two projects to be happening at the same time. How did you manage to do all that work from a purely efficiency standpoint?
Most of the work on Almost, Maine had been done at that point. I had been writing it since the late ‘90’s. I wrote most of what became Almost, Maine in the late ‘90’s. Back in the late ‘90’s NBC had a farm system—like in baseball—where they were looking for new young comic writers, to see what they were creating. NBC was interested in developing new comedians because they had all those great sitcoms, like Seinfeld and Friends. They had Must See TV on Thursday nights. Someone from the network saw an evening of sketches, scenes, monologues and songs that my friends and I put together. They wanted to help us in whatever way they could. NBC gave us a space called Performance Space NBC on Chambers Street. They provided free space, free marketing, and free technical support for us to do a show. All we had to do was show up with our cast and tech through the show. Through the course of the year, we’d get to do four to eight shows a year. Lots of people came to them and with all the help we got with NBC, the network owned our material for like 90 days. And if they didn’t move on that material after 90 days—turn it into a pilot or TV show—the material was ours again. NBC never moved on my material but Tricia Paolucci had been working on these things with me. She wanted her husband Gabe Barre, a director, to see our material. After he saw it, we had a meeting with him afterward. He said, “I think you have something very interesting here. Four or five of your scenes are set in Northern Maine in a small town in winter on a Friday night. They were all very off love stories à la Twilight Zone, you could say. I think that there’s something here that can become a play.”
I never thought about these scenes becoming a play. And when he said it, I was really excited about it becoming a play: Almost, Maine. So most of the work had been done during the Fiddler run. I was just making edits and turning in clarifying notes for Gabe, who was directing the production at Portland Stage Company in 2004. I’ve learned that if you have ten minutes to do work, then work. It’s worth it because ten minutes every day adds up to 70 minutes a week, that’s an hour and 10 minutes. Grabbing little minutes of time is how I write. I’m usually busy doing plays or something else. I’ve learned I don’t need eight-hour days. I can write and get something done in two minutes [John laughs].
Everyone’s process is very different. It’s great you are able to have your writing style match your lifestyle.
It took me a while to learn that. Occasionally I need a week away from everybody and everything to think and immerse myself completely in what I’m working on. Once that work is done, a little bit of time here and there adds up.
Do you find it natural to balance your playwriting career, your goals as a writer, with your acting career? Do they work symbiotically or how do you navigate that?
When a good job comes along acting-wise—film, TV, or a play—I don’t want to turn down acting jobs when I’m working on my own writing, if it’s a good role. I just want to roll with it. There are times where I will take a few weeks off and just work on a new play if I have to, if I want to, but I try to roll with what comes my way. It’s nice because Almost, Maine has given me a chance to not have to audition for things I don’t want to. It’s a real gift and I really appreciate it. It’s nice to really have the luxury to focus on what stories I want to tell as an actor and what stories I want to tell as a writer.
I loved The Band’s Visit and I’m really excited for all the Tony Awards it’s going to win!
It’s strange to be in something that people keep talking about. Not backstage but people outside they just keep talking about it. We’re all very excited and we’ll see what happens. We’re just happy that people like it.
It’s a very remarkable piece. How did your involvement with the show come about?
I’m pretty new to it. I’ve only been with it for less than two years. I auditioned for it at the end of my run in Something Rotten. I started working on the Atlantic Theater Company production Off-Broadway a couple of months after I left Something Rotten. Then were able to move to Broadway shortly after that. It doesn’t really happen that way usually. In fact, it rarely happens that way—the fast track. When we opened on Broadway we didn’t have to wonder if people liked it, we already knew that people liked it, so we didn’t have to wonder how it would be received. It was received so positively. It made us all better. It made the play better. It made the performances better. It allowed us to dig in and believe in it, which is also a gift. David Cromer, our director, is so smart and he makes sure we’re not performing the play but that we are living the play. He’ll call me out on it when he thinks I’m going for a laugh rather than telling the story and it’s awesome. He said the most beautiful thing I’ve heard a director ever say, he said, “Remember that what you meant when you were rehearsing, what you meant when we created this play is enough. What you created is enough. It doesn’t have to be embellished too much. Just tell the story.”
The way time functions in the play makes for a very fluid-feeling viewer experience. How is it for you as the performer running on and off stage through the course of the show, jumping in and out of this world of Bet Hatikva?
I think the fluidity comes from the beautiful transitions that the technical team designed. Tyler Micoleau, our lighting designer is just so smart. Scott Pask our set designer is just so brilliant. Scott designed Something Rotten and he designed The Band’s Visit. How crazy is that? The same mind created both of those sets. I find that pretty remarkable. He’s so, so good. The transitions are so beautiful that the seamlessness is just given to us. It’s funny that I don’t do a whole lot during the show. Mostly, I just pay attention. It’s a short show. It’s only an hour and a half long. We have so little time to tell the story. We don’t have many words to tell the story we’re telling because a lot of the story is told in broken English because we’re dealing with two cultures. People from are Egypt meeting people from Israel in the musical. Their common language is English, so we can’t depend on language to tell our story. We have to tell the story. I think it was David Cromer who said, “It’s a vertical look”. The depth of this play, the difficulty of it is vertical, not horizontal. We didn’t have to learn a time line. We didn’t have to learn a lot of material. There weren’t pages, and pages, and pages of lines to learn, but there were a lot of pages of emotional life to learn. So it’s vertically challenging, not horizontally challenging. Something Rotten, I would say, was more horizontally challenging because there was so much for me to do in it. This is more like a vertical challenge. You can’t sneak into your scenes in The Band’s Visit. You have to be right there because once the scene begins, it’s mid-emotional arc, which is the beauty of the writing.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors and playwrights?
First, be patient. I didn’t make it to Broadway until I was 34. Sometimes when I see people who are young who are freaking out that they’re not on Broadway, I’m like, “Wow, life’s long. Take your time.” I would say, if you’re not acting, don’t say you’re an actor. Be honest with what you’re doing every day. When I was working in my gym, I would say that I worked in a gym. I didn’t say I was an actor or trying to be an actor. Every time I would say that I was trying to be an actor, I wouldn’t feel so great about myself and then I’d get kind of sad. If I’m writing a play, I say I’m writing a play. I teach a lot, too. I say I’m a teacher. I just try to say what I’m doing. That way it reminds me to ask, “Is this what I want to be doing or do I want to be doing something else?” Most of the time now it’s what I want to be doing. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what you are actually doing. And also, if you want to be a writer, make sure you are writing every day. If you want to be an actor, make sure you are acting every day. If you’re not acting every day, then you’re not an actor. If you’re not writing every day, then you’re not a writer. So, it’s easy to fix that. Just be really honest with yourself about what you’re doing and what you want to do. And I would say, figure out how to deal with the gut punches this business gives you and life gives you because if you can figure out how to deal with not getting jobs even when you kill it in the audition, if you can deal with tanking in an audition which happens all the time, unfortunately, if you can figure out how to deal with rejection in a healthy way that will help you. Make a plan after you have a huge audition. The worst thing is when you are really close to getting a part and then you don’t get it. That’s the worst kind of rejection there is because you have so much hope and then you have to fall down from all that hope. Have a plan, have a friend who will help you when you need them. Go to a movie with them or go bowling or do something to get yourself out of your head. Give yourself a day to be mad about it and be done with it—move on. I find that most people get frustrated when they know they’re not doing everything they can to get to where they want to go. My advice is don’t binge watch too much TV and stay home too much and feel sorry for yourself.
That’s easier said than done. There are a lot of great shows on Netflix!
I know! Then, watch for inspiration. ♦