THE ANNUAL INDUCTION of new members holds significance for every Thespian troupe. But the May 2019 ceremony was particularly special for students at Indian River High School in Philadelphia, N.Y. Not only did it feature the 20th class of Thespians inducted in Troupe 4958 by director Kristie Fuller, but it also marked the inaugural meeting between students and their best-known troupe member: Almost, Maine playwright and Tony-nominated actor John Cariani.

To understand how that meeting came to be, you need to look back more than a decade to 2008, when Indian River became one of the first schools to present Cariani’s play, which has topped Dramatics’ annual survey of most frequently produced high school dramas for the past four years. “It’s a funny story,” Fuller said. “My friend John Fredricksen was teaching theatre at Mamaroneck High School outside New York City. He knew John Cariani personally and had done John’s show. I’m kind of quirky about the shows I do, and I really like intimate pieces. John Fredricksen called and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect play for you and your school. You’ve got to read Almost, Maine.’ Of course, I read and loved it.”

Indian River’s production of Almost, Maine was scheduled the weekend following that year’s New York State Theatre Education Association conference, where Cariani led playwriting workshops. “I was able to bring half my cast, and we sat for about two or three hours with John Cariani in the lobby — well after curfew, I might add — talking to him about his play. The kids had an awesome opportunity to pick his brain about the characters and background.”

For some time, Fuller kept in touch with Cariani until his acting career heated up with Broadway productions of Something Rotten in 2015 and The Band’s Visit in 2017. When Fuller learned they both would be attending the Educational Theatre Association’s September 2018 conference in Denver, she texted to see if they could meet. At the conference, Fuller made Cariani an Honorary Thespian. “He said, ‘I might just come up for your induction ceremony and meet my troupe.’ And I thought he was kidding, but he really came!” Fuller said.

During his visit, Cariani spoke to Fuller’s two advanced theatre classes about being a working actor and taught a playwriting workshop. Then he provided the keynote speech and helped distribute awards during the evening festivities, which saw 17 new students join the troupe’s roll of about 40 active Thespians.

Mary Goff, Thespian drama club president and former student board member for New York Thespians, says Cariani’s genuine interest in them and enthusiasm for their program shined. “Obviously, there was the immediate nervousness about meeting someone so successful, but after talking with him, there were no nerves,” she said. “I expected to be nervous when I sang my senior spotlight because he’s a big Broadway star, but there were no nerves at all. He was so encouraging.”

Cariani’s background resonated with the senior, who plans to study theatre at Purchase College, State University of New York, this fall before transferring to Manhattan’s Pace University next year. “A lot of what he talked about connected with us, because he’s from a small town like this one. We talked about the balance between being humble but having confidence in yourself in this field,” Goff said. “He talked about the theatre community and what positive, amazing experiences he had in regional theatres and with touring companies. That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy Broadway, but he had as meaningful experiences outside of Broadway, which was helpful to hear for those of us who aspire to go into theatre and just want to be successful, not necessarily famous. It was a confirmation that you can have a happy, successful life without making it to Broadway.”

For Angelique Izquierdo, a senior inducted during Cariani’s visit, the way the actor handled the gap between his first and second Broadway shows was particularly inspiring. “Even after he got his big break, he waited 11 years to return to Broadway,” she said. “In the meantime, he found playwriting, and he started Almost, Maine. It’s easy to give up and not want to push on, but he’s been pushing on for a long time.”

Izquierdo, who has enlisted in the U.S. Air Force with plans to major in theatre and pursue an acting career once she completes four years of active duty, discovered new interests during Cariani’s workshop, in which he used participatory improv games to explore playwriting concepts. “He talked about how you may not think you like writing that much, but here are exercises that may make you like writing,” she said. “It was very inspirational and opened my eyes to another world.”

Newly inducted Thespian Tyler Moss, who will be a senior this fall, has always loved writing, though he struggles to think of himself as a writer. “I’ve written books or short stories and films, but I’d never considered writing a play,” Moss said. “He talked about how actors are in control of the play — how we write for actors — and it was an interesting perspective. I’ve never thought about it that way. He gave me such amazing tools that, even if I don’t go into playwriting, I can use them in my other writing.”

Goff, who went to the workshop with no playwriting experience, found lessons important for actors and directors. “He would have us get up and do prompts back and forth, either with him or with a partner. We would have to start a line with a certain letter or use a specific word. Whenever two people were at the whiteboard doing a scene and one person would have a physical, emotional reaction, John would grab that. He’d say, ‘Write that down. Somehow you have to find a way to translate that into your play.’ Having read Almost, Maine, where his stage directions give as many notes to the director as they do the actor, I could really appreciate the way he wants every person to understand exactly what is being portrayed onstage. He talked about how he doesn’t want to have to see a show three times to understand the meaning. When we were doing these exercises, I understood that, and it gave me a new appreciation for reading a script and for reading the playwright’s notes or director’s notes.”

As much as the students appreciated Cariani’s theatre advice, it was the life lessons he shared that resonated most acutely. “John Cariani has a way of speaking to you that makes you feel like every word he says is directly for you and gives you purpose,” Moss said. “He made it a point to say it’s important to take time for yourself and go at your own pace. With us being so young, we have a goal to go fast, and we get caught up in wanting to do great things. Sometimes great things don’t happen right away.”

Goff echoes that sentiment. “He told us, ‘Don’t only be friends with theatre people. Go out and live your real life as much if not more than you live the virtual life onstage,’” she said. “A lot of us get caught up in the idea that theatre is everything, and I have to live my life onstage and be here 24/7 to succeed. He was just so genuine and down to earth. He gave every person, I think, a little piece of his soul every time he spoke to them.”

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